When closely observing today’s news media, one will notice that images play a crucial role in news stories and from time to time cause a story on their own without providing any sustainable background information on the actual event. While some obviously convey a political message, others seem to simply serve the audiences entertainment or conveying of information. However, the message behind the image can still be political. This does not only apply to media illustrations. Many images in art, cartoons and entertainment, in general, have a political message or background which is not always obvious to the audience. Visual images play a crucial role in constructing political images and are used to influence the public’s perception of events as well as personalities.
Information biases in News content
As mentioned, images play a very important role in contemporary news media. Events, especially political ones, are often staged, aiming for a specific framing during coverage in the media. The frame the media uses while reporting about an issue fundamentally shapes the public’s opinion about it. Especially since the opinion maker medias such as The Guardian, The New York Times or BBC and CNN, influence the reporting of smaller institutions.
A good example of the staging of political events and the cruciality of images is the coverage and personalization of the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Obama’s white house photographer, Pete Souza, was able to picture the president as an open-minded, hard-working especially sympathetic man, who not only loves his family dedicates his life to the country. Regardless of the fact if this created image corresponds to the truth or not, through his photographs, Pete Souza, invited the public to take the news around their president personally. Audiences are active and everyone who watches mass mediated content “interprets it on the basis of his or her temperament, education, background, and knowledge base (Berger, 2012).” This focus on a personality “encourages a passive spectator attitude amongst the public (Bennett, 1983).” In comparison, pictures of Donald Trump in news coverages are more often disadvantageous, embarrassing or of relatively low quality. Not always, of course, but more often than in the coverage of Obama’s presidency. An ongoing comparison between the former and the current president is their relationship with their wives.
While Barack and Michelle’s relationship is portrayed harmoniously and relatively independent from political affairs, the marriage of Donald and Melania Trump seems to be a topic of discussion again and again. The news around the couple often even surmounts the coverage of the current event the president is attending. As Lanse Bennet claims, “American news have a tendency to downplay the social, economic or political picture in favour of the human trials, tragedies and triumphs that sit at the surface of events (1983).” Trump, his relationship with his wife and his personality seem to be way Page Break
more interesting than the actual political events taking place. Still, the images used in the coverage about him serve very specific political purposes.
While Obama’s presidency wasn’t usually questioned based on his mental health, personality or political skill, the pictures used in coverage on Trumps presidency often suggest him to be unqualified and unorganised. The media, as well as the public, takes Trump’s statements less serious based on the political messages delivered through the imagery in news coverage. While this can be contra productive concerning international affairs or inner political issues, it also prevents the public from panicking when affairs seem to escalate. As for example if Obama would have started an aggressive dialogue with Kim Jong Un, international coverage, as well as audiences, would have reacted more alerted than they did as Trump provoke the North Korean Leader. Pictures that seem to cover personal stories and affairs in news media can certainly be used to direct the public’s opinion on certain topics and events.
As Stuart Hall claims in his encoding and decoding approach, audiences look for a meaning in an image (1973). However, they are not conscious of decoding a media product. The producers of media content, no matter if it is art, news, cartoons, series or something else, content code their products to give it a meaning. This can be done through a variety of things like camera angles, colour schemes, structure, narratives, and so on. However, audiences decode based on personal experience and values. Just because someone intended to give an image a certain message, that doesn’t mean that an individual who experiences it, decodes it in the meant way. While for example the tidy desk of Obama probably was intended to make him look like a well organised, competent politician, an individual who opposes him already could interpret the image as him not actually conquering any work, unlike Trump at his desk full of papers. The public’s opinion about a person and often about affairs in politics very much depends on the imagery it is confronted with and its decoding and interpretation.
Images of war and war of images
Especially important for international politics are the public’s perception of a conflict. Images of war have a huge impact on the audience’s opinion about the conflict, the participating governments and responsible individuals. “Images of war (…) are often treated as spontaneous, powerful and authentic depictions of real events and real human experience (Griffin, 2010)” and audiences want to experience emotion rather than a simple provision of information on the event and determination, pain or Page Break
suffering of the pictured actors are what influences the viewer (Griffin, 2010). Images, especially photographs have based on their emotional nature a strong influence on the viewer. Politics and Media use imagery to influence the public’s opinion on a conflict and to justify the government’s actions in said conflicts.
One event for example, through which the American government tried to influence the public’s opinion was the destruction of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos square in 2003. While the statue was first attacked by Iraqi civilians, catching the media’s attention, a unit of the United States Marine Corps then secured the area, contacted journalists and then toppled the statue under great media coverage. The destruction was broadcasted live in the media and appeared on the front pages all over the world. However, accusations about the event being staged arose soon. Time Brown, a Security Analyst who worked on the Public Eye project at the Federation of American Scientist, claimed: “It was not completely stage-managed from Washington, DC but it was not exactly a spontaneous Iraqi operation (2004).” Robert Fisk, however, British Columnist for the independent and Middle East correspondent, defines the destruction of the statue as “the most staged photo opportunity since Iwo Jima (2003).” The event was supposed to mark the symbolic end of the battle of Bagdad and counter a statement in April 2003 of information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf that Iraq was about to win the war and the Americans would “going to surrender or be burned in their tanks (Jones citing Saeed al-Sahhaf, 2008).” It was no coincidence that the event was covered by a lot of Journalists.
Today, images are key weapons which can be used to gain advantages over an enemy (Swimelar, 2017). They can be used to support national interests and to reinforce actions. As mentioned, especially photographs can have emotional power. This emotional power is the key through which images are able to be used in a “way that images can support particular strategic narrative (Swimelar, 2017).”
Political criticism in the entertainment industry
However, images are just as much used by the public to engage in political discussion. Through art, cartoons such as the controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons or movies, animations and series, the public is able to criticise and comment on current affairs. Still, the question remains if their audiences again, decode the imagery in the intended way.
Satirical cartoons are a common way to express critique about current affairs. After the South Korean President Moon Jae-in mentioned Trump as a possible candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, people in social networks all over the world announced their opinions. Many newspapers – hard and soft copies – published cartoons which dealt with the topic. Cartoons may seem like an easy way to get the viewer to engage with the political background. However, “even for highly educated readers who are relatively well informed about political events the reading of individual newspaper cartoons poses quite a challenge (Refaie, 2009).” The language used in cartoons can be misunderstood by the viewer as it often adds additionally irony which would not be conveyed by the visual symbols alone. Most political cartoons are meant to suggest a specific opinion to the reader and need a critical discussion (Refaie, 2009). The seemingly amusing drawings certainly have political messages behind them, even if in the first moment, a viewer may only recognize the image as a simple humorous approach.Page Break
The entertainment industry also often draws from real historical events as inspiration for series, animations and movies. While these media products can be meant to criticise these affairs, audiences often do not experience them as such. The Tv series Star Trek: The Original series, first aired on 08th September 1966. Director Gene Roddenberry implemented elements of the ongoing cold war in the futuristic series while trying to make the show “thoughtful and philosophical, rather than explicitly political (Coll, 2015).” The different parties in the series have significant parallels to the parties engaged in the cold war. Including a charismatic – though for today’s standard very sexist – captain Kirk representing America and a utopian outlook on a privileged status in the Federation of Planets in which poverty, disease and violent conflicts were mostly problems of the past and alien species representing the current enemies of the nation (Coll, 2015). The franchise is still producing new series and movies and the basic conflict between the initial parties is still the same. While audiences experienced the series mostly as an entertaining media product, the political backgrounds in the franchise sparked research and discussions. Even if the director did not intend to criticise governmental actions directly, some interpreted their own views on the series.
As mentioned, images play a very important role in contemporary society. While not every image is intended to have a political meaning, audiences can still interpret one based on their experience and personal opinion. This certainly can lead to misunderstanding in the communication between producers of media content and the audience. Since audiences for mass media are global today (Berger, 2012), the values content producers use in their product might not be the same for all audiences and therefore lead to criticism on a political level, even if not intended by the producers.
However, not all images that seem to not have an intended political message are simply misinterpreted by the audience. Especially in the news media and the coverage of seemingly personal details of politicians, images often have hidden political meanings. From staged events like the destruction of the Saddam Hussein statue to photographs comparing the former US President Barack Obama to the current President Donald Trump, images have a huge influence on the public’s opinion on politicians, actions and events.
Art and cartoons offer an opportunity for the public to engage in political discussion and provoke conversation about current as well as past political events. The problem is that information about politics in our contemporary media environment only comes to those who want it (Shehata, 2013). If an individual is not interested in politics, the broad span of today’s media products gives the opportunity to avoid debates and information. Especially those who usually do not engage in politics are more easily influenced by hidden political messages based on their lack of background information on the ongoing events
Bennett, L., 1983. News: The Politics of Illusion. s.l.:University of Chicago Press.
Berger, A. A., 2012. Media and Society: A Critical Perspective. s.l.:Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Coll, S., 2015. The Spectre of the Gun: Star Trek and the Cold War. s.l.:History to the Public.
Fisk, R., 2003. Baddad: The day after. [Online]
Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-baghdad-the-day-after-114688.html [Accessed 28 April 2018].
Griffin, M., 2010. Media images of war. s.l.:SAGE Publications.
Hall, S., 1973. Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse. s.l.: University of Birmingham.
Jones, H., 2008. Crucible of Power: A History of American Foreign Relations from 1897. s.l.:Rowman & Littlefield.
Refaie, E. e., 2009. Multiliteracies: how readers interpret political cartoons. s.l.:SAGE Publications.
Script, I.-T. W.-T., 2004. I-Team: Toppling of Saddam`s Satue Stages?. s.l.:WJLA-TV.
Shehata, A., 2013. Active or Passive Learning from Television? Political Informatio Opportunities and Knowledge Gaps During Election Campaigns. 23:2 ed. s.l.:Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties.
Swimelar, S., 2017. Deploying images of enemy bodies: US image warfare and strategic narratives, s.l.: SAGE Publications.