Semiotic Analysis of a Print Advertisement

For this exercise in semiotic analysis I have chosen the following print advertisement for Ray Ban sun and optical glasses. It is one in a series based on the injunction ‘Never Hide’, featuring scenes from different decades in the 20th Century.

Ray_Ban_never_hide

On first viewing we see a black and white photograph of a scene with military personnel, probably from the air force. There appears to be some interaction between one individual who is stepping forward from a line of individuals, hand raised, wearing sunglasses, and one of two apparently superior officers toward whom he is advancing. The small print in the lower left corner of the image, ‘Mojave desert, CA, 1937’ clarifies the time and context to some degree – this is a U.S. military base and the year is 1937. A number of symbolic signifiers add to the authenticity and meaning of the scene: the black and white photographic style of the image; the style of uniforms, which we recognise as military and probably air force; the standing in line of a number of individuals with their hands behind their backs; the stern faces; the uniform style of buildings in the background, probably aircraft hangars. These signifiers, which we understand symbolically as signifying the military and its associated discipline at a particular time in history set the scene for our interpretation of an accompanying narrative.

That narrative is denoted by an indexical signifier in the form of an individual ‘stepping out of line’, literally in this case. Another indexical signifier of the narrative is his holding up his right hand as he steps forward. But what is that narrative? Well on one level I believe that what is being signified is a narrative of defiance or challenging of authority. The stepping out of line, the advance towards the authority figure and the raised hand are all elements inserted into the scene  on the paradigmatic axis, in this case the paradigm being that of defiance of authority, rejection of regimentation. Another symbolic signifier that falls within this paradigm is the wearing of sunglasses while under military inspection. We don’t expect to see an airman or other rank and file military person wearing sunglasses while they are being inspected by officers – although another airman further down the line is wearing them we tend not to see him as important to the scene and he is almost hiding behind the officer from our point of view.

The injunction to ‘NEVER HIDE’, at the bottom right of the image, juxtaposed beside a red Ray Ban logo, completes a largely visually constructed syntagmatic axis from a semiotic point of view and poses a question of what it is we should ‘never hide’. Here the popular belief that people wearing sunglasses are hiding behind them is challenged by the narrative we are witnessing. In fact it is the uncovered eyes of the other airmen that seems to be concealing something.

So on the surface we have a syntagm of linked elements that set the scene of a 1930s U.S. Air Force base where one individual is the vehicle for a number of signifiers inserted on the paradigmatic axis of construction that introduce the paradigm of challenging authority and include the wearing of sunglasses, in this case Ray Bans, as an element within that paradigm. However, I believe there is something more fundamental going on here that brings us onto the level of myth, if not metaphysics. The men in line are wearing bright clothing and the man stepping forward appears, on his upper body at least, to be slightly brighter than his counterparts. The officers are wearing much darker clothing. Light and darkness are usually symbolic signifiers of good and evil. Even in an age when secularism has weakened these ideas they still remain deep within our unconscious selves. Also, if we look at the direction of the shadows cast on the ground we can see that the airman stepping forward is walking into the light while the faces of the officers are in shadow or darkness. The effect of a confrontation between good and evil is heightened by the raised right hand of the advancing airman. When one swears an oath one raises one’s right hand. This is a symbolic gesture and signifier that we understand almost instinctively within Western society as a confirmation that we are going to tell the truth. So that which is an indexical signifier at the paradigmatic level of ‘challenging authority’ becomes a symbolic signifier within the paradigm and mythic context of a struggle between good and evil, truth and untruth. It is worth noting that the out-of-focus figure in the foreground to the right of the image adds an element of incorporeality to the scene, almost as if the struggle is being watched from outside the immediate reality of the scene.

So the question of what it is we should never hide is answered in two ways. Within the paradigm of challenging authority and regimentation it is your self that should not be hidden in a line of regimented, indistinguishable persons who do what they are told. On the mythic level of a struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, it is the truth that should never be hidden and being who you are and the telling the truth are inextricably linked with wearing Ray Ban sunglasses. Myth has also a timeless quality that is evoked in this and other print adverts in the series. A bit like the mythic, timeless quality of Ray Bans.

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Media Discourse and Analysis: Week 7

In class today we watched a film, Wag the Dog, starring Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Heche. The film, released in 1998, is a satire on media manipulation by people in high places and, as satire, contains some amount of truth but exaggerates it to the point where it becomes incredible. Once we realise that we aren’t supposed to take the exaggerated form too seriously we have a decent enough comedy to enjoy.

The story centres around three individuals, Heche as Winifred Ames, a presidential aide who is trying to divert attention from a sexual indiscretion by the president in the run up to an election, De Niro as Conrad Brean, a spin doctor with expertise in such situations, and the movie producer Stanley Motss, played by Hoffman, engaged by Brean to produce the raw media material of deception.

Released around the same time as the scandal broke surrounding President Clinton having intimate contact with an intern at the White House, Monica Lewinsky, one has to ask if the film makers had prior knowledge of what was about to come into the public domain, as the shot of the fictitious young woman that was the subject of the President’s attention in the film, has her wearing an almost identical hat to that worn by Monica Lewinsky in the most familiar shot of her greeting President Clinton in public. Apart from the hat she the shot looks uncannily like the real Clinton/Lewinsky footage.

If we are to ask ourselves if the events portrayed in the film could take place in real life I think we would have to say that in order to make the film more entertaining the film makers stepped beyond what we might reasonably accept and into the territory of the ridiculous. It cannot be wholly dismissed that cynical individuals within a government would ‘manufacture’ a fictitious war to influence the public’s perception of a politician in the run up to an election, but the likelihood of them getting away with it is very small.

Perhaps more credible is the proposition that a real war might be waged based on falsified information and, indeed, it could be argued that is what happened in the case of the war in Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq was used as the prime reason for going to war. No such weapons have ever been found and it is questionable whether they ever existed at all. Much of the blame has been put on ‘failures in intelligence’, but there is serious suspicion that at the highest levels of both the British and United States governments there was at best a willingness to be misled and at worst a deliberate deception carried out.

The real life case of Private Jessica Lynch, captured by Iraqi soldiers in March 2003, and later rescued by U.S. special forces has some similarities to the media manipulation by the military of the narrative of missing soldier ‘Old Shoe’ in Wag the Dog. Lynch later testified that the portrayal of her seemingly heroic actions were concocted and we can see here that the adage that ‘in war the first casualty is the truth’ really does apply.

So, to conclude, being students of media we can see that much of the technical detail of the construction of the fake film footage in Wag the Dog is exaggerated. The story itself is also a satirical exaggeration of what might happen as some at the highest levels in power seek to influence what we think and how we might vote. However, in some ways reality is even stranger and the consequences far more serious and bloody than the events portrayed in Wag the Dog. Many thousands died in the Iraq War, mostly Iraqis but also many American soldiers. I think a lot of people are fairly cynical about the way the media can be manipulated to justify actions that would be otherwise difficult to justify, but we then have to ask ourselves does our cynicism really matter. In the end are we happy, to some extent, to acquiesce in the deception and feel comfort in our sense of moral superiority, so long as its consequences don’t directly affect us?

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Media Discourse and Analysis: Week 6

This week our topic for discussion (if one person typing away at a keyboard passes for such) is semiotics, also known as semiology. Semiotics is basically a study of signs but it can be applied to a range of human activities and as students of media studies we can use it as a tool to analyse various texts of different sorts from film to print journalism to TV or radio. Perhaps the name most synonymous with semiotics is one of its founding fathers, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

In the same way that speech  (parole) requires the establishment of a shared language (Langue) so also communication through other media such as film or music requires a shared understanding of the various elements that make up a particular cultural text and the meaning conveyed by how those elements are brought together. According to de Saussure these elements are selected from a paradigmatic axis while their arrangement in a linked chain according to rules and conventions constitutes the syntagmatic axis.

Roland Barthes brought this analysis a step further and, developing the theme of cultural specificity within communication through signs, he introduced the distinction between denotation and connotation. Denotation refers to the most immediate level of meaning, while connotation constitutes what it means to us in the cultural/social context in which we view it. Barthes refers to connotations as second order or associative meanings and sees them as of particular interest when analysing a text.

The structuralist approach of de Saussure and the post-structuralist, culturally specific, approach of Barthes are not mutually exclusive. The advertisement below for an IWC watch would be immediately understood by most males within Western society, and probably most females too, but in another culture, where the role or image of women is different, the intended meaning may not be conveyed. Here we see a number of elements inserted from what might be regarded as a Western male paradigm of understanding of females, but it is their syntagmatic juxtaposition with the image of a watch that gives meaning and humour to the advertisement. Both de Saussure’s and Barthes’ approach is utilised in our semiotic analysis of this advertisement.

watch

Barthes further developed his semiotic analysis to a third level of signification beyond denotation and connotation. At this third level of signification he believed ideology and myth were conveyed.

Umberto Eco, who wrote a number of clever and interesting books, including The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, also appears to have contributed to the great debate on semiotics with the following quote: ‘A sign is anything that can be used to tell a lie’. It is not clear if any good came from his engagement with this strange subject.

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Media Discourse and Analysis: Week 5

In his socio-linguistic analysis of media language, Allan Bell (1991, The Language of News Media), in examining the Production of News Language, notes that ‘News is seldom a solo performance. News media offer the classic case of language produced by multiple parties. Media audiences are large and multilayered, ranging from the interviewer, whom the newsmaker addresses face to face, to the absentee mass audience, which itself consists of different segments’. In the video below of an interchange between Irish Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, and host of his own show, Vincent Brown, we can see two combative performers each seeking to force their own formulation upon a supposed quote from Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, to the effect that the coalition government wouldn’t make any changes to budgetary measures that were previously enacted by Fianna Fáil during the Labour Party’s first year in office.

During the exchange, which lasts for some minutes, Brown presses Burton hard for a clear answer and certainly doesn’t let her away with avoiding the question of what Eamon Gilmore actually said. In his tendency to speak over an interviewee as they go about making a point he does, however, allow here to raise the issue of his interviewing style, and, at least momentarily, changes the formulation from one of a question needing address to one of a guest on Brown’s show being harangued. Perhaps Brown’s background as a lawyer tends to make him want to appear to have ‘won’ an argument rather than facilitating the flow of conversation, but this style does appeal to many in Brown’s audience who see his approach as admirable. In the end we get a series of responses from Burton that might be categorised as avoiding the question but we are also possibly left with a choice to be made between protagonists.

Burton then goes on to accuse Brown as regarding employment for people who are not working as ‘a joke’, and Brown seems, genuinely or otherwise, to be puzzled by the accusation. In raising the issue of unemployment, Burton has again sought to engage in formulation, perhaps this time also with the audience of Labour Party supporters in mind, and seeks to gain the high moral ground from Brown.

Brown then tries to bring in Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins but the heated interchange with Burton continues with Brown displaying his usual exasperation with another troublesome guest. He sarcastically repeats Burton’s ‘Let’s be honest’ remark and accuses her of deliberately trying to confuse the issue, which is probably not too far off the mark. Having been accused of not being honest Burton then claims she is involved in the ‘politics of rebuilding this country’, again moving the focus away from the issue to which Vincent Brown doggedly sticks, what it was that Eamon Gilmore said.

Eventually Joe Higgins does get to speak and he says that in fact he was speaking to deputy Simon Coveney, who is on the other side of Burton. Again Burton engages in formulation, encouraging Higgins to ‘talk away’ and asking him if he would like to move closer to Coveney. Here the issue of etiquette becomes the focus for Burton as she alludes to apparent rudeness on the part of Higgins. During this latest interchange Brown says that there is room for the two protagonists, Burton and Higgins, in their constituency. Here Brown points to the joint absentee mass audience Higgins and Burton are addressing, potential voters in their constituency.

However, Brown is also conscious of his own audience and tends to adopt the mantle of defender of the poor and marginalised and he would be a rigorous interrogator of a government minister in the context of cutbacks to services. So we have the host of the discussion playing to his own audience and we have the guests on his show speaking with their audience or constituency in mind. In this regard the proceedings are as much about the various participants addressing their own audiences as they are about any exchange of ideas. Issues of style and ego perhaps have a part to play too.

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Media Discourse and Analysis: Week 4

Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar, in their article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology entitled Why don’t we believe non-native speakers? The influence of accent on credibility (2010), examine the influence difficulty in processing information arising from accent has on the credibility we ascribe to that information. They are not talking here about any prejudice that might arise due to accent being a signal of out-group status, but rather to credibility being depleted due to a difficulty in understanding non-native accents. Indeed, the ease of processing stimuli, or ‘processing fluency’,  and its effect upon credibility is not effected by accent alone. For example the colour in which a statement is printed will effect how credible that statement is. Text that is coloured in a way that does not facilitate processing fluency will be less likely to be believed.

Lev-Ari and Keysar carried out two experiments to test the impact of accent on truth judgements. In one experiment they tested whether trivia statements sounded less true when said with a foreign accent than without and in the second experiment they tested whether highlighting the difficulty of processing accented speech would lead listeners to correct for the difficulty. In the first experiment accented speech was found to be rated as less truthful than native speech, while in the second attempts by participants to counteract processing difficulty were only partially successful – heavily accented speakers were still less likely to be believed.

In conclusion, the researchers found that when native speakers encountered processing difficulty due to accent they perceive statements as less truthful rather than more difficult to understand. Thus non-native speakers with an accent are seen as less credible, even when prejudice against foreigners may not play a role. Attempts by native speakers to compensate for this misattribution, when they are made aware of it, are only successful to a degree, with heavily accented speech still seen as less credible.

However it is not only non-native speakers that are subject to prejudice or misunderstanding. The reaction of game-show host, Geri Maye, in the video below, to attempts by a participant to speak a small amount of Irish, show that native speakers can also be subject to prejudice and, in this case, unsubtle ridicule and marginalisation:

The fact that an Irish person on an Irish game-show is being ridiculed for speaking Irish probably says as much about our colonial history as about any processing difficulty the host has encountered, but it does show that form of speech and the reaction to it can also say as much, if not more, about a media text as what is actually being said literally.

Although, on a lighter note, accent didn’t seem to be a barrier to credibility in the interview below, where BBC News 24 mistook a taxi driver for a computer expert and proceeded to interview him on issues about which he showed little expertise:

So actual language, as opposed to coded messages, can influence how a text is mediated and raise three questions about media output:

  1. How is the world represented? Is criminality attached to a certain class or ethnic group in a report on crime or violence? Is a strong rural accent representative of a particular mindset?

2. What identities are imputed to those involved in a story, whether they are reporters, interviewees or audience? For instance a reporter may adopt a ‘man in the street’ persona through use of colloquialisms or slang.

3. What is the relationship between those involved? Is an ‘expert’, for example, set apart from an audience through having an upper or middle-class accent?

If we divide life into two spheres of ‘private’ and ‘public’ we find that certain accents are more associated with these respective spheres and a certain incongruity my be felt if the accent deemed more connected with one is used to mediate a text within the other. It might seem strange, for instance, to hear Joe Duffy read the RTE news, whereas his strong working-class Dublin accent is regarded as particularly suited to the talk-show format which tends more towards the private sphere. Although it should be noted that the UK Central Office of Information (COI) says that the use of regional accents is seen as more ‘real’ compared to Received Pronunciation (RP).

Delivery, in terms of tone, rhythm and stress, can also lead to a ‘conversational’ appearance within a mediated text and this can blur the boundaries between what is within the public and private spheres. Increasingly, entertainers are presenting analysis of serious issues that would traditionally have been regarded as being within the public sphere. Des Bishop’s recent Under the Influence TV series on RTE brought the issue of alcohol abuse in Ireland to a level of conversationality that would be more associated with the private, rather than the public, sphere. Hector Ó hEochagáin has also brought a conversational approach to the issue of the relationship between the settled and traveller community in Ireland in his Hector Goes Traveller programme on RTE. The BBC educational programme The Works tried to show engineers in a creative light by using colloquialisms such as ‘booze’ or the idiomatic phrase ‘it’s a miracle’ when examining the workings of an aircraft.

So there is a tension between information and entertainment, between what is regarded as appropriate for the private and public spheres. As a result of this tension there is a tendency for public affairs journalism to become increasingly conversationalised and to be increasingly mediated as a personalised narrative, often involving celebrities. This tendency towards entertainment is further increased due to the increased marketisation of the media. As market share and advertising revenues become increasingly important, even to public service broadcasters, serious news coverage and debate is likely to appear more as entertainment rather than serious journalism. The traditional role of the fourth estate as an essential component in a functioning democracy then comes seriously into question.

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Circuit of Culture and the Preferred Reading.

The Circuit of Culture is a theoretical framework developed by Du gay and others (1997) in which a circuit of five points is completed in analysing a cultural text. ‘Text’ in this context refers not just to written documents but includes other cultural artifacts such as televisual or radio productions. The five points in the circuit are: representation, identity, production, consumption and regulation. From the perspectives of these five interrelated points we can examine the processes of production, interpretation and use of cultural artifacts.

David Morley (1980) highlighted various power structures within and outside cultural texts. Power structures outside texts, such as class, gender or ethnicity, often influence audience response, while power structures within texts produced by media institutions may tend towards a ‘preferred reading’ or ‘preferred meaning’ in line with dominant values. This preferred reading may struggle with other possible meanings within a text.

In order to illustrate the concept of ‘preferred reading’ and to use the Circuit of Culture approach to analyse a specific cultural text I have chosen an interview by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah, on the Russia Today television station (there is a link to a video of the interview at the end of this piece). I have chosen this particular interview as it is a multi-layered discourse in which the lives and beliefs of the participants perhaps play a much greater role than the actual immediate text, and the political agenda of the media carrier, Russia Today (RT), is intrinsic to this discourse.

I terms of the Circuit’s first stop, representation, Assange’s show, The World Tomorrow, for which the interview was conducted, begins with a dramatic montage of still images and video footage that remind us who Julian Assange is and he tells us that ‘we’ are on a ‘quest for revolutionary ideas that can change the world tomorrow’. Footage of Assange addressing a large crowd of his supporters lets us know that we are dealing with figure with a popular following and video of the electronic tag on his leg, along with references to his detention without charge for five hundred days, posits him as a victim of unjust political detention. Although Assange says that ‘we have exposed the world’s secrets’, the clear reference to the United States on two occasions during this dramatic introduction clearly sets the tone for the following interview and says as much about Assange’s political agenda as it does about that of the carrying broadcaster, Russia Today, which we will look at in a little more detail when we examine this cultural text under the Circuit’s next heading of ‘Identity’.

The dramatic introduction gives way to footage of Assange preparing for the interview and stating that his ‘guest’ is joining them from ‘a secret location in Lebanon’. The emphasis Assange puts on the word ‘secret’ heightens the sense of drama and in effect references a shared ‘secret’ between Assange and those who like to think they are ‘in the know’, that secret being that Sheikh Nasrallah is a likely target for Israeli assassination and has to keep his whereabouts secret. The irony of someone like Assange, whose life’s work is releasing secrets, himself revelling in the secrecy of the encounter perhaps adds a dialectical aspect to the overall discourse.

Once the interview begins we see an all-male cast of Assange, two interpreters (although we are not made aware they are both interpreters until near the end of the interview) and the Hezbollah leader speaking via a video link from his secret location. The fact that the interviewee, Assange, is speaking towards a computer monitor is not concealed and the whole technical aspect of the interview is very much on view, perhaps as some form of symbolic openness to match the supposedly radical or revolutionary nature of the interview itself. Nasrallah himself appears before a blue background with Hezbollah and Lebanese national flags indicating his dual role as Hezbollah leader and Lebanese patriot. He speaks Arabic which is translated into English by the interpreters. His cleancut native attire adds to his sense of gravitas.

It is clear from the frequent framing of Assange in a considered, thoughtful, pose that this interview is very much about him as well as the Sheikh and Assange’s addressing of Nasrallah by his first name adds a sense of intimacy and radical confraternity that indicates a non-textual discourse that has little to do with the actual questions being asked or answered. In fact Assange comes across as a slightly stilted interviewer and to some degree in thrall to someone who is an iconic figure in the minds of many Westerners who regard themselves as radical. The questions he asks probably tell us as much about him as Nasrallah and he misses a great opportunity to explore what is central to Nasrallah, his faith, in order to pursue his own atheist agenda by questioning the Hezbollah leader on his attitude to the ‘totalitarian concept of a monotheistic God’. The fact that Assange describes his own question as ‘very provocative’ perhaps also reveals as much about himself as the answer to the question does about Nasrallah.

The interview itself ends with laughing and goodwill all around with the interpreters finally being introduced, not by name, because, to be blunt, they are ancilliary to a show that is as much a vehicle for Assange as it is a forum for interviewing interesting people. I’m sure the Hezbollah leader is a far more interesting person than portrayed through the lens of Julian Assange’s particular world-view.

It is, however, probably at the Circuit of Culture’s ‘Identity’ waypoint that we can learn most about what the preferred reading of this particular cultural text is. I believe that central to an understanding of this is an appreciation of the nature and identity of the Russia Today television station as a state-owned broadcaster, almost certainly highly controlled in its output by the Kremlin. Luke Harding of The Guardian  calls it ‘the Kremlin propaganda channel’ ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/apr/17/world-tomorrow-julian-assange-wikileaks ) and describes Julian Assange as ‘a useful idiot’ in his role within RT. The Guardian would be generally regarded as broadly left/liberal in its leanings and, while Harding’s is an opinion piece, it probably isn’t quite as open to attack as an ideologically driven piece, given where it is published. RT broadcasts in a number of languages and into a large number of countries other than Russia itself.

As someone who likes to watch news channels I have been struck at how politically partisan Russia Today is compared to, for instance, state-run Chinese television stations. It is partisan not so much in the language of its anchors as in the choice of its contributors. Hosts like Max Keiser of The Keiser Report are vehement critics of Western institutions, in Keiser’s case monetary institutions, and their vehemence would probably mitigate against them rising to prominent media positions in Western media. Which is all very well if another point of view is presented and if the same critique is applied to Russia and its allies, but it’s not. Within the Western nations the United States seems to hold a position of greatest critique-worthiness and this clearly determines the preferred reading of the interview by Julian Assange of Sheikh Nasrallah. From beginning to end the ‘hegemony’ of the United States is either explicitly or implicitly referred to. The interviewer and interviewee are both seen as opponents of this hegemony and as such the discourse is as much about the interview itself as it is about what is actually said during the interview, perhaps more so, given the interviewer’s ego-driven questioning. An alternative reality of Russia’s role in support of the Syrian regime is not explored in any way.

At the Circuit’s third point of analysis we find ‘Production’, and, as seen above, the particular circumstances of the interview lead to an unorthodox setting. This setting becomes very much part of the overarching discourse of the immediate text, with the implicit threat from the United State’s main ally in the Middle East, Israel, very much present for the politically literate audience that would, I imagine, constitute RT’s general audience. There is no denying that Sayed Hassan Nasrallah would be a likely target for Israel and having an interviewer who has been detained without charge all adds to a preferred reading of an unjust and hegemonic western Europe and United Sates. The presentation of the apparatus of broadcast probably adds to a sense of fugitive improvisation.

At the Circuit’s fourth stop we find ‘Consumption’ and here we have a large audience, many of whom might not be attracted to Russia Today if it were not for the presence of two such iconic figures as Nasrallah and Assange. Apart from Russian ex-pats, Assange’s show would attract many from the Western world who would regard Assange, and by implication themselves, as radical and challenging of an unjust political and economic system, what they might term ‘the status quo’. They will probably not be too interested in seeing the interviewer give the interviewee a hard and demanding interview and will be more interested in confirming themselves in their own view of the world rather than learning something new. To that end the interview and it’s overarching discourse will confirm them in their acceptance of the preferred reading of Russia Today and, indeed, of Assange.

There will, of course, be some who do not fall into some kind of self-proclaimed activist or radical position and might be more sceptical of the whole exercise. Undoubtedly the presence of the Leader of Hezbollah will also attract a large audience of Muslims and others with an interest in affairs in the Middle East. People with religious beliefs probably found Assange’s efforts to get his revolutionary hero to address the ‘totalitarian concept of a monotheistic God’ as pointless and irritating, but Russia Today will surely have gained some new viewers by having a person such as Sheikh Nasrallah on their station.

The fifth and final point along the Circuit, ‘Regulation’, has significance for the discourse and preferred reading more from an informal than specifically legal point of view. Given the nature of the broadcaster’s ownership and the amount of control the Kremlin appears to hold over output, informal regulation will play a huge part in what RT will broadcast and, as I have alluded to, it is one of the most politically partisan channels to be found on the Sky platform. You won’t find much in the way of critical examination of Russian society but what you do get is a platform for the enemies  or critics of Russia’s perceived enemies, the West and the United States in particular.

In conclusion, there are many ‘realities’ that are not pushed in the cultural text that is this particular interview between Julian Assange and the leader of Hezbollah. While the interviewer does push Nasrallah on the killing of civilians in Syria, a Hezbollah ally, his determination to fit the Arab Spring into a secular, left-wing analysis of revolution and upheaval excludes any examination of the role of religious belief in the changes sweeping through the Middle East. In his clear disregard for a belief in God he totally misses out on an opportunity to engage fully with an important political and spiritual leader. No matter how much Julian Assange might wish it otherwise, belief in God and how people practice and express that belief are far more important to a vastly greater number of people in the Middle East than are Assange’s notions of a supposedly totalitarian monotheism. The fact that it is on a Russian television station that Assange is being given a platform to promote the same ideas that accompanied the deaths of millions under atheist totalitarianism perhaps shows that whether we deal in ‘reality’ or contrived discourse we never seem to learn from history.

Julian Assange interviews Sayed Hassan Nasrallah:

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Media Discourse and Analysis: Week 3

This week in class we looked at the issue of how to decode an encoded ‘reality’. In the process of creating a media text for presentation to an audience the producers of that text, either consciously or otherwise, encode meaning into that text that goes beyond its literal meaning or reading. We looked at five key questions we should ask if we wish to decode that text and find the ‘reality’ behind the encoding it carries with it from the production process and the ideas and outlook of those who created it.

Firstly we should ask ourselves who created the message. Texts are mediated to us in a constructed format and this ‘constructedness’, along with choices made by those creating the text, will determine to a large degree how the ‘reality’ that is being conveyed actually reaches us. The construction might, for example, be determined by a particular narrative and the element of ‘choice’ might centre upon which of a number of photographs to use or which specific words to use. This construction and these choices, made by a small number of individuals, mean that  reality as understood by these individuals tends to become ‘normal’ or ‘real’ to a much larger coterie within society. This ‘reality’ then becomes unquestioned and taken for granted.

McQuaid argues that news is not objective or impartial but is a socially manufactured product. Journalistic gatekeepers, and sometimes even media proprietors, decide what is important and newsworthy and beaurocratic routines within media organisations also contribute to a particular scheduling and shaping of news. Spenser-Thomas (2008) notes the concept of ‘news values’ among editors to judge whether it will attract a significant audience and this will be determined, among other factors, by the nature of the news outlet in question.

Galtung and Ruge (1966) catalogued a list of ‘news value’. These included an easy to grasp ‘unambiguity’, reference to elite persons or nations, personalisation of news stories, a narrative, which might include heroes and villains, and negativity, which might be regarded as more exciting.

The second of the five questions we should ask ourself is: ‘What creative techniques were used to attract attention?’. This is concerned largely with format and the way a message is constructed, including the creative elements used, such as wording, music, camera angle and colour.  These factors constitute the ‘creative language’ of the presented text.

The next question we should ask ourselves is how others might understand the presented message differently to how we understand it. We all bring a different set of life experiences to any piece of presented text and our understanding and perception of that text will be determined by multifarious factors including our cultural context, religious or political beliefs and what we expect from the presenting mediator – a conservative might regard a report on Fox news in a completely different way to how a liberal or somebody with a left-wing view of the world might view the same report.

We should also ask ourselves what values, lifestyles and points of view are represented or omitted from a mediated message. I think we might also question if some point of view is being misrepresented in a presented text – characature or misrepresentation can be even more damaging than omission and are often the precursor to totalitarianism. Messages, both subtle and unsubtle, about who and what is important are carried within presented media texts and are a subtext that can be even more influential than the literal meaning of the text itself. Again, choice of images and words plays an important role in defining this subtext or preferred reading.

Lastly, we should ask ourselves why a particular message is being sent out. We should try to see beyond the immediately apparent informational or entertainment value of a particular text and ask ourselves if the producers of that text have a reason to encode a message beyond what is apparent. The majority of the world’s media organisations were established as money-making enterprises and both profit motive and ideology may play a part in determining the nature of what they produce. Likewise, state-controlled or regulated media may reflect an ideology that concurs largely with those in power or gives a disproportionate platform to government supporters, while excluding proponents of an alternative ideology.

As an example of a particular viewpoint being conveyed, largely through omission of recorded material, we looked at a video of a news report on CBS Television station WBBM in Chicago. The report in question used a recorded vox pop of a four-year old black child saying he wanted to have a gun. This was in the context of criminal gun violence, but the station omitted the end of the recorded piece in which the child said he wanted to become a policeman. This was seen as reinforcing a stereotype of ghettoised black criminality and also raised serious questions about parental approval of the interview. The ‘shock’ value of a four-year-old wanting to have a gun in violent circumstances may have been more of a factor in deciding to omit his aspiration to become a policeman, rather than any overt racism, but the end result was a piece of journalism that might be regarded reinforcing a stereotype rather than portraying reality in an honest manner.

The video in question:

 

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