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Chapter 1 (part 2)

Page history last edited by PBworks 14 years, 6 months ago

Comments and Discussion:

Add comments, notes and translations here.

 

In my opinion, in this passage we can find an important concept: that of the POWER OF THE PRESS, that comes out because newspapers wants to be an instrument of democracy. Only arguments are real, the form has no power, but news form has an impact by establishing the environment of power and by recording the social and political world. That's why the separation between images and text isn't good to understand the overall form.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Content, Readers, Politics, Form

 

Most newspapers end up in the trash, and the consumer may easily associate their value with their fate as physical objects. Here we espouse the opposite view. Cultures leave behind a record of their lives, concerns, and power arrangements not only in self-conscious, lofty venues - chronicles and books, works of art, and monuments - but also in their litter. The detritus of daily life contains another record of public spaces, practices, and politics, one that describes the environment where people confronted and shaped those loftier ideals. Ordinary folk throw away the paper once they've read it because they think of news as information, and they assume that content matters, not form (separating the two).

 

Common sense proposes a relationship between content and readers, imagines a politics coming out of this relationship, and in the process leaves form invisible. In common sense, an ideally transparent newspaper carries content to ideally sovereign readers, who sift through the content, extracting the usable by applying self-conscious intelligent values. Everything about this relationship is pragmatic. Editors and reporters, the content providers, hardheadedly refine the grand mess that is the world into reliable dispassionate stuff, and newspaper readers, the most worldly and discerning of all media audiences, look hardheaded right back. The politics that comes out of such a relationship pushes citizen involvement and empowerment. The newspaper tells you the truth, and the truth sets you free; the newspaper gives you knowledge, and knowledge is power. Not that anyone really believes all of this. Hardheaded people know that reporters can’t escape bias, that everyone has a hidden agenda, and that ordinary people are fallible, even stupid. They expect the relationship to fail. But it remains the yardstick with which they measure the performance of the media.

 

Scholars to some degree have shared these commonsense notions. Those who assumed that the content has effects in the world set out to content-analyze reporting, to measure scientifically its real (as opposed to its apparent or impressionistic) content. Their initial attempts ignored important qualities of news, such as the role it plays in perpetuating and transforming culture and ideology. Historians now pay attention to those qualities, although their accounts deal with aspects of form only haphazardly, if at all (Schudson, 1978; Leonard, 1986; Emery, Emery & Roberts, 1996; Sloan & Startt, 1996; Folkerts & Teeter, 1998).

 

Our approach to form builds on this cultural and ideological perspective and takes it a little farther. This requires us to adopt a critical understanding of the relationship between content and readers and of the politics that emerges from their interaction. No piece of this big equation is innocent of form.

 

News comprises more than the sum of its informational content, which arrives embedded in what we call form. Another premise our critique is that the form of news creates an environment; it invites readers into a world molded and variegated to fit not only the conscious designs of journalists and the habits of readers but also the reigning values in political and economic life. The newspaper provides a three-dimensional experience, with particular sights, sounds, and smells that become reassuring through repeated exposure. At any moment in its history, news form seems natural and pretends to be transparent - an order of words, images, and colors within pages and sections, reflecting and containing events that remain distant and yet distinctly present. Form structures and expresses that environment, a space that comfortably pretends to represent something larger: the world-at-large, its economics, politics, sociality, and emotion. Not that form is autonomous: the range of forces operating in daily life themselves mold the space we call the newspaper along with everything else, leaving clear scars and embellishments on most cultural forms. The form of news wants to hide these scars; it wants to present itself as a picture of the changing world, an unchanging witness to change. But it has changed profoundly. At each phase of U.S. history, newspapers have matched that history not with a picture of the world or a particularly reliable witness of events but with an environment: a paper armchair, a newsprint backdrop, a surround that itself proposes a way to see.

 

In so doing it inscribes its own readers. Just as it hides its own form, the newspaper proclaims its readers to be sovereign individuals, self-conscious users of transmitted information about the world. Critical scholars object to this account, arguing that information is presented in ideologically fraught forms, but they imagine that ideological effects occur because readers read ideologically constructed stories and pictures. This account too is wrong in a couple of ways. Readers do not read bits of text and pictures. What they read is the paper, the tangible object as a whole. They enter the news environment and interact with its surface textures and deeper shapes. They don't use the news; they swim in it.

 

Research has tended to examine readers as receivers, detached from the things they read. First, media professionals developed an arsenal of techniques to describe and predict the impact of messages on audiences. These social-science techniques treated the media as the source of meanings. Then, using reader response theory as a rallying cry (Tompkins, 1980; Radway, 1984; Iser, 1989), critical scholars insisted that the act of reading (instead of publishing) is the pivotal moment in the circulation of meaning. Historians in turn set to work recovering the experiences of historical readers (Brown, 1989: Leonard, 1995; Zboray and Saracino Zboray, 1996). Studies of reading practices, past and present, have provided a welcome corrective to crude notions of an all-powerful culture industry, often attributed to Frankfurt School theorists (such as Horkheimer & Adorno, 1944). But we think they have overemphasized the sovereignty of the reader.

 

Readers may make meaning, but not under conditions of their own choosing. In the case of newspapers, the form constrains meaning making. Once readers enter the newspaper, they continue to make choices, but the form imposes tacit rules that allow for certain reading practices and work against others. Even when readers resist, they do so within an existing environment. Their practices, along with media industry practices and for that matter a host of other cultural practices, become implanted in media forms. The resulting environment can survive for decades (and some aspects become fossilized for centuries). We therefore incline away from individual sovereign readers. Instead our critique follows the premise that the form of news constructs the audience's field of vision.

 

Another way to describe our approach is to say that we're more interested in the public than in the people. Although the populist strain in studies of reading practices appeals to us, it implies that the public is the people. The people consist of all sorts of individuals and groups with idiosyncratic habits and with heads full of all manner of unexpected intellectual anarchy. But the public is not simply the sum of the people, because the public does not exist except as represented. The people may be active and imaginative, but unless that activity is communicated to the polity in some form, it is not really public. So the public will always be a representation of the people, but will never be the people, until an age arrives when people can represent themselves publicly without mediation. In the meantime, news form intervenes, affecting the public in spite of the fact that individual people might not be moved by news messages or may use them in oppositional ways.

 

Our notion of news form suggests a powerful causality, then. But we want to be careful to distinguish it from other versions, especially those that ground effects in the phenomenological characteristics of media technologies, or in how specific media approach the senses. As awareness of visual interventions has grown, many scholars have condemned the visual (and especially the televisual) turn in public communication as broadly prejudicial to rationality within democratic societies (McLuhan, 1964; Ong, 1982; Postman, 1985). Tending toward the polemic, their indictments associate print with rational and critical discourse, and visual communication with the visceral, instinctive, emotional, and collective behaviors of pre-civilized adolescence. In this (admittedly caricatured) scheme, people easily divorce text from its rhetorical intentions, whereas imagery escapes the cognitive filtering that would allow them to understand rationally the information it contains.

 

We reject this dichotomy. Both the visual and rhetorical elements always reside in text and are somehow effective. By the same token, the impact of visual culture emerges when its rhetorical and phenomenological qualities interact with the network of relationships that constitute particular media. Changes in the power of news in our lifetimes have more to do with the ways modern (and postmodern) form incorporates the vocabularies of corporate journalism, along with its associated divisions of labor, than it does with the rise of electronic communication.

 

Our analysis of the form of communication counters McLuhan and others. The power of form is not a matter of the abstract qualities of communication for us. Instead, it comes from the relationship of the form to a medium's material relationships. The form of the newspaper distributes power because of the complicated way it executes a range of material relationships while it proposes (somewhat different) political relationships.

 

Is there an essential politics to the newspaper form? Not in the sense that form can be read in vacuo, isolated from everything else about a newspaper. Today every newspaper makes some claim to being an instrument of democracy. Even under dictators, the press pretends to speak to the people as if they matter politically, as if public opinion guides the state. Obviously, if fascists print newspapers, the newspaper form isn’t essentially democratic. So is the specific form of any newspaper really related to the political work it does? Or is form simply the clothes that a newspaper wears, dress to deceive the naive eye, making this look smaller and that look larger, giving a healthy appearance to fat, flabby, and flaccid public discourse?

 

We think form historically has run clear to the bone. The truism that one cannot judge a book by its cover (shifting the metaphor) - that the outward or visible form cannot indicate inward or essential character and meaning - goes too far. In fact the form of news is never innocent or neutral (even deceptive book covers reveal the values driving the complex of actors and readers involved). Just as the content of news cannot present a simple window on events unclouded by the medium, neither is the form of the news transparent. The form reenacts and reinforces patterns of deference, just as do other formal aspects of culture, such as manners and dress or Robert's Rules of Order. Another premise of our critique is that the form of a medium encodes a system of authority. Some forms always allow for more democracy than others. We have found that newspaper form does political work even when ignoring politics itself.

 

By political work we mean something other than the usual sense contained in the phrase, the power of the press. News, at least in the United States, has always been thought to play a political role, disseminating (and influencing) arguments and movements for everything from the amending of constitutional government to the waging of war. Research in political communication usually conceives of the work of the news, however, in terms of content (Iyengar, 1991; Cook, 1998). That concept has generated questions such as, "What knowledge was available to citizens about such and such?" or "How did the press cover so and so?" Questions about content do matter. The power of the press to include or exclude specific facts or opinions is real power; arguments over it are real arguments, but they often ignore any power of the form of news.

 

News form has an impact by establishing the environment of power. Our claim here goes beyond that usually made by critical scholars: they challenge mainstream research by arguing that the power of news operates not by manifest content but by subtext or as superstructure. Scholars interested in the power of news texts to encode biases, representations, and ideologies focus on the meaning lurking beneath the surface, the latent as opposed to the manifest content. Scholars who document the power of media businesses and institutions see content as alternately expressing or mystifying these underlying structures (Schiller, 1989; McChesney, 1999). The form of news acts as the canvas of institutions and ideology alike, a physical and cultural backdrop, an environment that itself feeds back into practice. To take the analogy further, we consider ourselves media environmentalists. The form of news records the imagined terrain of the social and political world and prescribes the maps and binoculars needed for navigation. We aim to describe the topography as something given a shape that has changed before and might be nudged into change for the better.

 

The environment of power has a greater impact because the form of news plays out right under the reader's nose, clearly visible and yet somehow beneath attention. The citizen reader has a crude but usable vocabulary for distinguishing the flora and fauna in this environment, similar to but less sophisticated than the vocabulary of news professionals. But these taxonomies conceal the grand form even while they isolate and reveal the various species of little forms. Distinctions that seem the most obvious - separating images from text, or splitting images into classes such as photographs, illustrations, charts, and the like - can go only so far toward understanding the overall form (Barnhurst, 1994).

 

Histories that grow of such distinctions can work against understanding when applied to news. Take the common sense distinction between word and image. Ordinary people readily distinguish between neighboring texts and images as they skim the whole paper; some readers program themselves to not even see the pictures, assuming that all meaningful discursive content will be most usefully presented in text. But the distinction between word and image is far from natural. Making words and making pictures both originated from drawing, but no one confuses the two, at least partly because the distinction has been institutionalized. Schools train students to write in one class and to make pictures in another. Workplaces clearly organize photographers to work apart from writers, despite efforts to encourage teamwork. Researchers do the same. The theories and methods at hand, as well as the scholarly societies and journals, reflect the industrial divide between word and image work. The resulting studies of journalism pay scant attention to visual devices, and visual communication usually brackets the text

 

Form understood as news environment bridges this divide. Newspaper content has run predominantly as text through much of history, but the words always contained visual descriptions and came arranged in physical space. In pursuit of form, our analysis crosses over into text, blurring the line between visual and textual communication. In this we avoid playing words against images and declaring a front-runner (see, for e.g., Stephens, 1998).

 

When pressed, people will also subdivide images in commonsense ways, and scholars do the same, studying photographs apart from information graphics, for instance, or excluding comic strips from research on feature illustrations. The strategy seems obvious but risks reducing form to a list of different ingredients for content, which then invite comparisons: Does photography reflect events accurately? Do graphics convey information more efficiently than text? Even ethical questions may boil down to similar choices: Do pictures, headlines, or graphics treat minorities fairly? These questions fall into the mimetic fallacy, an assumption that images can and should reflect the external world. Recently a movement has grown up to decry conscious manipulation and expose the cultural power of imagery (Berger, 1972; Ewen, 1988; Messaris, 1993; Burnett, 1995; Hall, 1997). Political analyses of visual culture rightly debunk the naive equation of pictures to reality, while working within a standard recipe. Cultural studies of journalism, for example, primarily examine television (despite exceptions, such as Ericson, Baranek & Chan, 1987). Attending to one ingredient risks ignoring the flavor of the whole. When analyzing content here, we try to focus on the ingredients that get the least attention elsewhere, such as sketches and drawings or the bylines, logotypes, and so-called sigs that mark columns and sections. These items interest us for the ways they mix with others in systems of production and in the general social, cultural, and political setting. Each visible morsel holds our interest because it comes steeped in the big pot of gumbo we call form.

 

As history, an overweening focus on the beauties of any element of visual content produces a chronicle, listing innovations and crediting innovators. Each element has its story, and tracking developments assimilates form into art history. Older visual histories taught an appreciation first of the great artists and then of the social processes defining and manufacturing great art. The recent visual culture movement has redefined art as a social text, examining how images represent power relations and what political consequences result (e.g., Taylor, 1994; Jenks, 1994; Bryson, 1994). News, however, rarely aspires to art, and the narrative strategies of art history rarely fit newspapers. Scholars of images seek out the first, the most distinctive, or the most unexpected images, divining from them the broader shifts in art history. Critical histories are as prone to this emplotment as were their predecessors. In the case of photographic history, the narrative moved from technique, to aesthetics, to social description and critique without shedding the shock of novelty as the central plot device (see Newhall, 1938, and compare Green, 1984).

 

Not surprisingly, the emphasis on innovation yields a history of revolutions, many of them accumulating at the end of the twentieth century. Such narratives hold great allure for scholars of communication. The field is young and enamored of change; it understands itself as studying the communication revolution and understands the revolution as ongoing in its own time. The past usually appears as an earlier version of today's revolution (Beniger, 1986). History comes as an afterthought, as something to understand by using the template of present convulsions. McLuhan (1962), characteristically, argued that it was only because he understood how television (that is, the contemporary communication revolution) rocked his world that he could explain how the printing press had earlier revolutionized human consciousness. The belief that one's lifetime contains the most significant portion of History has a strong affinity with the happy practice of using the present as a key to unlock the past.

 

Most design histories (Meggs, 1998), as well as the few studies of newspaper design, such as Allen Hutt's The Changing Newspaper (1973), which updated and extended Stanley Morison's The English Newspaper (1932), follow the model of art history. Besides building connoisseurship among viewers, they aim to improve practices among professionals, without paying much attention to social and cultural history. Such works implicitly assert the autonomy of professional design, a notion firmly rooted in the twentieth century. Design autonomy not only divorces visual devices from other kinds of content but also suggests that earlier newspapers were primitive, mere anticipations of modern designs.

 

Our inclination here is different. We look for elements in the past that are incompatible with present understandings, and we look for rhythms of change paced differently from revolutions. Because the form of news trumps all the particular elements within it, we do not limit ourselves to pictures but also study other aspects of news, including the words in type, the stories in layout, and the surrounding sections in format. We attend to visual details, but not to foster art appreciation or description for its own sake (Barnhurst, 1991). Although professionals may assert their autonomous domain, aesthetic principles and practices are socially constructed. The form of news emerged from one such construction site, from physical conditions of work carried out under pressures of social change. We have attempted here to identify the complex of forces, events, and processes inside the media and outside in society that crystallized in particular visual forms. John Hartley's The Politics of Pictures (1993), by examining how the British press visualized a public before the American Revolution, furnishes a prologue. A final premise of our critique is that the form of a medium comes rooted in the historical moment. We have found in the form of newspapers a history of everything we could think of.

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