Semiotic Images in the fields of Journalism and Politics:
An Ethical Paradox
University of Colorado at Boulder
In a country characterized distinctively by a powerful democratic process, political leadership is regarded as fundamental to initiating development and change. Central to understanding this relationship is understanding communication; our ability to perceive, predict, and improve political action rests on our ability to understand the communication processes occurring between politicians and citizens. Of all communication between the people and political leaders, mass communication has arguably the most widespread effect. No communication with politicians is more accessible, simplified, and sensationalized than mass communication. With internet, television, newspapers, and magazines dominating the world of journalism and pop culture, exchange between the modern politician and his citizen has developed a fundamental reliance on visual communication as means of revealing himself to the public. Since the campaigns of 1952 between Eisenhower and Stevenson politics has seen an ever increasing reliance on the practice of visual communication as the common technique for reaching the public. Critical, therefore, to our understanding of political influence is our understanding of visual semiotics as it relates to political communication. Framed from this perspective, understanding the process of political communication becomes a task of understanding how the use of semiotics creates meaning advantageous or disadvantageous to political goals.
Semiotics has framed visual communication through a number of practical applications within media and mass communication. Martinec and Salway (2005) argue that empirical studies and theories of visual semiotics began in the 1960’s with Barthes' theory of photographs in newspapers and their logico-semantic relationship to surrounding texts. Barthes' (1977) theory rests upon the argument that every photograph communicates not only a denotative meaning, where the outlines of images are captured and reprinted and depict an actual event through objects of proportional dimension, but also a secondary connotative meaning, which viewers perceive according to their interaction with and understanding of a complex system of culture codes. Every photograph denotes images that convey a previous scene, an objective re-telling of events relative to the context of the photograph’s presentation. The image is a visually descriptive record of an event. For example, a photograph of a woman in a full-length white dress surrounded by flowers in a church describes, in the purely objective sense, the uniform worn by women at ceremonies where they become lawfully committed to a man. Barthes argued, however, that cultural codes, or meaning derived from history, customs, and formalities of a given culture, afford the photograph a secondary meaning that connotes meaning based on those cultural codes. Meaning results from a fusion between the cultural codes and the viewer’s personal experience with and understanding of the codes. Considering that, the subject of the previous photograph connotes a bride, the cultural code we have assigned a single woman just before she becomes wed. The white dress signifies the color of purity, implying the bride is sexually pure entering the marriage and the flowers, which symbolize a celebratory situation, indicate that the moment is happy and worthy of celebration, as marriage is (in western society) perceived to be a positive and desirable state. All these elements combine to create multi-dimensional meaning that is perceived based on the semiotic complexity of the photograph.
Barthes extended his observation to reveal a fundamental paradox, indicating that photographers and—for the sake of application—photo journalists cannot escape creating a photograph whose images are not only informative but also inherently connotative. If a photograph’s effectiveness on the viewer can be considered greater when these codes are put to use artistically and pragmatically, then photo journalism’s success is measured according to how effectively it utilizes culture codes to captivate and impact its audience. The more sensationalized, dramatized, and shocking the photo, the more captivating it will be for the viewer. Without use of cultural codes that offer a scene of contextual and connotative meaning, the photo has less chance of retaining the viewer’s interest, and by extension generates less profit for the news industry. This reality becomes an ethical paradox for the photo journalist since journalism is established based on the fundamental objective of equipping the public with clear, unbiased information. It throws into question the inherent ethicality of the entire practice.
Riley (2004) argued for a similar integration of semiotics and images as it pertains not to photography, but drawing. He suggested that works of art also draw on coded semiotics to communicate meaning to the viewer. When applied, we can consider what he called the ‘materialist sense’, or the ‘selection and combination of particular surfaces, drawing tools, and the marks resulting from their interaction’ to be the denotative meaning of a drawing (p. 300). He then identified the secondary meaning:
The ‘ideological framework of a society’ indicates cultural codes similar to that Barthes has identified. Riley has suggested that a drawing can be neither composed nor perceived without full integration into cultural context and semiotics. The viewer will always perceive the drawing within the frame of his respective context and experience with the culture.
Whether a drawing or photograph, it is suggested that visual communication relies not only on words to create meaning, but also on the implicit and embedded meanings of semiotic symbols as depicted by the image. When framed by semiotics and visual communication, photo journalism creates meaning in both the denotative and connotative sense. As such, related industries that successfully utilize the culture codes embedded in photo journalism as means for promoting their own interests can be considered as denoting and connoting reality. For example, an individual interested in media (and therefore photographic) attention will structure a scene in a way that draws on deep, sensational cultural codes, and then call on the media to report the event. As with photo journalism, the stronger the image draws on cultural codes the more the viewer will draw on their own understanding of the culture to develop an impacting meaning.
This is most clearly illustrated through political communication with the public. Of all industries perhaps the most reliant on newspaper coverage is politics. Newspapers report every day about democratic processes occurring on the local and national levels; political news dominates the newspapers’ first and most commonly read sections. As seen by the heavy emphasis placed on media relations, politicians fully recognize this power. Richardson (2002) has drawn on a similar assumption about connotative meaning of images in his analysis of the 2000 presidential campaign. At the end of 2000, late night television show host David Lettermen began a nightly feature joke entitled the "Classic Clinton Joke". This regularly occurring joke developed into a comedic tradition and became a source of shared meaning among the millions of nightly Letterman viewers. Designing visual components of their campaign, the Bush team utilized this common "understanding" or "misunderstanding" about Clinton to design images in ways that contained implicit references and reminders of the scandals. Richardson (2002) argued that, "the power in the Bush approach is that it relies on a widely recognized package of audiovisual, narrative and emotional information" (p. 6). Jokes about Clinton became a code that citizens understood through their involvement with the culture. Viewing the Bush team’s visual campaign not only denoted a literal message about facts and history, but subliminally connoted the suggestion that the best presidential candidate would be no one like Clinton, who Letterman makes a comedic skeptical each night.
Political use of connotative messages in images also underscores an ethical question. Photo journalism is in itself a paradox because its central purpose of being an obtainable source of objective information is challenged by photography, where no photograph escapes connoting secondary meaning based on the cultural codes depicted in the photograph. Politicians, however, come to power because their personal interpretation of the world, or rather with cultural codes, is why the public hired them: either to change or to intensify the role of a certain culture code, depending on how they interpret it services or disservices a community. While also charged with offering the public truth, a politicians’ interaction with culture codes is the very reason they exist: Therefore, how a particular cultural code is utilized in a photo journalists’ coverage of a politician is associated with how the politician communicates his work to the public. This makes the semiotic interpretation of images of utmost importance to the field of politics. Here lies the possibility for great academic debate about the ways in which policy utilizes semiotics and whether its use of that is ethical and consistent with its role in society.
At this point we reach a limitation in Barthes’ theory of semiotics. He demonstrates clearly the paradox of photo journalism based on multi-level meanings embedded in every image. It also assumes that photo journalists will inevitably make use of secondary meanings to connote a message and are consequently bound by an inescapable ethical dilemma. But the theory offers no further explanation of how other parties who utilize photo journalism for their interests are also contributing to an ethical paradox in journalism. I have featured an example of how a politician uses culturally-specific meaning to connote a message in their campaign images. In this case the paradox does not lie in the politicians’ exploitation of the cultural code itself; the politician, unlike the journalist, escapes the ethical paradox bound up in journalism, which implies that semiotic creation meaning is unethical. At the same time it seems that politicians, and all other involved parties for that matter, should also be charged with the ethical question of how their use of semiotics in photo journalism impacts the citizens. Millions of sponsorship dollars are invested in campaigns, which increases the pressure to impress and impact the target audience. If impact is positively associated with effective, intentional use of semiotics, the opportunity for a campaign to exploit semiotic meaning and create a competitive edge for themselves becomes even greater. How this occurs and when it reaches a point that is paradoxical or ethically questionable is not suggested by Barthes’ theory.
Meaning developed through semiotics is systematically unavoidable; they contribute to our perception of every image. This suggests that photo journalism is paradoxical in nature and arguably unethical. By extension a number of related industries also employ semiotic codes embedded in photo journalism to communicate with the public. Political communication, specifically campaign drives, pragmatically utilize photo journalism for its integration with semiotic communication to carry out their objectives. An interdisciplinary study of how the fields of journalism, semiotic communication, sociology, and politics interact in the process of political communication, as well as whether or how they contribute to the paradox of photo journalism, should be conducted and inferences about possible ethical paradoxes made.
Barthes, R. (1977). The photographic message (S. Heath, Trans.). In S. Heath (Ed.), Image, music, text (pp. 15-31). New York: Hill and Wang.
Martinec, R., & Salway, A. (2005). A system for image–text relations in new (and old) media. Visual Communication, 4 (4), 337 – 371.
Riley, H. (2004). Perceptual modes, semiotic codes, social mores: a contribution towards a social semiotics of drawing. Visual Communication, 3(3), 294 – 315.
Richardson, G.W. (2002), Visual Storytelling and the Competition for Political Meaning in Political Advertising and News in Campaign 2000. American Communication Journal, 5(3).