The analysis of news texts, and hence the semiotic concepts relating to it, is vital to our comprehension of the world around us, and the meaning we attribute to it, because as explained by Watson in chapter 4.1 of the reader (The news: gates, agendas and values), news is not a direct reflection of reality but a manufactured construct which goes through several selective phases before it eventuates in the forms we read it.
In our Australian society, there are three main forms of news texts that we consume. These are: Visual news texts – e.g newspapers, internet news sites Audio news texts – e.g radio Audio-visual news texts – e.g television In the analysis of news texts, we must analyse how the news is represented. Hall suggests that there are two systems of representation that we work with. Firstly he states that all objects, people and events in our minds are connected with a set of concepts. Without this system we would not understand much, as the meaning depends on the links we make between an image and its concept. Secondly, we need to communicate through language – made up of words, sounds and images which carry meanings – therefore we see them as signs. This indicates that signs make up the meaning systems of our culture.
We’ll start with visual texts. They are almost always a combination of words and pictures, and whereas the process of reading and interpreting words is usually lengthy, the meaning derived from photographs – or the level of signification, is almost immediate. The meaning derived from the headline is also effectively just as immediate – as it is a short collection of words designed for direct significatory impact. When we look at a picture in a newspaper, there are fundamentally two levels of meaning we derive from it – denotative and connotative, which exist concurrently.
The denotative meaning is the obvious – in the front-page example in The Australian, we see three human beings, two in camouflage clothes holding black sticks by a handle facing another man dressed in white clothing; we immediately denote this to be two soldiers and a civilian. Codes of denotation are, in the words of Hall, ‘precise, literal, unambiguous’. We do not denote the three human beings to be pieces of tofu, or slabs of VB, or pavlova served with berries and cream dribbled in melted Belgian chocolate, because we derive from our interactions and experience within our society that they are humans because we live in a world of humans, that they are soldiers because soldiers hold guns and wear camouflage gear, and hence there is no real opportunity for subjectivity in regards to denotation.
The headline usually works concurrently with the image in a newspaper as far as denotation is concerned – from this headline it is denoted that the story is about military patrols in Baghdad. Codes of connotation, on the other hand, are the more subtle implied-meanings that are attached, and hence open-ended, which have the potential for various interpretations by people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.
A headline is often heavily connotation-orientated, and the headline ‘Anzac spirit patrols dark streets of Baghdad’ illustrates this. ‘Anzac spirit’ could be interpreted to mean an actual dead spirit of an Anzac soldier, or an alcoholic spirit made through the fermentation of Anzac cookies, but instead we would generally accept its connotations to be ‘the Australian army’. This is in no way denoted and obvious, but it is still interpreted the way the journalist/editor intended by the majority of its audience, in part because it complements the image.
Besides its obvious denotation, the connotations attached to a news image are immensely important. To inexperienced newspaper readers, an image will have connotations attached to it, which the reader will clearly be able to perceive, and yet have no awareness of what it is creating these connotations. These connotations, whether positive or negative, are often created by such elements as gestures, colour, balance, positioning of people and objects within the frame, camera angles, and indeed the selection of the visual accompaniment to a story.
If we analyse this front page example in The Australian, the fact that the soldiers are occupying the majority of the frame may connote their power and authority, the civilians facial and hand gestures connote his fear and submission to their power, and the trees in the background connote that they are in a wild, unexplored land to them. Obviously, not everybody would see it this way, and hence connotations have the tendency to be subjective. However, the important thing to note about them is that people from a similar socio-economic and cultural background will have the tendency to derive similar connotations due to their nurture, and hence connotations are usually deliberately attached to photos and headlines.