A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Project One

Every news outlet has its own biases; these make themselves known both in the text of the articles and in the photos selected to accompany the story. Recently, President Obama and Russian President Putin discussed important policies while at the G-20 in Hangzhou, China. Two new sources, Fox News and MSNBC, covered this important meeting. The article text was not drastically different in the two versions. Both noted that disagreements have not been solved between Russia and the U.S. concerning a cease fire in Syria. However, the two news sources used significantly different images in their articles. Both photographs contain the two presidents, but the more subtle differences change the general tone of each story.

First, let’s look at the photograph Fox News selected for their article.

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Here, the two world leaders are shown shaking hands. This photograph was probably taken at the beginning of their meeting as they greeted one another. That is the denotative meaning of the image: two world leaders greet each other with a handshake. Shaking hands is a normal, respectful, and professional greeting that does not have to mean anything beyond “hello.” They also appear to be smiling at one another. Again, smiling is part of a professional and respectful greeting and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything beyond that. Denotative meaning is the direct, explicit, and literal interpretation. Connotative meaning refers to the feelings evoked in addition to a literal meaning. What do people feel is happening when two men shake hands and smile at each other?  It could be interpreted as a sign of friendship or partnership. It could be a sign that they have made a deal or joined forces. To others, it may look like a sign of conspiracy. The cultural semantic network comes into play in this instance. What related meanings can be applied to what’s happening in the photograph? Businessmen shake hands when they’ve made a deal. Politicians shake hands with other politicians as a form of endorsement. Someone might shake another person’s hand as a form of congratulations. Two friends might shake hands in greeting if they run into each other. Visuals are interpreted by the viewer based off of their experience. It may be that Fox News (a conservative network known for tirelessly disapproving of Obama) is trying to reinforce the idea that Obama is not on the side of the United States citizens. He must be against us if he’s on such good terms with Vladimir Putin, right? They may be trying to subvert or underplay the actual story – which was that they did not come to an agreement. Those fascinated by conspiracy theories may view this image as a prototype of conspiracy. Conspiracy theories tend to involve world leaders and deals agreed upon without the knowledge of the public. The photo shows two presidents and shaking hands can be (mis)interpreted as a sign of agreement or deal making.

The photograph used by MSNBC in their article has a completely different set of connotations attached to it.

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Like in the photo used by Fox News, here we see two world leaders communicating with body language. Here, however, there are no smiles and no handshakes. The two are locked into intense, serious eye contact. This photo was probably taken towards the end of their 90 minute exchange. The literal or denotative interpretation of this picture is that two men are staring at one another unsmiling. The connotative meaning of this photo is that the two men are in opposition. They are not on friendly terms because they are not smiling. They are arguing about serious topics because they are staring intently. These are all interpretive claims about the photo just based off of their body language. Using the concept of a semantic network, these two people are opposing one another. We as viewers see the frowns and rigid postures and compare that to instances in our own lives where we’ve seen people argue. The frowns, the stares, the posture, and the importance of the issues at hand make this photo a good prototype or “best example” of a disagreement. The photo reinforces the idea that the U.S. and Russia are not on the same page and it subverts conspiracies that these two men are working together against the American people.

To summarize, there is a great deal of information news outlets and imply through images. However, there is even more information that can be inferred by readers based off of their experiences, prior beliefs, and prejudices.


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