Visual Images In The Media Research Paper

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Effects in the media of the visual image (i.e., a reproduced sight) are central to a debate which typically contrasts the properties of image and word. Here, that debate is tracked across three key areas: child literacy and education, commercial and political persuasion, and issues surrounding news.

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1. Visual Images vs. The Word

The world is filled with visual images. Images appear on television and movie screens, billboards, posters, magazines, newspapers, and computer monitors. Increasingly, it is argued that the word, once the dominant medium, is being supplanted by the image. Civilization has taken, in Mitchell’s phrase, a ‘pictorial turn’ (Mitchell 1994).

The visual image has been the subject of research across a range of academic disciplines. In recent years, the emphasis has moved away from theories of art towards a psychosocial perspective that draws on research from semiotics, branches of psychology, sociology and communications, and cultural theory.

In part, this research has been driven by a longstanding debate over the social implications of the image. Often, this has centered on controversies that surround certain visual media; most prominently, racial and gender stereotyping, sexually-explicit material, and violence as depicted on television, film, and in computer games. However, this debate has also been advanced as an opposition between the qualities and social effects of the word or text, and those of the image, with the former typically being privileged over the latter.

1.1 History Of The Debate

The premise on which this debate turns is the superiority of text over image, a bias informed by an intellectual tradition that stretches back centuries (for a detailed discussion, see Stephens 1998). The Bible, in associating the Word with creation in Genesis, while forbidding the production of the ‘graven image or any likeness’, has long been used to support this presumption. Even as the image has established itself at the center of Western culture, writers and philosophers from Plato to contemporary thinkers have remained critical of the qualities and effects of the image compared with those of the word.

This intellectual antipathy is prompted by a series of overlapping concerns. Partly, it is founded on a longstanding suspicion of verisimilitude. In one view, such a capturing of likeness evokes a high degree of ‘truth.’ It is this perspective that typically reflects a traditional, although now contested, history of art as the progress of visual reproduction towards an ever more accurate reflection of the natural world, an ideal established by the Romans, and one that finds its most perfect expression in the photographic process.

However, verisimilitude has also driven a more negative perspective; that what the visual image offers is not truth but seductive illusion. A painter, Plato wrote, can deceive ‘children and fools’ with the ‘imitation of appearance’, instead of bringing ‘truth’ or ‘real things’ (1956, p. 463). Substantively, this argument remains the root of one strain of criticism laid against television and movies, that their illusionary realism may offer an ideal vehicle for propaganda.

A second charge leveled against the visual image is that, with the growth of technical reproduction, images devalue the objects they represent. The uniqueness of the original is lost in the deluge of visual copies. This argument is perhaps most acute when what is being reproduced are images of cherished buildings, statues, and landmarks, and most especially, works of art. When the Mona Lisa becomes a common sight in the everyday world beyond the Louvre—for example, on T-shirts and advertising hoardings—the ‘quality of its presence,’ in the words of Benjamin is ‘always depreciated’ (1968, p. 221).

A third charge involves the long-held belief that the image speaks more directly to the emotions than to the logical mind. Aquinas argued that images ‘excite the emotions more effectively aroused by things seen than by things heard’ (cited in Freedberg 1989, p. 162). This rousing of emotions is seen as making the problems surrounding pornography and the visual depiction of violence all the more acute. Finally, the image’s accessibility may distract the populace from the more cerebral merits of the word, be it the religious tract, improving essay, or newspaper text. It is a view that remains popular today, with some thinkers warning that the reach of words will shrink and that the era of the book is passing (see Nunberg 1996). Such a trend, however, has been difficult to substantiate, with sales of books in the US, for example, steadily increasing since 1998 after a slight fall in the mid-1990s (Schwartz 2000). Evidence for the decline of newspaper readership is more substantial, however. Daily circulations in the US fell yearly between 1987 and 1999, losing nearly 7 million in sales (Newspaper Association of America 2000).

2. Visual Images And Child Literacy

If there is unease that the image is replacing the word for society in general, this concern is heightened in debates over child literacy. At different times, anxiety has centered on the presumed ill-effects on children’s reading abilities and habits of a series of visual media, including movies and comic books. However, most commonly criticized is television. Beentjes and van der Voort (1989) and Neuman (1995) are among researchers who have offered a number of hypotheses concerning the effects of television on child literacy, and weighed the empirical evidence for each.

A stimulation hypothesis argues that there is no conflict between images on television and words in print because watching television stimulates or improves reading in the young. This theory, although not widely held, rests largely on studies concerned with the reading of a book based on a television show after watching the program, or more generally, on children being prompted by television to research an interest. However, in a study of the juvenile book market, only 4 percent of children reported reading a book on the basis of seeing or hearing of it through television (Book Industry Study Group 1984). Similarly, the findings from other studies imply that any interests that are aroused by television tend to be short-lived (see Schramm 1961).

More systematically studied are variations of a reduction hypothesis, where the consumption of television is predicted to have a negative impact on reading. There are five common variations of this hypothesis. First, a displacement hypothesis argues that television viewing takes time away from reading. However, studies have shown no conclusive evidence of this, indicating instead that time given to reading, although always scant, has remained remarkably stable.

The passivity hypothesis argues that television viewing causes children to become mentally indolent and so less inclined to read. Although studies have shown that television does require less mental effort than reading, it is argued that synthesizing visual and audio information engages children in a process that is active, not passive. The retardation hypothesis, an associated theory that argues television viewing deteriorates the brain, is seen as implausible for the same reason.

A fourth variety of reduction hypothesis is concentration deterioration, which suggests that a child’s ability to concentrate is weakened by television. This too, although popular among critics, has found little scientific support.

Finally, anti-school hypotheses argue that children come to expect school to be as entertaining and immediately gratifying as television programs like ‘Sesame Street,’ and when it fails to meet these expectations, pupils lose motivation (Cohen and Rudolph 1977, Trelease 1982). Once more, the evidence is inconclusive.

2.1 Visual Images In Education

In contrast to the attribution of negative effects to television viewing, some educationalists have called for the visual image to play a larger role in school curriculums which, traditionally, have been dominated by the word.

This move, in part, expresses a belief in the benefits of acquiring what is termed ‘visual literacy.’ The view is that irrespective of content, engagement with visual media may lead to the development of mental skills applicable beyond the understanding of the medium itself. To some extent, this argument is predicated on the widely influential work of Howard Gardner who, in developing a theory of ‘multiple intelligences,’ argued that different modes of communication are beneficial to the development of different types of intelligence.

However, the theory that visual imagery may encourage both specific cognitive development and a distinctive worldview is more generally a reflection of similar beliefs regarding textual and verbal communication, as expressed, most notably, by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The perspective may also be traced to theories associated with Marshall McLuhan, who links cognition to the technical characteristics of varying media.

In this view, it has been suggested that television-based teaching may have a positive effect on a number of areas of cognition, including the formation of a distinctive worldview, analytic reasoning, and spatial intelligence: the ability to envision mentally, for example, what a shape might look like from various angles. It is also suggested that exposure to certain visual media, such as advertisements that employ metaphors, may encourage and develop abstractive and analogical thinking.

However, it is argued that as images primarily function as analogs of reality and are so less inclined to divide the perceived world into particular categories in the manner characteristic of language, the development of a specific worldview through exposure to visual imagery appears unlikely. (This is not to say that the uses to which the visual image may be put, e.g., to depict violence on television, may not have a significant impact on one’s worldview.)

Similarly, it is judged improbable that engagement with visual forms will enhance a viewer’s skills in analytic thinking, since images lack many of the propositional elements of language (e.g., it is difficult to make statements in the negative through images, e.g., ‘there is no ice-cream’). While a stronger case may be made for the connection between visual imagery and spatial intelligence, evidence for these benefits is also weak. Finally, it is argued that aspects of abstractive or analogical thinking may indeed profit from viewing certain visual material, although the argument remains controversial (see Messaris 1994 for a full discussion.)

More generally, there is a growing body of opinion that, rather than teaching new cognitive skills, the representational conventions of images are founded on informational cues that people learn routinely to interpret through their visual experiences in real-life. This calls into the question the very existence of a distinctive ‘visual literacy’ based on cognitive abilities acquired through exposure to mediated imagery.

3. Properties Of Visual Images

Overall, there is scant evidence then, that visual images—most typically in the form of television—are either detrimental to child literacy, or significantly contribute to distinctive cognitive development.

However, it is clear that the image does possess distinctive qualities. Peirce’s classification of signs into iconic, indexical, and symbolic (Peirce 1991) is seen as an important key to these properties. Images that bear a resemblance to some aspect of reality are examples of iconic signs. At the same time, the photograph may be defined as an index; a sign that has some physical connection to the object or event to which it refers, (such as fingerprints or footprints) since it is produced by the physical effect of reflected light on photographic emulsion.

These features clearly set the image apart from the word. Iconic signs have little role in language, and indexicality is entirely absent. Conversely, the visual image would normally not rely on the type of arbitrary conventions that link signifier (representation) with signified (what is represented) in the manner that constitutes the symbolic mode most characteristic of language.

Another crucial distinction can be made between words and visual images. Whereas verbal communication possesses detailed conventions governing word order (or syntax) that facilitate the linking of concepts, there is no such formal convention for combining images into larger meanings, although those who work with images, such as artists, may develop their own. Images exhibit what is termed ‘syntactic indeterminacy’ that increases their ambiguity as carriers of meaning (Messaris 1997). These distinct features have important consequences for the roles that the visual image plays within society. While it is difficult for images to convey precise statements about the objects they represent, (e.g., ‘the man no longer enjoys sarcasm’), still the image’s iconicity, together with less pronounced but flexible symbolic properties, have allowed the medium to convey information on physical characteristics with a precision and accessibility unmatched by words. For example, a range of scientific fields have been advanced through the use of detailed depictions and diagrams.

Equally, the visual image has been a boon in the development of user-friendly computers, where iconic representations, such as scissors and folders, have been used to replace lines of text. At the same time, photographic indexicality has become a vital component in the creation of historical records. However, these properties may also have troubling consequences.

3.1 Visual Images And Persuasion

Iconicity, indexicality, and syntactic indeterminacy bring distinctive properties to visual persuasion, be it set to commercial or political purposes. In an extensive study of these issues, Messaris (1997) offers a broad range of devices through which the advertising image may engage attention and mold attitudes. Iconic representations of physical appearance and interpersonal behavior may reproduce real-world visual cues associated with a series of emotional responses; including sexual interest and excitement. This prompting of emotion is central to advertising strategies that seek to associate positive feelings with the possession or consumption of products (see, e.g., Williamson 1978). Further, iconic devices that manipulate the viewer’s point of view (such as closeups or high and low angles) can incite a series of other responses, including curiosity and trust.

The ability of iconicity to communicate information quickly and with relatively little mental effort may contribute to another advantage the image may have in persuasion. Some cognitive psychologists believe that visual images are typically processed peripherally—rather than centrally—in ways that may decrease the likelihood of viewers engaging their full critical and analytical faculties, especially when the speed of the message leaves little time for reflection (see Petty and Cacioppo 1986).

The ‘truthfulness’ implied by indexicality is also a critical ingredient in visual persuasion whenever a photographic image is offered as proof of an advertiser’s claims. However, visual images may readily be made to lie through the application of a wide range of techniques, from the staging of photographs to airbrushing to improve appearances. Moreover, digital technology has become a powerful aid to those who would practice such visual deception.

Finally, the syntactic indeterminacy of the image may also have important consequences that make it more useful in persuasion than the explicit meanings offered by words. For example, advertisers may take advantage of this property to imply associations or statements that they would be unwise to state verbally (such as the association of cigarette smoking with healthy activity).

3.2 Visual Images And Politics

Television has been accused of having a number of detrimental consequences for the political process. These include, in a political equivalent to the displacement theory associated with child literacy (see above), distracting the populace from civic involvement. However, the area of most concern with regard to the visual image is its effect within political advertising and televisual campaigning.

Political advertisements use many of the same visual strategies as their commercial counterparts, although often exhibiting a strong reliance on iconic visual effects. Patriotic appeals are common in the political advertisement or campaign, and the use of certain visual symbols—including the national flag—has been found to be especially prevalent. Equally, the use of family imagery, such as images of spouses and of children, remains common.

The iconicity of visual imagery has been held responsible for other political strategies that accentuate appearance over content. These make extensive use of devices that appear to be modeled on people’s real-world experiences of interpersonal space (see Meyrowitz 1986). For example, politicians interviewed on television will typically turn towards the camera, and therefore towards the viewer, in order to imitate the real-world appearance of a direct and candid approach.

The potency of the visual image in political persuasion is thought to have been most graphically displayed through a debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. It is reported that the majority of those who saw the 1960 debate on television judged Kennedy the victor, while most who listened on radio thought Nixon had won. Typically, this result has been taken to indicate that the more attractive image that Kennedy presented was the deciding factor. However, there may be a number of reasons for such an outcome, including the possibility that it was radio that may have favored Nixon’s patterns of delivery, while exaggerating Kennedy’s Boston accent in a manner that repelled listeners (Schudson 1995). This and other uncertainties surrounding the visual effects of television has led some thinkers to argue that the persuasive power of the medium has been overstated.

4. Visual Images And The News

Equally controversial has been the influence of the visual image on news. The entry of the image into an arena that traditionally had been the province of the word was viewed with consternation, both by journalists and by many outside of the profession, as the use of visual material developed from artwork through wood-cut engraving to early photographs. Visual images continued to be regarded as a medium that bypassed the reasoning mind and, as such, appeared to threaten journalism’s Enlightenment heritage. While the photograph was held in higher esteem in the picture magazine, this had little impact on its critics.

Yet at the same time, the photographic record, as metaphor as well as in practice, came to underpin the journalistic enterprise. By the mid-nineteenth century, there was widespread typification of the newspaper as a ‘daguerreotype’ of the social and natural world, with the indexicality of the process being used to exemplify, and give credence to, claims of journalistic objectivity (see Zelizer 1998). More recently, however, scholars have pointed to the use of photographs, in both print and broadcast news, as being a practice based on ideological values, as well to the connotative properties inherent in the practice itself. Barthes (1977) has argued that the photograph fulfills not only a denotative (or referential) but also a connotative (or interpretive) function, which undermines its claim to be unmediated truth. Moreover, by embedding the photograph within the narratives characteristic of news, it is argued, its meaning is colored by that association. In this way, the news-photograph, be it on the page or in broadcast film, may be far from being either ‘neutral’ or ‘objective.’

5. Visual Images And The Word: Future Prospects

Much consideration has been given here to the way the cultural impact of the visual image has been traditionally expressed through a rhetorical opposition favoring the ‘rationality’ of word over visual image. Yet many of the presumed negative effects of the image have little basis in scientific fact, while critical linguists and others have shown that the multiple levels of implicit meaning generated by text can make the word equally suspect.

Moreover, in an era when media has long been multimodal, it is increasingly rare to encounter the visual image separate from the word. Consequentially, discussion has been moving beyond the opposition of the two modes to a consideration of how, when conjoined, words and visual image may work to fix, reinforce and subvert the meanings of one another, as well as to generate new meanings. Critics engaged in contesting photojournalism’s appeal to the ‘objectivity’ of indexicality have long argued that photographs attain meaning only in relation to the settings in which they are encountered, which invariably include text. Similarly, those studying broadcast news have emphasized that viewing typically involves the simultaneous processing of words and images, with the voice-over commentary representing a particularly interactive relationship between the two modes. This interaction may be utilized to ‘anchor’ verbal discourse through a visual image, or vica versa, in ways that encourage viewers towards a particular reading of a depicted event (see, e.g., Hartley 1982).

The study of word and image combinations and their consequences has been given new emphasis with the advent of computer technology and the Internet. The ability to digitally combine and manipulate the two modes—in ways that may affect the credibility of both—means that many of the traditional arguments over word and images may soon be relegated to history. As Lester (2000, p. 306) puts it, the next decade promises to be ‘known for the way that words and pictures are used together as equal partners in the communication process,’ a new Information Age in which ‘all forms of communication are included through the World Wide Web.’


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