Visual elements of news are crucial components of communicating information to the public. The implicit prejudices that news images convey are significant, because they perpetuate harmful stereotypes about marginalised groups.
News images as communication
Effective communication requires that the audience absorb the information that it is presented with. Words can only go so far in this process. Visual components of news pieces, such as photos, illustrations, and video, not only catch our attention but also convey messages and narratives in themselves. These are not always direct: sometimes the messages of images are very implicit and even subconscious. Photos also function as ‘evidence’ for what is written about in the article or text accompanying the images.
Representation, racism, and implicit messages
We have previously explored the significance of representation in media in our blog posts. For news, imagery is especially important because they convey information that concise news pieces may not otherwise include. Like written information, visual imagery is always necessarily selected, thus portraying a subjective decision by newsroom editors. Even the images themselves are selected framings of reality chosen by the photographer. Regrettably often, the racist bias of the news production company is implicated in the photos alongside news headlines. According to a study by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, news images portray a narrative about Muslims that focuses on terrorism by depicting them in mugshot photos and outside police stations and courts, for example. Such imagery perpetuates Islamophobic stereotypes, especially in combination with the general disproportionate coverage of terror-related issues in relation to Islam and British Muslims.
Photojournalism, privacy, and ethicality
A further issue with news imagery is in relation to ethicality and privacy of those pictures. These dilemmas are especially prevalent in coverage of war and conflict, with regards to depiction of violence. There are certain norms about what kinds of images are within ‘good taste’ to take and publish; however, often we find that the threshold is lower for people of colour. Susan Sontag contends: “the frankest representations of war, and of disaster-injured bodies, are of those who seem most foreign, therefore least likely to be known. With subjects closer to home, the photographer is expected to be more discreet”. This not only compromises the privacy of the depicted individuals and their close ones, but also serves to reaffirm the stereotypes about the ‘backwardness’ of the Global South.
At the same time, the argument can be made that it is important to truthfully communicate the horrors of war to people who are not personally experiencing the abhorrent loss and suffering that come with violent conflict. This is perhaps particularly relevant for British people, since the UK has been involved in many armed conflicts far away from its own territory: arguably, it is crucial that citizens are made acutely aware of what the implications of wars the British military is engaged in are for the local people. Censoring violence out of visual news ‘sterilises’ war, and makes it seem less controversial. Portraying accurate depictions of the reality of conflicts is therefore an important part of democracy. However, as important as communicating the impact of war to the domestic audience is, news images still should not hold double standards when it comes to whose suffering is deemed ‘ethical’ to photograph, and effectively sacrifice an individual’s or their families’ privacy — particularly during an extremely traumatic time in their life. Awareness can be spread with respect.
We, at JAN Trust, recognise the implications of representation of diversity in media and the narratives spread about different ethnic groups. Reaffirming racist, Islamophobic and sexist biases through news imagery is dangerous, because it normalises discrimination more widely. We work with marginalised women who unfortunately experience this kind of hate and discrimination regularly. Our mission is to empower, encourage, and educate marginalised women and youth to stand up against hate and become active citizens.