A Semiotic Analysis of a Newspaper Story Essay.
A logical place to start may be to ask ‘what is news?’ Professor Jonathan Bignell suggests that ‘news is not just facts, but representations produced in language and other signs like photographs.’ The newspaper is just one medium of news communication; other media include television, radio, magazines, and the Internet. We will concentrate on a particular news item as covered in three different British daily newspapers, namely The Sun, The Telegraph, and The Times. The story which is being covered is that of the death of a female police officer who was stabbed by a man whilst she was on duty.
The medium of the newspaper is particularly interesting as signifiers are presented simultaneously thus offering a concrete display of signs which the reader can consume at their own pace and can also be re-read, as opposed to television or radio news which can only be watched or listened to at particular times.
The process of selection is central to the production of all newspapers.
This involves selecting events which are considered to be worthy of being printed as news, and excluding news which is considered to be irrelevant, insignificant or unworthy of news coverage. Thus news is a social construct dependent on what is deemed to be important by those who work in the ‘news industry’ based on certain codes of behaviour which have been learned by news workers in order to do their job. The codes of behaviour which have been learnt by news workers undoubtedly depend on the particular newspaper for which they are working.
It could be suggested that in British society most adults would be aware of the conventions of different newspapers. We will attempt to examine the types of sign systems within which a particular news story is encoded in a selection of newspapers, and how these different sign systems may affect meaning. It is clear when looking at The Sun, The Telegraph, and The Times articles, which were all published on Saturday, April 18th, 1998 that each newspaper attaches significance to different news items. This is made clear by looking at the front pages of each newspaper, with The Sun’s main front page story concentrating on the relationship of Patsy Kensit and Liam Gallagher, compared to The Telegraph’s main story which concentrates on a ‘shake-up’ of scientific committees that advise government ministers on food safety; and The Times main front page story which covers the story of the new National Lottery Big Ticket show which is facing the BBC ‘axe’.
Although we will not be concentrating on the comparison of the front pages of the newspapers in this term paper, these examples demonstrate how drastically the different newspapers differ in what constitutes front-page news. The examples also demonstrate the interpretation of newspaper conventions, as we analyse the stories which are considered to be the intended main news of the front-page. As can be seen with the front page of The Sun the main story is clear as it dominates most of the available space on the front-page.
However, with the other newspapers the distinction is not quite as clear. The main criteria when deciding on which was the main story of the front-pages of The Telegraph and The Times was the size of the typeface of the headline. This emphasises that the reader comes to the newspaper with a set of codes with which to decode the text, and these codes may differ from individual to individual. This leads to the point that the text is open to a variety of interpretations depending on the ideological standpoint of the reader, and whether the reader is familiar with the newspaper and the codes which. it employs to communicate the ‘news’ which it has selected.
Connotations of the linguistic and visual signs which are presented by newspapers are central to the meaning of the news item to the reader. The connotations of the news item are perceived within a coded framework and there are recognisable codes within different newspapers. It is clear that different newspapers use particular narrative codes when representing the same item of news. This can be seen in the three headlines which refer to the particular news item which I have chosen to examine. The Sun headline states ‘SCANDAL OF PSYCHO FREED TO KILL HERO COP NINN’, The Telegraph – ‘WPc was knifed to death after removing armour’, and The Times – ‘WPc paid with her life for dedication to duty.’ Each of these narrative codes used in the headlines instantly provide a framework on which to build the meaning of the news item. The headlines are linguistic syntagms which aim to attract the attention of the reader to the topic of the news story, and the linguistic signs which are employed in the headline suggest to the reader the appropriate codes which are needed to understand or decode the news item.
It is clear that the newspapers use different linguistic codes as a means of representing the news item. The Times and The Telegraph are similar in their use of language. However, both differ dramatically with The Sun. It is clear that The Sun uses orally based vocabulary, and dramatic and sensational language. This can be seen in the first sentence of the news item, which reads ‘A. violent cop-hating nut killed brave WPC Nina Mackay after a catastrophic catalogue of blunders by Crown prosecutors and police allowed him to roam free.’ The article also employs alliteration for emphasis , as in ‘catastrophic catalogue’ and ‘scandal of psycho’. The linguistic codes of the news item certainly connote speech which in turn connotes familiarity, informality, and camaraderie.
The article also implies familiarity with the victim (We Nina Mackay) who is referred to throughout as ‘Nina’ where as a distance is created between the reader and the offender who is referred to throughout by his surname, Elgizouli. This code of familiarity is significantly different to that which is employed by The Telegraph and The Times who refer to the victim either in her professional capacity (WPc Nina Mackay) or by her full name. However, it is perhaps significant that the offender is referred to by his surname in all of the different representations of the news items. This strategy of distancing the reader from the criminal is blatantly employed by all three of the newspapers, clearly suggesting that the preferred reading of the texts should involve no sympathy with the offender.
Another drastic difference between the newspaper representations of the news item are the typographic devices used to break up the text. Again, The Sun differs dramatically to The Telegraph and The Times using bold text to start the article, serving to extend the role of the headline in attracting the attention of the reader to the topic of the news story. The use of bold and one word sub-headings which are employed throughout the text serve to direct the reader in making meaning of the text and make blatantly obvious the points which the newspaper deem to be of particular significance to the understanding of the news item. The Telegraph and The Times do not employ the same typographic codes as The Sun, apart from bold type which is used for the headline, and the bold type used to name the journalist/s of the article.
The narrative of the news story uses the same type and size of font throughout the item. Arguably, this connotes authority and formality to the reader which is also demonstrated by the fairly long sentences, the correct spellings and the lack of colloquial language such as ‘cop’ which is used in The Sun. This perhaps implies that the ‘quality’ press such as The Times and The Telegraph provide better news than tabloids such as The Sun. However, this kind of value judgement is inappropriate as both types of newspaper are constructions of the news with the ‘quality’ newspapers aiming to connote authority and formality and the ‘popular’ tabloids aiming to connote an attitude of ‘telling it how it is.’ Thus both types of representation of the news items present mythic meanings.
Linguistic and typographic codes are not the only codes employed in news discourse. Graphic codes must also be considered. The photographs used in the press have also undergone a process of selection. One image will be chosen over another as it connotes a message that the selectors of the photograph want to communicate. Barthes (cited in Bagnell, 1977:98) suggests that the newspaper photograph is ‘an object that has been worked on, chosen, composed, constructed, treated according to professional, aesthetic or ideological norms which are so many factors of connotation.’ The ‘treatment’ of photographs which is referred to by Barthes can be seen in the different newspapers which I have chosen. Interestingly, each version of the news item has used the same photographs, but treated them differently according to the required connotation. Each representation uses the same picture of the victim in her police uniform looking directly at the camera, and the same picture of the offender looking vacant and away from the camera.
Again, The Times and The Telegraph use similar codes, and The Sun employs a drastically different strategy despite using the same original photographs. The most drastic difference is that The Sun presents the photographs in colour, connoting realism and the dangerousness of the offender. This is also connoted by the size of the photographs, with the graphic representation dominating a large proportion of the overall available space on the page, which is another drastic difference between The Sun’s representation of the news item and the other two newspapers. Despite these major differences it is significant that the newspapers have all used the same photographs, and it is interesting to look at why these particular photographs might have been chosen.
Paradigmatically, photographs involve connotations, and thus the significance of the particular photographs which have been chosen can be seen more clearly when considering what other paradigmatic connotations might have appeared in their place. For example the connotations of the picture of the police officer would change considerably if she was not in uniform. Likewise, the connotations of the picture would change if the offender was looking directly at the camera and smiling, instead he is pictured looking away from the camera with a blank expression, connoting lack of emotion.
The contrasted pairs which seem to be involved in the paradigms are innocence and guilt, justice and injustice. These contrasted pairs are made more clear by the way in which the meanings of the photographs are anchored in a small amount of text beneath the photographs. The Times offers its own contrasted pair in the text beneath the pictures, namely ‘killer’ and ‘killed’. As Bignell (1997:99) suggests, the caption underneath the picture enables the reader to ‘load down the image with particular cultural meanings and the photograph functions as the proof that the text’s message is true.’ The pictures are also shown in different contexts in the three newspapers with The Sun using a different strategy to The Telegraph and The Times.
The Telegraph and The Times use similar sized pictures of the individuals involved. In The Sun the size of the photographs of the individuals differ considerably with the ‘killer’ being represented as significantly bigger than the ‘killed’. Also, the photograph of the police officer is presented in a photograph-like frame connoting sentimentality, and elevating her position in comparison to the ‘killer’. This emotionalism is carried over into the other picture which The Sun represents which shows the coffin of the police officer being carried by her colleagues. This is a cultural sign which most readers will be able to relate to, and connotes sympathy, tragedy and injustice.
This discussion of several newspapers’ representations of the same news item show how semiotic analysis can determine the meanings of such news items, as a result of the linguistic and visual signs used within the texts. However, semiotic analysis cannot determine how an individual reader might interpret the representations of the news items in a real social context. Semiotic analysis does offer an insight into the factors at work in the production of a news item and distinguishes the various codes which are employed by different types of newspaper when representing a particular news item.