For this exercise I have looked at press coverage of racial issues and particularly the use of photographic imagery. I have studied press clippings for many years as part of my job in magazine publishing so am all too familiar with the extraordinary distortions that different newspapers wreak on stories. The Guardian once reported on a study that revealed that one in eight teenagers had tried smoking pot. The Express headline – covering exactly the same report – screamed ‘60,000 CHILDREN ON CRACK’.
The coverage of the Paris attacks this weekend is about as febrile as it gets. The Sunday Times has chosen to humanise the story by showing some photos of victims. The largest images are of two beautiful young women and one could possibly be of middle Eastern origin, perhaps suggesting this is not about Muslims vs the West but a small number of terrorists vs the world . We can connect with these people, looking out straight at us, with their whole lives ahead of them. This feels a bit pompous to me – the Times taking the moral high ground by eschewing any scenes of violence or the aftermath but still effectively using pretty (dead) girls to sell the paper.
The Sun has chosen an image which has a ‘pietà’ feel to it. Is this an attempt to find a Christ-like image to contrast with the evil of Islam personified by Isis? Jihadi John is depicted in the bottom right hand corner drawing a link with his assassination on Thursday (a link which we know does not exist as this was clearly a well-planned, co-ordinated attack). The Sun is not concerned with the dignity of any individuals but sensationalises the on-the-ground live action, showing us all the violence we can stand.
The Daily Mail has chosen the image of people trying to escape from the Bataclan concert hall. Not only does this image dehumanise the atrocity but it also gives us a sense of the ‘swarm’ of refugees – albeit that the migrants are trying to get in rather than out. The second smaller image is of a perpetrator rather than victim, giving the opportunity of a cheap shot at reminding us all that any migrant could be a terrorist! This is an excellent example of the headline being used to change the implied meaning of the image. This cover attempts to manipulate us by suggesting that what has happened is a result of an influx of migrants.
A good example of racial bias in press photography would be the well-documented Michael Brown case in Missouri. This actually led to the creation of a hashtag on Twitter: #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Many people have posted the images they would want to be used in the press, as opposed to the mugshot style depiction or gangster feel snapshots which are so common. In extreme examples, there will be a well-lit image of a fresh-faced, smiling person on their graduation day contrasted with a dark, poor-quality ‘selfie’ holding a gun or making gang signs. The implication being that the press will always choose the second option – the most damning image that exists – even if the newsworthy person is completely innocent.
This really highlights the idea that newspapers by their very nature sensationalise and reduce an individual. In some cases, a person in the news comes to be represented by one single image and that can easily be stripped of its context. The media usually trades in simple good vs evil storylines and will pander to their audience’s sensibilities.
It has been a really useful exercise to analyse the power of images in mainstream media and really needs to be an ongoing process. Of course, with news outlets having limited premium space and, for non-celebrities, reduced access to images, it is inevitable that single photographs will often have to be representational and it begs the question to all of us: is there one picture that captures and tells the whole story of the real person? We are multi-dimensional and unfortunately news reporting is not.