Archive for the ‘Introduction to Communication and Media Studies’ Category

We are surrounded by news 24 hours a day and it is impossible to pay attention to all of it. Most of us skim through the highlights and are informed of what goes on in the world, but seldom do we pay enough attention to each story to discover what happens to it in the media. I have, for the last three months, paid very much attention to the KONY2012 issue and how it has been presented in the media. Not only did I follow the issue but I reflected upon concepts related to the media; like manipulation, the public sphere and semiotics. This post is about what I discovered in relation to that.

The media is important to us, it is our public sphere, and it is where we share, receive and discuss information about the world and what concerns us. Unfortunately the media fails in many ways as a public sphere as information gets distorted in a swirl of bias, lies, facts and opinions. There are so many news broadcasters in the world today and they all filter the news to suit a specific audience. By tailoring the news according to their local audiences’ interests, many different views of one case are told to different people.

In the KONY2012 debate this was very clear. The western audiences have a certain interest in economy and power and so the western media reported on money, facts and the intentions of The Invisible Children. On the other hand, media broadcasters with a different target market, like Al Jazeera who wants to be “a voice of the voiceless”, talked about the Ugandan people, justice, empathy and real experiences. It took over a week before these important views were presented to us. My blogpost “Filtered News” goes more in depth on this.

Of course, social media is now also a big part of our public sphere, and here we have an opportunity for a more democratic sphere, but we also face the problem of a greater digital divide.

In addition to this, manipulation is a keyword within mainstream media. The Invisible Children, either if you think it was exploitive or genius, knew who they were targeting and that is why their video was so successful. Given that they planned to release the video online they knew their biggest audience would be teenagers, and this is why they made a video and not a streamed lecture. Other noticeable tactics were the simplifying of a complex issue, starring of young people and children as key-figures. Playing on emotions and empathy was a clear strategy of The Invisible Children.

While I am on the topic of manipulation I want to bring up George Gerbner and his cultivation theory. He argued that the media, in the long-term, lead people to believe the social reality portrayed by the media, also called “the mean world syndrome”. When Jason Russell had his public breakdown, mainstream media decorated their headlines with words like “public masturbation”, “running naked in streets” and “car wrecking” leading everyone to adopt this point of view, hashtages like #BONY2012 was all over Twitter short after. It goes to show how much influence the media can have on us.

Probably the most interesting part of the KONY issue for me was the relevance it had to semiotics. This is a complex concept, but basically it is about the reading of images and how we interpret them differently due to ideologies and experiences of the world. In KONY2012 there was an American organization which told the story of a long and complex issue in Africa to the whole world by the use of videos, pictures and text. Depending on where in the world we are from, we carry different histories and different experiences and therefore we view the world in different ways, our understanding of one story will be very diverse from others. While I saw The Invisible Children as a caring and thoughtful group who wanted to help, the Ugandan people reacted with disgust and felt the Americans were victimizing their race.

When we are dealing with global issues we should take notice of where other people come from and their history to gain a better understanding of their opinions. I think we often take for granted that everyone else should “see what we see”, we very often miss to see the reasons for other peoples actions because of this attitude.

Also other topics like moral panic and causes and effects are helpful when analysing new headlines. Our public sphere has become a complex space of ideas and information, and we must become active listeners to get the information right. News-reading changes with these concepts in mind, and can help us think before we act.


It is funny with photos how they can forge so many different emotions in people. Sometimes I look back at my photos from earlier vacations, and those pictures can take me straight back to that place. That one picture can make me remember smells, sounds, feelings and bring back memories. But the strange thing is, that if I show the same photo to someone else that was there, the photo can make them think of totally different things! They remember music, people and conversations; they have different memories than I do.

Semiotics are the science of signs and the study of meaning. It might sound dull, but when you start looking into semiotics it is surprising what you might find out. I have been following the KONY 2012 issue these months, and semiotics is actually quite relevant in that matter.

Things that convey meaning, like a word, a picture or a symbol, is really just a sign.  By calling them signs, I mean that these things signify something to us. It is a signifier or a denotation. When I hear a word, a concept forms, or an image or an understanding takes form in my head. This is the signified or the connotation. What makes it interesting thought is that sometimes different people need different signs to achieve the same understanding. For example, look at this sign: “Appelsin”. For a Norwegian this sign conveys a meaning, but and English speaking person need the sign: “orange” to convey the same meaning and a Spanish speaking person would look for the “naranja” sign to picture it.

Words as signs are one thing, languages can complicate things, but at least we understand why. When an image is a sign, it can be harder to understand that it is interpreted differently by different persons. An image is a representation. The emotions/feelings/interpretations the image represents are based on individual judgement or preference. It all relies on “myths” and ideologies.

In the KONY2012 campaign we were introduces to images like these:

When I look at these photos I see a young black child with a weapon. White men with weapons with black soldiers in the background and I see several children in the background of one man.

Based on my knowledge of the situation in Africa, the connotations that I got were that they needed help, and that the Invisible Children wanted to help them. Citizens in Uganda interpreted it differently when they saw the KONY2012 video. They saw the same signs that I saw, but it meant different things to them. As I saw a caring group of people with the intentions to help in a terrible situation, they saw Americans victimizing their race. Other people saw egoism, that the Invisible Children played on emotions to commercialize themselves, and there were several more connotations to find.

I wrote earlier that connotations depend on “myths” and ideologies. The Oxford dictionary defines ideology as “the set of beliefs characteristic of a social group or individual”. We interpret images depending on our norms and experiences of the world. A message can be read in three different ways:

  • The dominant reading. This is the reaction preferred by the media, what they try to achieve. The first reaction that many people had to KONY2012 was this one, and it was what The Invisible Children were aiming for.
  • Negotiated reading. This is when people are not sure, they are sceptical. Persons who doubted the intentions of The Invisible Children belonged to this group.
  • Oppositional reading. They disagree with what is said. This was the reaction of many of the Ugandan citizens.

Mainstream media know this, and so did The Invisible Children. They knew that our understanding of what they produced “depended on shared knowledge, shared myths and shared ideologies” (Turnbull 2012), so they tried to tailor the message to satisfy our ideologies.


Turnbull, S 2012, BCM110 “Media Mythbusting: ‘The Image Cannot Lie”, lecture notes, accessed 4/5/2012, eLearning@UOW.

We very often hear about the effects of the media. “Watching television makes you fat”, “violent videogames trigger violence” and “advertising causes pester power”, it is all familiar to us. But can we really blame all of this on the media?

Of course, there will always be someone saying that these things are proven, that the media does influence the audience, but are they really? There is always an experiment where experts, most likely psyhologists, try to reveal the truth between causes and effects, but how can they manage to prove anything? There is not any evidence, it does not exist. Well, the first saying that I mentioned is fairly easy to prove wrong actually, watching TV does not make you fat; it is the lifestyle which might come with it. Sitting in a couch all day while eating can very well have an effect like weight-gaining.

But videogaming and advertising towards children are tougher issues to come around. This is not because there are more evidence proving that they cause effects on an audience, it is because there have always been anxieties, or call it moral panics, connected to these issues. We have always been afraid of the media, blaming it for our children being violent, for having bad language, for dressing improperly and even for making us spend more money when we shop. It is like we have always needed someone to blame for our misbehavior, and of course, the media is the perfect source for that.

So why are we afraid of violent videogames and movies? Now this is when the we might call the media the bad guy. It is because we have heard too many stories telling us that videogames and movies are on of the reasons for violence. There are, it is sad to say, many examples of murders where the murderer seem to have been playing violent videogames or watched a violent video, and therefore we automatically conclude that “violent videogames trigger violence”! There is the Jamie Bulger case from 1993, the Martin Bryant case in 1996 and actually today some people suggest that the murders committed by Anders Breivik in 2011 were influenced by him playing World of warcraft and Call of Duty-Modern Warfare.

These kinds of stories promote moral panics, but they do not prove that it is the case, they are just assumptions. We should look at other causes before we jump to conclusions like how were their childhoods? How about neglect, abuse, alcoholism or bullying? This can be just as valid reasons for aggression as videogames! We learn by watching other people, by rolemodels, by being given moral codes from adults. This is more than a supposable cause for an effect. I am afraid that this is a harder source to blame though; it is tougher to point a finger at parents and society than at the media.

Can you think of an issue which concern you a lot? Is there any matter in the public sphere in which you engage yourself and feel that change and/or control is needed? Politics, health, the environment, they are all examples of topics which can create moral panic in a society. Have you ever stopped to think why everyone is worrying or if there really is something to worry about? What is the source of moral panic?

Stanley Cohen (Turnbull 2012) defines moral panic as;

“…A condition, episodes, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values
and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people.”

One such condition can be body image. There is a lot of talk and discussions of “the ideal body” both in social conversations and in the media. Health has always been important to us, but recently it seem to me that being super sporty, eating right and having the perfect body has emerged as a trend in our society. During the last years everyone have got a membership at the gym, it is no longer only the pros who has expensive outfits for cycling-sports or jogging, we all have to buy the healthiest bottled water, sushi, herbs and nuts are required for us to be truly nutritious  and smokers are looked upon as aliens we have never seen before.

There is an obsession today about eating correct and being fit and it can be experienced as threatening to our social values and interests. Children are very often a reason to moral panic; what examples do we set for our children? All this talk about obesity and being healthy, how might it influence the thinking of a child? I believe mainstream media is a source of moral panic, and so is social media. In mainstream media there are “experts” telling us what and why, and they know how to push the right buttons to get us worried (as well as to listen to their solutions to the problems, aka advertising), and in addition to that we actively debate and share the same news on twitter and facebook. Are we not creating our own panic doing that? I would say at least we are contributing.

We also need to use our common sense. We do not seem to question what the media tells us or why it tells us the stories that it does, we just accept everything. Isn’t it funny how their stories might differ from day to day? Are we worrying about obesity or eating disorders? One day I hear that we are to busy with our careers so we only serve our children McDonalds and the other day I get the impression that “no carbs” are the only option on the menu! Somehow we do not seem to notice, but we discuss obesity and “too skinny models” over the same dinner without noticing, and after dinner we still run to the gym in panic not to keep in shape. Contributing? Yes.

We are the ones who sets examples to our children, not the media. We decide what we serve for dinner at home, not the media. There might be bad role models presented in the media, but we have the opportunity to teach them different, in the end it is us who decides if there is a reason for moral panic, not the media.


Turnbull, S 2012, BCM110 “Media Issues, Moral Panics and Assignments”, lecture notes, accessed 22/04/2012, eLearning@UOW.

It is funny with the public sphere. It is supposed to be a “space” or “place” where everyone are free to say their opinions and express themselves, somewhere where we all can debate on issues that are of concern to us and make the rest of the world conscious of our concerns. That is the ideal public sphere.

Where is this place? Is there really one such place where everyone is heard? Obviously there is no physical place in the world called the public sphere but our intentional sphere is in the media. Mainstream media are supposed to act as a news channel that listens to the public and share our views with the rest of the world. Is it really the case though? Do the media pick up on everyone’s concerns? Is everyone really being heard? I find that mainstream media fails as a public sphere. Rather than bringing other people’s messages across borders the mainstream media is promoting tailored and nicely packaged world views to us. Instead of informing us, they are teaching us, turning our public sphere into a monologue rather than a dialog.

When The Invisible Children released the KONY2012 video a lot of questions were raised in the world. There were different reactions to the video, its message, its content and the whole world wanted to discuss their concerns. The western media served us a mixed tape of news playing specialists opinions about money, facts and intentions. It took a whole week before they picked up on Al Jazeera’s view about the Ugandan people, empathy and real experiences. So the mainstream media is not doing a good job serving the public sphere, it basically fails to pick up concerns outside the western world.

Luckily, thanks to the internet and social media, we now have an opportunity to shape a new public sphere. By using Twitter, Facebook, blogging and vlogging members of the public sphere can take the responsibility in their own hands and share their concerns with the rest of the world instantly. There are no filters, no gatekeepers, only the voices of the public sphere. I find this sphere much more enlightening and informative. I believe that with social media our voices are stronger and more clear to the rest of the world. There is still a problem in this public sphere though; Digital divides. The picture below is meant to demonstrate the interest in the Kony-issue by region and date, but can it also be a demonstration of the digital divide in the world?

Reference: Dreher, T 2012, BCM110 "Global Issues, Global Media", lecture notes, accessed 08/04/2012, eLearning@UOW.

Reference: Dreher, T 2012, BCM110 "Global Issues, Global Media", lecture notes, accessed 08/04/2012, eLearning@UOW.

Not all citizens in the public sphere have digital access, some people lack digital skills and others lack money to access the digital world. We must struggle to find a way to solve this digital divide. I think having a citizenship in the world of social media gives us a strong voice and helps us having a true public sphere.

The term “slacktivism” has been discussed a lot in relation to KONY2012. It is funny really, if you Google the word, most hits are connected to the KONY issue! So what is it really? One definition from Wikipedia goes like this: “Slacktivism (…) is a term formed out of the words slacker and activism. The word is usually considered a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other that to make the person doing it feel satisfaction.”

This definition puts the so-called “slackers” in a bad light, to be honest; I think the word “slacker” does so too. It basically says that persons not doing more than sharing a link about an issue is not doing this to support the issue but for the sole reason that he or she want to feel good about themselves. I actually do not understand why we have such a word, the more I think about it, I feel like we are having double standards. The rise of social media has been a hot topic in recent years and it still is. Everyone is starting to realize what power lies in the hands of “the people formally known as the audience” as (Jay Rosen). There are thoughts of mainstream media not being needed anymore because with social media we have created a more informative public sphere.  We have even witnessed regimes  fall to the ground due to use of social media (The Arab Spring).

What I do not like is that being an “activist” is seen as better than a “slacktivist”. Maybe it is mainstream media way of suppressing and badmouthing the new social media..? I would say that in both cases people are showing their support for a certain issue. When I first shared the KONY2012 video on Facebook I thought to myself that it would help spread the message, which were the point of the campaign. People tend to think that there is not much they can do to make a difference in the world, that they are just one person and that no one will hear them anyway. Clicking that one button to share something they find important might be the “only” thing they feel they can do.

Technology today is saying otherwise, it is saying that we CAN be heard, that we CAN make a difference. With media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, one voice can turn into 1 million voices in just a week. The KONY2012 video was, after my opinion, an online activist campaign. It definitely created awareness in the world, both good and bad, which is an activists goal. It created a reaction and according to the Herald Sun and CNN perhaps it also made someone take action. I think it is the new way of activism. Does it have to be rebellious, violent and messy before it can be called real activism? Everything is changing with the social media. Everything is going from being analog to being digital, so why not activism as well.

Sam de Brito wrote a column in the Sydney Morning Herald about slacktivism and the KONY2012 issue. I think it was really good and gives young people with good intentions some well deserved credit.