Can the news media continue to act as producers of meaning whilst remaining within the structures of formal rules about impartiality?

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Directed Blog 3 – Political Bias

For the purpose of this blog, we were asked to choose a news story with a degree of political controversy. I chose Channel 4 News and their reporting on David Cameron (UK Prime Minister) and his fathers off shore assets. Channel 4 claim that David Cameron has been interviewed claiming that he is against offshore accounts, and that he is doing everything in his power to stop this tax loophole. However, it is claimed that his father left an offshore account in Jersey to David, his mother and his two sisters five years ago after his death.

When it comes to political broadcasting, there is a general consensus that political representation can be classed as propaganda i.e. “the conscious manipulation of information in order to gain political advantage”. While this was historically common during times of war, we can still see this happening in the media today.

Channel 4 is a commercial broadcaster, this means that it is not under the control of the state. Channel 4 News is run by ITN (Independent Television News). As an independent broadcaster, Channel 4 have the power to produce reports that have a negative impact on members of the Government. This broadcast can be seen as an erosion of support for David Cameron, upon viewing this broadcast, the audience will decide whether they feel David Cameron is worthy of his position of Prime Minister after withholding this information from the public. Cameron is working hard to abolish offshore account, yet his father was a prime suspect of this activity.

Without the help of the media, this information would probably never fall into the hands of the public. Within this broadcast there is an interview with an “expert”, Mark Renouf, Partner at Hanson Renouf Advocates where the documents were filed. He discusses the documents, its contents and explains why someone would file these documents outside of England. A Clause within Jersey law allows for figures to be left out of the documents which still leaves mystery around the amount the assets are worth.

Channel 4 then show an image of David Cameron and his father Ian, claiming that Ian was an expert in handling offshore funds after a successful career as a stockbroker. The Irish Times estimated Ian Cameron’s earnings at 10 million pounds before his death, but his will showed much smaller earnings at 2.6 million. This raised questions whether some of the families fortune was being help offshore due to English taxation rules. When David Cameron was asked about these offshore accounts, he claimed to have no knowledge of the accounts as he was not an executor of the will.

Channel 4 News avoids any backlash from the information they provided by giving a disclaimer at the end of the broadcast. They claim they do not think the Cameron family had done anything illegal and that they know the family declared these offshore accounts after Ian Cameron died five years ago.

While some journalists admit to being selective in their political reporting, many also claim to apply rigorous but fair standards of news journalist, particularly in broadcasting, we can see these standards in this broadcast by Channel 4. In addition to this, Television and Radio are required by law to be politically impartial. Surveys reflect audiences support of this perception, as results have shown that a large majority of the population regard television as their most trusted source of information.

The hegemonic viewpoint proposes that “Contrary to the claims, conventions, and culture of television journalism, the news is not a neutral product” – (Glasgow University Media Group). The pluralist viewpoint proposes that “The main television news channels have done their best to present a fair, balanced and accurate account, that there were occasional mistakes, misjudgments and inadequacies”  – (Hetherington, 1985). I feel that Channel 4 begins with a hegemonic viewpoint in the beginning of this report, but end with the disclaimer to seem like a pluralist viewpoint.

Genre Study: News

The news is exciting, most people don’t realise this, but it has been manufactured to be exciting, heart-wrenching and emotion-provoking, this is why we continue to watch the same news broadcaster again and again. The news in its raw form is boring, and the majority of us wouldn’t want to watch it that way. That is why news broadcasters have turned news reporting into an almost “movie studio” production. “Real Life” news now features all the elements of fiction that we have grown to love – stories, packaging, orchestration etc.

These news “stories” have one or more narrators, in print the journalist is the reporter, in television we see the news presenter on-screen, both of these reporters introduce themselves and then disappear from the text and let the story unfold. Imagine when you were younger and couldn’t read, a teacher or a parent read you stories – The news is essentially story-telling, except now you can read and interpret it yourself.

News stories are complied with different elements – Spoken or written quotes, photographs, illustrations and video footage. This allows the viewer/reader to have a “window” to view an event that has taken place in a different time, location or era. This creates the illusion that the viewer was there, they can see, hear and imagine what it is like to be there at that moment in time.

However, these different elements are only a snapshot, or edited version of real events. From thousands of photos, one or two may have been chosen, from a half an hours footage, 2 minutes may have been selected. The meaning from the edited version of this content may be different from viewing the content as whole, but this is what is meant by “preferred meaning”, the production team choose what they want you to see and hear. Cutting a speech into edited pieces may produce a different meaning as key elements can be left out, thus creating a different view on the topic than you would have if you were there at the actual speech. These stories don’t just bring all these elements together by putting them in a single story, instead they artfully weave them together into a story.

We need to remember that news stories have been constructed by journalists, thus giving their point of view on a topic or event. These constructed stories use “simulation” or “fabricated representation” to show us events as they happened in the past or might happen in the future. We believe these fabrications because there is no other way for us to receive this information. News stories that take place in a different culture or language are explained to us, we have no way of knowing if this information is accurate if we do not understand that culture or language.

The news allows us to escape, even if it is just in our thoughts and perceptions. We enter a mundane transcendence, and surpass the normal obstacles of our daily lives, but this is done for the sole purpose of serving us their story and making their viewer numbers rise, for profit and power.

Media as a Means of Production & Ownership

Historically, people have always searched for meaning by asking questions such as “Who are we?”, “Where do we fit in?” or “How does the world work?”. The question to ask is, where do people get the answers to these questions? Typically, it was from institutions such as the church, schools and family. However, people are now turning away from these institutions and turning to the media to handle these question of “meaning”. This raises the question as to who is controlling this production of meaning?

We need to focus on the power within the media and their role as the creators and distributors of meaning within society. There are three main area we need to focus on:

  • The distinction between Liberal pluralist and Marxist approaches to this creation of meaning
  • The different approaches to the analysis of media
  • The different accounts for media power located in contemporary Marxist studies of the media

The media are a means of production, which in a capitalist society tend to be in the ownership of the ruling class” – Chandler

According to Marxist theorists, the mass media circulate the ideas of the ruling class (the bourgeoisie) and deny any alternative ideas. This is known as the Hegemonic Model, it is believed that the hegemonic view of society is that there are significant inequalities in power between social groups. These means, the groups with the most power are able to put forward their influential views culturally rather than forcefully.

Within fundamentalist Marxism, the media can be said to product “false consciousness” within the working class (the prolateraite). Due to the power of the media and the power in which is holds, it is able to broadcast the dominant ideologies within society, this is typically the ideologies of the people who own and control the media.

For example, the protestors side of the water charges is rarely broadcast in the media. Instead, broadcasting time is given to the politicians and Dennis O’Brien (Owner of Irish Water) who put forward the idea that the water charges are for the better good of our country, therefore, the prolateraite are hearing the same argument continuously without hearing an opposing argument. In order to hear this opposing argument, a viewer will have to research for themselves – doing this will lead them to see the protesting side of the story, which involves violence and how the water charges are affecting the public.

According to the pluralist model, liberalists believe that the media produce content as narrowly ideological and that there is diversity and choice. They believe that the media mirrors society with a range of interests, ideologies and points of views. They also believe if the media produce dominant content, this is because this content is dominant within society as a whole, this is because media production is essentially based on the need to please and maintain and audience. If an audience is ignored, then they will seize to continue following that form of media, and this leads to commercial failure.

It is when the media represent political issues, it is the most obvious contrast to see the differences between the pluralist and hegemonic perspectives. Historically, it has been evident that some political content in the media qualifies as propaganda, this can be seen in history in times of war with examples such as Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin using the media at the time to disseminate their dominant ideologies to the masses. In more recent news, we can see how the media represents the “good” aspects of the war rather than the negative aspects of war. They tend to show successes and deny failures.

While there are alternative media institutions who produce opposing news to the dominant media institutions, these alternative views receive little broadcast time in comparison to the dominant views of the media. Television and radio are required by law to be politically impartially, however, the news is not a neutral product. The media are constantly broadcasting the dominant views of those in power, so therefore, they have already produced a specific meaning within their audience. This is again the naturalisation process, the audience fail to notice the manufactured meaning created within broadcasts.

However, again, the pluralist viewpoint is that the main television news channels have done their best to present a fair, balanced and accurate account. They believe that there are occasional mistakes within the media but they generally offer their audience a reliable and dispassionate news service.

It is important to know who is behind these news corporations, and what their views and beliefs are. Do we really know who is behind the content we are receiving and are we looking hard enough to receive the other side of a story?

It can be argued that the media are part of the social fabric of contemporary society i.e. An institution. If we examine the basic elements of institutions, we can see how the media can be classed as an institution

  • Economic: Concerned with the production and distribution of material goods and wealth
  • Politics: Concerned with the exercise of power and processes of social regulation
  • Culture: Concerned with the production, exchange and reproduction of meaning

From the three basics elements above, we can clearly see that the media can be classed as an institution. The question still remains, who owns these institutions? Irish man Denis O’Brien owns Communicorp which currently owns 42 radio stations in 8 different counties, including Irish radio stations 98fm, TodayTM, Newstalk, Spin 103.8. As of May 2012, O’Brien holds a 29.9% stake in Independent News and Media which includes the Herald, The Independent, The Sunday independent, and the Irish Daily Star.

With O’Brien owning so many of the media outlets in the world, it is important to ask – Is it Denis O’Brien’s views and ideologies that are encouraging the preferred meaning in these companies? Are the Irish public conforming to his views? With his power he has a large responsibility to be neutral, however, it is hard to differentiate his political, economic and cultural views, and with this his views will start to become the most dominant.

Stories, Narratives and Paradigms

Information is communicated to us in a which as to seem familiar to us, this is due to our interpretations being shaped by what we see, hear and read as being normal in our own culture – this process is called naturalisation. The story or the narrative is a very important syntagmatic relation that is communicated to us. These narratives are a connected sequence of events that are familiar to a culture – such as stories being told to make meaning.

There are several different narratives that have become so naturalised by our cultures that we no longer realise the syntagmatic relationship. Popular examples of this are common movie themes – romance, horrors, comedies etc. Comparing movies with the same genre makes for interesting research – each film follows the same narrative, making these movies seem familiar to us from the start.

Advertisers use this familiarisation to invoke a full narrative by using one image within the narrative. For example, an image of a man with a woman in his arms, with both subjects staring at each other can invoke a full romantic narrative without the viewer needing to know the narrative beforehand.

The-Vow

Taking this advertisement for the movie “The Vow”, we can clearly tell this is a romantic movie. We know this because of the positioning of the two subjects within the poster. Our eyes are drawn to these two characters, they have their arms around each other and they are looking into each others eyes lovingly.

Looking further into this advertisement the words “The Vow”, signify marriage vows. This is another indicator of a romantic movie. We instantly start to imagine a romantic story about a loving, married couple. The words “Inspired by true events” then leads us to believe something significant happens within this movie, which would either be a sad event or a happy event. The viewer then begins to create stories in their head for possible reasons for this movie to be inspired by true events.

On another level, we can see the actors are Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum. From previous viewings of romantic movies, we know these two actors typically star within this genre. Rachel McAdams is famous for her roles within movies such as The Notebook, The Time Travellers Wife and About Time and Channing Tatum has starred in romantic movies such as Dear John, Step Up and She’s The Man.

These signifiers invoke a narrative within the viewers mind before watching the movie. These signifiers are true to the story – The real story involves a married man and woman who are very much in love, after a car accident the wife forgets the husband and their life together. The husband then works to make her remember and they fall in love again. We already know there is romance, and due to the “based on true stories” we expect something significant to happen their relationship.

Semiotics 101

Semiology or Semiotics is defined as the study of signs. These signs are not just physical road or informational signs, they can also be categorised under human interactions such as body language and gestures.

Texts can also be broken down into signs such as graphic, lexical (how words are spelt), and audible. As a society, we culturally agree on the structure of certain texts for example, we agree that a book has an introduction, a middle and a conclusion – within this text there are further signs such as specific storylines i.e. romance, horror. As a collective, we know how these stories will progress, in a romance for example, we know a girl meets a boy, they fall in love, an event happens to break them apart, they come together again and it is a happy ending.

To break this down further, written texts involve the sequence of letters and words to create a sentence, these sentences make up a paragraph, these paragraphs create chapters and these chapters create the books. This structure is used to make sense of the construction of meaning. This is also the case for other forms of texts such as images, songs, films, adverts and news reports.

Semiotics also applies to film and TV, we culturally agree to a particular arrangement of music, lighting, camera shots and tone within audio-visual texts. For example, we agree that creaky floors, fast edits and darkly lit scenes are that of a horror movie, whereas, long edits, brightly lit scenes and happy music is that of a romance or comedy movie.

There are different levels of meaning these are Denotation and Connotation. Denotation is the first, most immediate level of meaning, this is the most basic or obvious level of intelligibility. Connotation is the second level of meaning, which involves analysing a text. We are able to understand more about a text on a connotative level. Therefore, denotation can be explained as the object you see, whereas connotation is the thoughts that object provokes. For example, a rocking chair can be denoted as a chair, an object that is used for sitting. At a connotative level, someone could see a rocking chair and think of a relative who spends their time sitting on a chair, evoking memories of childhood or evoking emotions.

According to DeSaussare, signs are organised into codes in two ways – Paradigms and Syntagms. A paradigm is a vertical set of units e.g. C A T, each letter can be replaced on a vertical scale, i.e. C A T changes to C A R to change the meaning from a feline to a mechanical vehicle. A syntagm is a horizontal chain of units which are linked to create meaning e.g. I have a cat. Similar to a paradigm, syntagms can be replaced on a horizontal scale i.e. I have a cat changes to I have a dog changing possession from a feline to a canine animal.

Within semiotic theory, there are three levels of signification:

  • The First Order – This is the denotative level, i.e. the simplest form in which an object, or text can be understood. e.g. A car is a vehicle.
  • The Second Order – This is the connotative level i.e. the analysed form of the object e.g. The car is red, the wheels have been worn down and the car is a danger to drive.
  • The Third Order – This is the cultural level, this level varies with different cultures. A societies ideologies or values contribute to how an object or text can be understood at the third level of signification. e.g. A Mercedes may signify a rich person, or to signify it further, it could signify a snob.

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Directed Blog 2 – Banana Republic

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I chose the image above to conduct a semiotic print advertising analysis on. It is an advertisement for Banana Republic, a clothes website, who have a collection of clothes from the TV series Mad Men as well as other clothing lines. The focus of this advertisement is the two characters in the centre of the image. Although this is clothing line features both men and women’s clothes, it can clearly be seen that the focus in this advertising is on the man, and not the clothes themselves, as the suit is being covered by the females arms, and the woman has her back to the camera, which completely hides her dress.

There are different types of signifiers in this ad, Symbolically we have learned the symbol of classiness, a well tailored suit, perfect hair, and expensive jewellery. The colour blue or navy is often associated with expensive looking items such as a car, or an office. “Blue Collar” can also be related to this symbol of classy. These elements combined are symbolic of an expensive, and classy lifestyle, which every day people can not afford.

In terms of Lexical signifiers there is minimal information in the text, all of the text in this advertisement is to the bottom third of the advertisement. “Introducing the limited edition” is in small white font, directly below this is BANANA REPUBLIC which written in large white serif font. Directly below this is the logo for MadMen which is red and white and stands out from the rest of the advertisement. The last bit of text is “collection” which is in the same font as the first line of text. There is no information explaining what Banana Republic is and there is no link to the website or a QR code. I had to type Banana Republic into Google to understand what the advertisement was being aimed towards.

The graphical signs in this advertisement are the two characters in the middle of the image and also the mad men logo. One character is male and one is female, however the focus is on the male figure. To me this indexical signifies that the clothing line is for men only, however with more research we find this is not true. This is the preferred meaning of this advertisement, I feel the association with MadMen means that Banana Republic wants to associate this limited clothing line with men with a good fashion sense.

The Feminine Touch can be seen in this advertisement, the woman on the right is gently touching the mans face. Although the woman is not smiling, we see evidence of Licensed Withdrawal. She is symbolically being given the opportunity to withdraw from the scene around her as she is infatuated with the man in this advertisement. We can see that her head is being adverted in this advertisement to focus solely on the man. As well as this her back is completely turned away from the camera, this could be to show that she is “belonging to the man”. This can be in relation to Ritualised Subordination, as she is under the physical care and protection of the man. There is also evidence of Function Ranking in this advertisement, we can clearly see that the man in this advertisement is the “executer” of the task at hand. He is in control of the advertisement, and the woman is following his lead.

I feel this advertisement works, without knowing what Banana Republic is, you can guess that it is a clothing range. If you know Mad Men, you know that it is a TV show about well dressed men in the 1960’s. The clothing, jewellery and hairstyles in this advertisement are related to that era, so therefore syntadgmatically completion can occur through combining these elements together to come to the conclusion that this advertisement is about a clothing company.

Patriarchal Discourse is very evident in this advertisement, the male holds dominance over the female. He is in power, and although she is well dressed and should look he’s equal, we can clearly see that she is not. Small elements such as her touch, her gaze and her position within the image are clear signs that she is not equal to him. We accept this as this is commonly seen in many advertisements today. It is accepted in this advertisement as the emphasis is on Mad Men, “Men” being the key word.

I feel this advertisement will appeal to men more than woman, even though a classy looking man and a perfect looking woman is being used, we need to ask ourselves “What do we culturally perceive as classy and perfect?”. In this ad, we perceive a man with a well tailored suit and perfect hair, with a well dressed “perfect” woman with silky blonde hair perfectly clipped up, no blemishes, perfect jawline who’s infatuated with the man. Men want to look classy like this and make girls “obsessed” with them, as we cultural perceive this as the way women look at well dressed men.