The Elements of Image Construction

Imagine, for a moment, that three people, who will be referred to as A, B and C, are standing at the coffee machine, during a break in the office routine. Suddenly A turns to B and, within hearing distance, of C, says that C still can't figure out how to work the computer at his desk. A and B laugh at the remark, while C's face gets red, and he sarcastically says: "Right."

In such a situation, in which all the interactants are on the scene, reacting to each other, it is obvious that what A has done is a kind of action, although it is carried out only using words. At the most obvious level, A has acted in an aggressive way toward C; he has attacked C's reputation, by constructing a negative image of C as being deficient in competence, and by implying that it may reveal a larger deficiency. A has also acted to put himself in a dominant position in regard to C, implying that C is somehow of lesser stock than he and B, an action that becomes more obvious if we go with common usage and describe A as putting C down.

In addition, A invites B to join in this little degradation ceremony and, in so doing, excludes C from the particular embodiment of the class of more competent employees found in A and B. B, in turn, joins A in attacking, putting down and excluding C, by laughing in a way that expresses agreement with A's portrayal of C. In the process, B also affirms A, validating him as a social being whose perception is correct and whose claim to be both amusing and socially dominant, is correct, as well.

Both A and B act in still another way, by trying to evoke a response from C that includes embarrassment, feelings of inadequacy and, presumably, anger. Similarly, C acts, trying, inadequately, as it turns out, to counter-attack and discredit the remark, with his sarcastic enunciation of the word: "Right," which is supposed to mean "Wrong," and which is also intended to construct a particular image of A and B as people whose perceptions are off the mark.

This situation, like most situations that involve two or more people, is thick with action and interaction. And, as in most situations, what the interactants are doing is constructing an image of themselves and others as having certain kinds of traits - an image that affects the thoughts of all involved and thus, has the potential to alter the way each is perceived.

News stories are similarly thick with action and interaction, and in the same way: they use words, as well as pictures and sounds, to create images that portray people in a certain manner, for the benefit of audiences, and, in so doing, they affect the status of those they portray. In fact, the hypothetical situation described above is a good model for what goes on in news stories. The news media, in this case, is A, making statements that create or construct an image of other people, C, for an audience, which corresponds to B.

The difference is that in news stories, the people involved are often not in the same place or time when the actions occur. A, the journalist, may create a news story portraying B, well after having contact with B, if indeed, he makes contact at all. The journalist is also usually separated from the audience, in space and, often, in time, since an audience consisting of a large number of people may receive the news story through simultaneous, multiple transmission, which is to say, through broadcast of taped or live material, or via a published newspaper or magazine. Despite this separation, the journalist still acts toward those he covers and toward his audience, and all parties may react, as well, though none of the parties are necessarily in each other's presence. Indeed a journalist may communicate an image of someone long dead, and the communication may one day be seen by an audience not yet born at the time the creation, which may stop some of the parties from reacting to each other's actions, but not stop the communication - or the action - from taking place.

So this basic interactional form - of A acting toward B and C, by creating an image of C for the benefit of B - is a good model of news, and indeed, of all communication that involves the construction of images.

This model can, very generally, be said to have two aspects. On the one hand, it treats A’s utterance as a narrative or story, with a plot, setting and characterization. Seen from this perspective, A is like an author who has created a character, C, for the benefit of his audience, B. The "C" referred to, here, isn’t the person C who overhears the remark and responds. Rather, it is the idea of C -- C1 -- that is created or invented by A for his story.

But the minute we begin asking questions about what A is up to, and what B and C are up to in their responses, we move beyond seeing A’s utterance as a narrative, and we see it as a form of action and interaction. It is an attempt to do something very directly – to embarrass, put down, look good, socially bond with B, and so on.

It is the purpose of this book to study these elements, and understand communications – especially media communications – both as narratives and as forms of action. As we will see, it is the connection between the two where much of the essence and meaning of communication can be found.

The Mechanics of Image Construction

As we begin to examine the "mechanics" of constructing these images or characterizations, one of the most basic things we find is that a communicator has one of three options. He (or she) can:

* construct an image of himself, or someone or something else, that is intended to be viewed with negative regard by audiences in order to "attack" or "discredit" the person or recipient of the image construction.

* construct an image of himself, or someone or something else, that is intended to be viewed with positive regard by audiences, in order to enhance the image.

* construct an image of himself, or someone or something else, that is intended to be viewed with positive regard by audiences (or is intending to be viewed as more positive or less negative than other acts of image construction), in order to defend the image.

These latter two possibilities, which involve enhancing or defending, will be referred to as efforts to "credit" an image.*

The list of things that can be enhanced, defended and attacked (credited or discredited), first and foremost includes people; but also natural and humanly-made objects, including works of art; groups, including institutions and nations; events; dangers; forms of practice; philosophies and ideas, and places. We can enhance, defend or attack specific people, objects, et al, or kinds of people and objects, et al. For ease of reference, all of the actual people and so on, will be referred to as "recipients", since they are on the receiving end of an action in which their image is constructed or in which they are portrayed a certain way.

If the communicator is referring to actions involving a person or people, the image can be credited or discredited, using statements that have various degrees of explicitness. Although these are somewhat obvious, they bear spelling out: one way to credit or discredit someone is to simply refer to actions he (or she) engaged in, with the assumption that the audience will perceive these as creditable or discreditable and will, thus, also view the person as creditable or discreditable for engaging in those actions. The image constructor can also explicitly state that the action is creditable or discreditable, and he can also make the fact that he is crediting or discrediting the person, explicit. There are also various degrees to which these can be done.

These can be put in a more formal fashion. Here, an act of discredit, concerning an action (B1) engaged in by person (B), will be used as an example:

A discredits the action B1 only by describing B1, and assumes that the audience will view B1 with discredit and also view person B with discredit, for carrying out B1.

A discredits action B1 by describing B1, and also by explicitly noting that B1 is discreditable, but still assumes that the audience will, on its own, view person B with discredit for carrying out B1.

A discredits action B1 by describing B1, and also by noting that B1 is discreditable, and by stating that person B is discreditable for having engaged in it.

In the last two instances, A can discredit action B1 and or person B by describing it/him neutrally and then by describing it/him as discreditable, or by melding the description and judgment into the same language. This melding of description and judgment is, in fact, a common state of affairs, since many words that describe action also contain an obvious judgment in them.

Of course, in communications, even the description may be implied, rather than explicit. A look that says "stop that" implicitly creates an image of what the person is doing and where it belongs in the order of values, as part of an effort to control that person. Generally, when we communicate, we imply all kinds of facts and values about ourselves and others.

Image constructions can also refer to attributes of persons and to longer term characteristics. And the same elements can go into communications about recipients other than people. We can describe attributes of places or ideas or objects, for example. We can credit or discredit specific aspects, such as specific outcomes of plans, or more general characteristics, and the communication will involve the same elements.

The Order of Values

There is no question why all of these acts of crediting and discrediting play such an important role in social interaction. It is because audience members have, and share, emotionally-laden ideas that are part of their minds or personalities, about what is valued or devalued and negatively valued. Typically, these ideas are encoded as binary oppositions: moral/immoral; beautiful/ugly, competent/ incompetent; important/unimportant; relevant/irrelevant; desirable/undesirable; kind/cruel, and so on.

Ideas that are listed here on the left side of the binary pairs are seen as positive and are valued; those on the right are negatively valued and/or devalued. To discredit is to portray a recipient as having characteristics located on the right -- immorality, incompetence, and so on. To credit is to portray a recipient as having characteristics located on the left.

Audience members share these systems of binary opposites or "orders of value" to varying degrees. A great many audience members will agree, for example, that unprovoked killing is wrong. But some may view one kind of action as a sufficient provocation; others will see another kind of action as sufficient. So we will have two orders of values. Since specific audiences will share a great many of these judgments, it becomes possible for communicators to predict reactions and communicate accordingly.*

When a portrayal or act of image construction is successful, it will evoke reactions from audiences in the form of ideas, beliefs, emotions, fears and desires. It will evoke positive reactions when the portrayal is on the left and negative reactions when it is on the right, and these, in turn, may affect the status of the recipient. Thus, those portrayed as competent may be trusted and respected by audiences, those portrayed as incompetent may be ridiculed and mistrusted; the desirable may be sought after, the undesirable may be excluded and ignored.

Some of these reactions involve fundamental psychological processes that operate in all communications. Among these: we tend to identify and empathize with, and feel good about, those viewed as having characteristics on the left, and we tend to perceive those we identify and empathize with and feel good about as having characteristics on the left. We "dis-identify" with or reject and feel negatively about those perceived as having characteristics on the right, and we tend to react to those we dis-identify with, with rejections and negative feelings. In short, these depictions based on value are interwoven with the ultimate binary pair, of love and hate, of taking in and expelling, based on primitive narcissistic reactions.

In fact, images with characteristics that are valued or devalued or negatively valued are permeated by emotion. These aren't merely cognitive processes that evoke emotions. The emotions are themselves, a part of the image, since all images ultimately appear only as part of our mental states and perceptions.

In the case of the communications that are engaged in by the news media, the portrayals or acts of image construction in stories typically affect the opinions of audiences that have the power to affect a recipient's fate - voters, presidents who make appointments, Justice Department attorneys with the power to initiate investigations, and so on. These acts of image construction may also have other, more instrumental effects, which won't be examined, here, such as tipping off adversaries of a recipient's plans and strategies.

Image construction thus involves creating a positive or negative image of someone or something, crediting or discrediting by referring to the location of actions and attributes in binary pairs of value, all of which has its effect by evoking reactions from audiences.

Put another way, acts of credit and discredit involve two kinds of communications, which refer to "facts" and judgments. The first, involving "facts", consists of specific characterizations: what did the person do, how did he do it; and so on. The second refers to the qualities judged to be embodied in the specific characterization: were these actions competent or incompetent, constructive or destructive, moral or immoral, and so on.

Thus, to create an image, a communicator has to ask himself at least two questions: what was done and how does it fit into the order of values that, presumably, journalists and audience share. (An assumption will be made that they share these perceptions, for now, to simplify the description.)

Although description and value judgment are often interwoven, as noted previously, it is important to think about them as separate elements of meaning, since different value judgments can be attached to the same description, and different descriptions can evoke the same value judgment. A person may be described as having told the truth about where political dissidents are hiding, for example, but in one portrayal this may be referred to as an act of infamy; in another, as an act of patriotism, depending on the value judgments of communicators and audiences.

A communication about value judgments can also include a number of more specific elements. It can explain:

* to what degree the person (et al) manifests these qualities: is he only slightly or occasionally negligent or negligent all the time; is she impolite or egregiously rude; is he intelligent or a genius.

* to what degree are these qualities valued or negatively valued, by the relevant audience -- in effect, to what degree do audiences approve or disapprove of these qualities. Incompetence at riding a skateboard meets with a very different level of disapproval than incompetence at being president.

With both of these questions, there is already a degree of quantity involved in which we are concerned not merely with specifics but with the degree something is engaged in and valued/negatively valued. That means that these qualities can, in some sense, be "added up" in a rough emotional calculus, to create overall impressions that audiences will have about the degree to which someone belongs, in general, on the left or right side of the scale of binary pairs.

In addition, these characterizations concerning value may present a mix of positive, neutral and negative qualities. An action may be portrayed as incompetent but well intended and of little consequence; as competent and dangerously evil; as displaying talent but socially inept, and so on. Thus, in creating an image, the communicator is locating the person or action, in more than one location, on a complex map of values, and may trying to evoke a nuanced combination of positive and negative responses from the audience.

In any case, it is the admixture of these two elements of meaning, describing the "facts" of something and how it is valued, that gives us the types we know from social life: there are liars and lies; bumbling bureaucrats and their mistakes; well-intentioned, interfering do-gooders; celebrities who embody glamour; rich people who embody wealth; hypocrites; rescuers who embody heroism; boors who embody ignorant incivility; racists who embody bigotry; creative geniuses; scientists; entertainers; scholars; honest brokers; philanderers; perverts; criminals of all sorts; absolute ghouls; traitors; whistleblowers; negotiators; entrepreneurs; dictators; corrupt politicians; demonstrators; saints; benefactors; selfish brats; and so forth. As will be examined later, people who fit into these types get placed in various hierarchies of image treatment, and they often "migrate" between various levels, as news narratives and other communications about their actions unfold over time.

Image and Person

Image is composed of all these elements. But it is also something larger – it is about an overall impression we form - this person ( or idea or form of practice) is good or bad, desirable or undesirable, important or unimportant. Ultimately, what we are dealing with is a basic perception about other people's value - about their worthiness and what can be referred to as their symbolic or social size. One might call it their status, but when we perceive people, there is a feeling we have of a direct relation to them - we are experiencing and judging them directly, not merely observing their place in a social hierarchy, much as that might affect how we perceive them.

Thus, when an individual’s actions or motives or characteristics are credited and discredited, the communications aren’t just about whether it was right to take this trip at taxpayer expense or run that campaign ad, or whether a statement is honest or dishonest. There is usually a sense that it is about the person or persons who engaged in the action, or are said to have the characteristic or motive.

Actions and characteristics are viewed as reflecting on persons for the obvious reason that we assume that people have selves, one per person, and their actions, unless we have reason to believe otherwise, are an expression of their selves. They, in turn, must take responsibility for their actions. Thus, a discrediting attack on an action may discredit the action, but the real point is often that it discredits the person (although, of course, it may have other purposes, such as trying to stop others from engaging in the same action in the future.)

It should also be noted that the values we invest in people and in other elements of the world have many of the qualities of a single medium, such that one can often (not always) be exchanged for the other. Someone can fail as a musician and succeed as a painter, and get pretty much the same kind of credit for it. So image is a fungible property: it is a generalized medium of reputation that is filled in with sometimes interchangeable particulars.

As a result, people who are credited with many different kinds of accomplishment, including politicians, authors, scientists, and performers, may share a similar degree of symbolic size and worthiness, a fact we partly recognize by referring to them as celebrities. Similarly, different kinds of works of art may be judged to have a similar aesthetic value and different forms of heroism may be seen as having a similar degree of moral worth.

Thus, most often, what we credit and discredit are people -- selves -- who we invest with general feelings about worthiness and symbolic size. Whether we count that as one medium or two media, it is obvious that this is based on basic psychological processes that are part of the functioning of mind.


* A more complete description of the system of values is given in the section "The Value Orders of Society."

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