People often tell me that their preferred media reflect reality as it is. They see other media in their country and abroad as biased. But where do we draw the boundary between true accounts of reality and biased news? Bickering about the question which medium speaks the truth could easily become a complex and endless process. Could all people in the world, let alone in one country, agree on what is considered as truth?
Instead, we could learn a lot from a comparison of the differences between various media regarding their representations of one particular country, group or individual. About what features of these places and people do media talk, and how do they represent these features? And what do media not tell or show us in their coverage?
A related question is how media seek to convince their consumers that their take on reality is the right one. In other words, which representations and representational techniques do media use to suggest that they speak the truth? This question is relevant as well when we listen to our politicians. An analysis of truth claims in the media could yield valuable insights into the different ways our societies make sense of the world.
For example, comparing media representations of a particular country could tell us something about the range of possible meanings of that country. The challenging aspect here is that even if each medium reports accurately on that country, all these representations could still vary widely. As John Richardson observes, “[w]e all simultaneously possess a range of identities, roles and characteristics that could be used to describe us equally accurately but not with the same meaning.” This applies to descriptions of countries as well.
On top of that, media representations could be interpreted in different ways because, as Jo Sharp notes, “there is no singular reading of a text [since] each reader will engage differently with it depending upon political outlook, education, and a multitude of other positionings.”
The meanings we give to places and people matter greatly. They affect for example our foreign policy, our investment decisions and our tourist destinations. However, most of us largely depend on media for our knowledge of foreign countries. We do generally not visit most foreign countries, making it impossible to find out whether media accurately report on these places. Furthermore, it is simply impossible to be simultaneously at all places where something happens that makes it into the headlines.
At the end of the day, how we interpret reality is often more important than reality itself. The key question is therefore how we can better understand the ways in which media make sense of our world, its places and its people. One way of examining how media do this is by using Media Analysis Techniques such as critical discourse analysis, semiotics and framing analysis. These tools help to find out how media explicitly and implicitly attach particular values to a country, group or individual.
The analysis of media representations does not result in clear-cut answers, but is, in the words of Stuart Hall, “bound to be interpretative – a debate between not who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’, but between equally plausible, though sometimes competing and contested, meanings and interpretations.” Thanks to the intellectual, social and creative challenges, working with Media Analysis Techniques is a stimulating way to become more aware of the different views on reality that circulate in our societies.
- FAIR. How To Detect Bias In News Media. Available at: http://fair.org/take-action-now/media-activism-kit/how-to-detect-bias-in-news-media/ (no date) (Accessed: 6 June 2015).
- Hall, S. (2013) ‘The Work of Representation’ in Hall, S., Evans, J. and Nixon, S. (eds) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. SAGE, pp. 1-59.
- Richardson, J. (2007) Analysing Newspapers – An Approach from Critical Discourse Analysis. Palgrave
- Sharp, J. (2000) Condensing the Cold War – Reader’s Digest and American Identity. University of Minnesota Press.
- Our Research Paper Template for Textual/Visual/Multimodal Media Analysis
- Our Template for Research into Discourses, Signs and Frames with Qualitative Research Methods
- What are the Key Questions in Visual Analysis?
- Do Our Media Reflect Reality Accurately?
- Critical Discourse Analysis [Reading List]
- Media Representations, National Identity and Foreign Policy [Reading List]
- Media Studies, Media Theory and Society [Reading List]
- Multimodal Analysis and Text-Image Relations [Reading List]
- News Framing Analysis [Reading List]
- Social Semiotics [Reading List]
- Visual Analysis, Photojournalism and News Images [Reading List]