Monday 08 August 2022

Consumption of news in the visual age

This column first appeared in Malta. Today

We want it quick, we want the gist, preferably with images and please spare us any unnecessary text: that about sums up the way most people want to digest their news these days. 

In face to face conversations when the discussion turns to current events it is not unusual to hear the phrase, ‘yeah I saw something about it on FB, but I didn’t click on it, tell me what it’s about.”  Obtaining the information themselves from actual news sources is too much trouble and it inevitably ends up in a game of Chinese whispers where details are changed or forgotten, or the facts are wrong, until the actual event is so diluted and distorted it bears little resemblance to reality. 

It is no secret that as newspaper circulation has plummeted by the millions all over the world, journalism too has taken a hit, and the concept of news has been redefined for the digital, more visual, social media age.

As one of the speakers at the conference on Understanding the Post-Truth Society, Iranian-Canadian blogger and journalist Hussein Derakhshan, pointed out, there has been a shift from text to visuals, which became immediately apparent to him after he was released from jail after six years, emerging into a very different world than the one he had last been in.  He had been imprisoned while on a visit to Iran on charges of “spreading propaganda, insulting Islam and co-operating with hostile powers”. 

As he described it in The Guardian in December 2015: “Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it is an entire era online…I’d been told how essential social networks had become, so I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. It turned out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it. It became clear to me, right there, that things had changed. I was not equipped to play on this new turf — all my investment and effort had burned up. I was devastated.”

It is no coincidence that the reliance on the visual rather than the written is a trend which has grown ever since Smart phones became all the rage and the ‘scroll culture’ came into being.  We are impatient and have no time for words, except maybe for a click bait headline which tells us all we supposedly need to known in two seconds flat. Or so we like to think.  

A recent photo and video footage which were doing the rounds in Malta is a case in point. They were taken during an argument which broke out in the middle of the road, but what people mostly focussed on was that one man’s buttocks were hanging out, prompting many to comment on that detail with scandalised tones (is this what Malta has come to?!), rather than the fact that he was beating the other man with what looked like a truncheon. It turns out that the man was so enraged he had barely noticed that his trousers had slipped down. Still others focussed on the fact that there was a dog in the photo and that hopefully, he was not hurt.  Although many concluded that the whole thing was triggered by road rage, I could find no definite news report to confirm this fact, which allowed the rumour mill of wagging tongues to have a field day about the motive.

But back to Derakhshan, who is credited with starting the blogging revolution in Iran, and his talk at the Post-Truth conference. As he described it, today’s world “is more comfortable with Instagram than with text, and the Internet has changed from being the world wide web to being more like television”.  Algorithms dictate what you see depending on what you have clicked on previously while there is also such a thing as prime time on social media…certain times of the day when what you post is more visible. News has no cultural relevance so there is no commodity value. It is no wonder that local newspapers which have tried to launch an online platform against payment have not really succeeded.  

Referring to Neil Postman’s book, Amusing ourselves to death published in 1985, about the impact of television on wider social discourse, Derakhshan pointed out that it can be read today and still have relevance with reference to the Internet. “We don’t exchange ideas, we exchange images” he noted. How very true.  

“News is losing to Playstation, Netflix, Twitter, Fox and CNN” he added. “It is losing to cheap travel, Instagram and Youtube.  News is losing to mobile phone and nowness.”

Examples of this abound. It is quite apparent how much the profession of journalism has suffered as a result, when anyone can pick up their phone, film something mildly sensational happening with their camera and post it themselves online (such as the argument in Qormi featuring someone’s bare bottom) after which it is picked up by newsrooms which then turn it into a “story”.

However, despite what seems like a bleak situation, Derakhshan does not believe this is the end of journalism but that “we need to reinvent it, because journalism is democracy; they are names for the same thing.” 

Images: Depicting the truth or an altered reality?

The theme of how images can be edited or altered to influence viewers and readers has always intrigued me and the panel on Visuality & Visibility: Exploring Visual Truths & Untruths explored this topic very well 

University lecturer and artist Vince Briffa gave a concrete example from one of his installations where a girl is streaming her commentary live from a bathroom giving the impression she is actually at an art gallery, shown in another video. The two streams are shown side by side: was the girl at the gallery or not? “Our belief structures are formed by images and videos and many did not know if it was recorded or live, or whether she was actually there. Many don’t even care,” he pointed out.  

This is reminiscent of how some people, who are desperate for validation, set up fake holiday snaps pretending that they are in some exotic location when they are actually in their back yard.

Manipulating images and the perception of the audience, when taken in the context of news, can lead into unethical territory because there is a gatekeeper deciding what to publish. Speaking about the powerful images of war photography Anna Toploska described how images can be fake although we do not question them as much today. 

Bringing up the famous photo from the Vietnam war of a naked little girl running away, screaming in agony after a napalm attack incinerated her clothes, which caused such an impact at the time and completely swayed public opinion about the war, she compared it to the Gulf War where the American people were shown no such images.  “There were just war tanks and planes, no civilians, no victims.  It seemed more like a video game than a real war and we were bombarded by so many images that we became immune to them.”

Her talk brought to mind the graphics used by CNN during the Gulf War when news anchors turned to this segment. Remember the swooshing noise as the code name came up on the screen “Operation Desert Storm” announced by a very deep male voice?  It was a catchy title,  sounding like the name of a film, and it captured the public imagination enough to make many Americans back the military intervention in a fever of patriotism.  But what we saw was footage of missiles being launched and bombing raids captured by the CNN satellite news feed, not the real human face and casualties of war. 

Another speakerr, Massimiliano Fusari, from the University of Westminster used another real example of photo editing and manipulation. 

LA Times photo journalist Brian Walski was covering the war in Iraq when he shot a sequence of photos of a British soldier urging a group of Iraqi civilians to take cover. However, it was later discovered that the photo which was published (in which the soldier’s gun appears to be specifically aimed at a man carrying his child) had been edited and two of the images had been merged to, in his own words, “improve the composition”.  Since the photos were taken a few seconds apart for him they were “a better signification of the real” and he saw nothing wrong with this, pointing out that he was the best placed to make such a judgement. However, Walski was fired from the LA Times who claimed he had tampered with the representation of reality.   

This interesting example led to a lively discussion among the audience about whether the decision to fire Walski was justified or an over-reaction.  My personal view is that if we allow such photo manipulation to slide, then where do you draw the line?  Will we justify all types of photo shopped images in order to come up with a “better composition” especially in a war photo? The published image had the rifle pointed at a father with his child, a visual which undoubtedly created more tension and conflicting feelings than the original, more bland, less interesting, but ultimately more truthful photo.   

“Understanding the Post-Truth Society…From fake news, datafication and mass surveillance to the death of trust” was organised by the Commonwealth Centre for Connected Learning

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