The nature of representation in media

In the Throne Room of Heaven gathered are a dog, a cat, and a cockroach. They looked, and behold, a door opened. God Almighty appeared with news for them to forward to Earth: “the human world will end in a week”. The dog returned to Earth and reported to all the other dogs there are two pieces of bad news. First, people will vanish from Earth. Second, dogs will not, and will be left without their human comrades. Likewise, the cat says there are two pieces of good news for cats. First, people will disappear. Second, cats will not, and will be left in peace from humans at last. Of course, the cockroach also returns to report his news. The cockroach says, “I have nothing to report. It was like any other meeting – we were overwhelmed with information, but nothing will change for us”.

As we can see, the same press conference can generate three different news stories on three different websites. In this context, we use the term “representation” as derived from semiotics, with a complex meaning, and one that is important in its entirety in the phrase “media representation”.

Presentation and representation

When something appears directly to us – it is a presentational form. In contrast, when words, images, gestures, dance, music, or other forms of expression, are used to convey concepts distinct from the expression itself (mediated rather than immediate), this is a representation. Take, for instance, a press conference viewed by a group of journalists. While each journalist may have watched the conference live, the information about this conference that they convey after this point – in their written articles, reports, or live broadcasts – is a representation. Notice that each version may present a true picture, as in the case with the dog, the cat and cockroach. None of them lies, still each report tells a different story. Each story passes first through the author’s perception: from the way it is expressed, through to the emphasis given to the facts (we will be left without them or nothing changes), to the creation of a perceived common sense and/or moral meaning (two good news, two bad news, no news).

Everyday work

Imagine now that you are a reporter attending an event, expecting at least something to report on. However, nothing newsworthy emerges. The organizer has done their job, and you chat with your fellow reporters around the buffet. Suddenly, the officials arrive, irritated, tense, and hungry. Dissatisfied with the lack of news, yourself and your colleagues decide to turn that free buffet itself into the news. Public attention now focuses on the topic: “Managers Eat and Drink”.

Such an outcome is far from unusual, whether on discoveries, on boring occasions without picantry, in parliament, in life on the sidelines, after debates and other occasions. What exactly will become the news: a colorful reply, a decision taken, is – a matter of a media story. In any case, it is not always a matter of what has happened, but of which aspect we will treat as ‘news’, be it someone’s clothes and hairstyle, through to someone’s words, to someone’s deeds and interests, and more. The event may be cumulative, and is not always so obvious. Its final shape perceptible to the consumer sitting in front of a computer screen will be determined by the viewer (in this case, the journalist) and his or her editorial decisions.

Media Representation

For the media consumer this is far from obvious. It usually appears that the media merely reflects the reality of events that have occurred on their own – less inventive, and more descriptive. Media representation, however, can shape the meaning of an event to a degree significant enough to determine whether the news is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Indeed, as we have seen from the previous paragraph, it can change even our understanding of what, exactly, is the ‘event’ itself. At this point we must make an important clarification:

The frame is always a purposefully selected fragment of reality. This is greatly illustrated by this popular online picture you have probably already seen somewhere.

– Images are a representation – they represent a purposefully chosen fragment of reality. Details, such as framing, angle, light, etc., all affect perception;

– A live show is a representation – there is a director and a camera that catches or eschews what the director needs at that moment (a politician in the room picking his nose; or a massive peaceful demonstration that throws a stone);

– Reality shows are a representation – they will be arranged so as to follow a certain pre-determined storyline. What is shown and what is hidden will be deliberately designed to change the audience’s perception of the participants according to this storyline.

Representation is also made through language: see the distinction between “freedom fighters” and “terrorists”, or “anti-choice” and “pro-life”, for example. Barth’s observations are still valid today – in media, paradoxically, even war can be seen as “peacemaking”, with its troops as “peacemakers”. Namely, language can completely replace the meaning.

Simulacrum *

It is often the case nowadays that media content will refer not to ‘real life’ occurring outside the media, but to other media content. This particularly applies to social networks. One of the most content-generating news items of recent months, for example, is the word covfefe **. Covfefe and all related media content do not exist anywhere in presentational form. This is a great current example of the nature of the ‘simulacrum’: accumulations of representations based on other representations. Each new layer can only be understood with prior knowledge of the former layers, with each new layer communicating with each other as opposed to external realities. This is the simulacrum – the common medium that is highly mediated but largely self-directed. Indeed, today, a number of public gestures are made purely for the sake of the media content they will generate. Therefore, the fact that a given media representation has its presentational form somewhere in the physical world, does not mean that it makes reality more accessible.

So, in summary, it appears quite simply that there is no public reality, objective  in itself. Everything in the media is inevitably a representation. By nature, all media content builds on, and adds weight to facts. Publicity is a construct that becomes valid because it is shared by many minds. Whether the purpose of this construction is to inform, educate, propagate or mislead, defend a social system, or generate profits – these are already usages, and a topic for another conversation.

 

Text: Kalina Petkova, Ph.D.

 

* simulacrum is the term of Baudrillard. In this website, you can see more about the subject in the Fast Food Media post.

** wrong spelling of coffee in a tweet of Donald Trump, gaining tremendous popularity in social networks and going through all the traditional media.

 

The article was originally published in Humanolic.com and is translated from Bulgarian language.

 

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