The Migration of News Images

Communication, in general, and news coverage, in particular, has some of the characteristics of a caste or class system in which people and things are depicted positively or negatively, depending on the values they are seen as embodying. This class system has its privileged elites and its oppressed classes. It has a place for everyone and puts everyone in their place, even if that place can change over periods of time. Thus, the image of Mother Teresa is always enhanced; the image of Zhirinovsky is always attacked in the American news media, and treated as an object of ridicule. Dan Quayle gets one kind of treatment, C. Everett Koop gets another.

Below, some of the characteristics of this hierarchy will be described, as it exists in the national news media, today. Then some complicating factors will be thrown in, so we can see how image-treatment can change, depending on when it takes place and who is behind it.

The Privileged Class: Heroes and Saints

At the pinnacle of America’s news hierarchy when it comes to image treatment are all the people, institution, objects and ideas that are portrayed as the most moral, the most competent, the most desirable, and so on, and who receive little or not discrediting attention. This is the heaven of good publicity reserved for society's heroes, sacred objects and sentimental favorites that are expected to receive praise and special respect when their image makes a guest appearance in the news, usually because of some moral quality, or, at times, some ability or social status. Journalists are under pressure to create images of these people that are dripping with credibility. Mother Teresa, war heroes, the American flag, D-Day, those viewed as great leaders of the past - the Abraham Lincoln's and George Washington's of history - and many (not all) of the recently deceased, among others, are treated like sacred objects, with the right to expect they will be idealized and their image enhanced. What the sociologist Erving Goffman says about social interaction - that we often try to protect each other from losing face - is here carried to the extreme. The face of sacred news objects is protected, enhanced and even bolstered when it is in danger of falling. It is possible, in some instances, to engage in discrediting attacks on any of these, but they must be limited in scope and are not supposed to challenge the news saint or hero's overall status. The news can note that Thomas Jefferson kept slaves but must, at least implicitly, acknowledge him as a great leader and freedom fighter, founder of democracy and so on. What it can't do is refer to his overall role in American history as that of a white capitalist imperialist intent on the subjugation of native peoples. That might be acceptable and even required in other media outlets - say a publication of the far left - but in the national news media, such statements mean the crossing of the waters into the realm of what is taboo.

Lesser Saints and Heroes

Directly below the news saints and heroes are the lesser heroes, and favorites of the public and/or the news media and/or political elites, who also receive positive image treatment and must still be largely praised or, at least, not severely criticized. C. Everett Koop would be one such figure, despite and, to a degree, because of the attacks he was subjected to by Christian conservatives angry at his policies as surgeon general. Koop is depicted as embodying a particular set of qualities: he is an authority figure who is competent, humane and can be trusted and relied on, the national doctor as grandfather, who is seen as above the fray.

Off Limits

Another category is the safety zone containing subjects who have reason to appear in the news but who are off limits to attack, usually because an attack can't be justified or because the recipient is protected by a vocal group of defenders in the public. The news media is under pressure to go along with the image these people present, providing them a temporary Teflon coating, whatever it knows or suspects, which stops it from doing what comes naturally - assertive questioning, probing for weakness and so on. In effect, the press treats these Teflon holders with the submissiveness and deference people often use with each other in everyday life, even while reserving the right to test the limits with joking put-downs and other parenthetical attacks.

Journalists may not be required to explicitly enhance the credibility of these individuals, but they can't go too far in challenging it either and, inevitably, there is a certain image enhancement as a result. Witnesses to newsworthy incidents; members of the public who are interviewed for their opinions, experts who appear as a guest on a news show, children, and some former politicians fit into this category.

Fair Game

Most news subjects are stuck in the next category, the purgatory reserved for everyone and everything considered "fair game," by virtue of a temporary or permanent role in public life, whose status is in dispute. Many, including politicians and celebrities, enjoy the fruits of power and publicity and, as the hunting metaphor implies, journalists reserve the right to probe beneath image, engage in more or less polite cross examination and discredit when these people stumble. The greater the power, the fairer may be the game. In the United States, the president is the fairest game of all, receiving the most scrutiny and the least protection from libel law, even while his rank elicits special idealized treatment when it comes to the formalities.

Those who are fair game may be the subject of all kinds of praise or criticism; to some they are saints, to others sinners, differences that news coverage is allowed to recognize. Given the intensely partisan nature of American politics, virtually everyone who enters public on one side or another is soon transported into this category. But this category already includes a strong hint that these people are at least partially discredited. The press and political opponents, after all, are perpetually trying to drag these people down to lower levels. The news media usually conveys the idea to audiences that those who are fair game have engaged in unethical acts, but they are the acts virtually all other public figures in their class are committing, as well. In effect, we are dealing here with the discredited view of politics itself and of politicians as people who, it is assumed, lie, manipulate and fail to keep their promises.

Image Collapse

As we descend into the nether reaches, we come to a realm occupied by those who have suffered a partial collapse of credibility. Some have been found guilty but their crime isn't bad enough to warrant complete discredit. In other instances, there may be widespread disagreement over how discrediting their act was or if it was discrediting at all or if the individual is guilty of the crime or there may be disagreement over whether the information is relevant to public life or to that person's position in it.

For some in this category, image is under active attack, but nothing is decided, a subcategory that includes those in the early stages of the death watch that occurs when public figures are nearing a critical mass of image-loss when they must be exiled from power. Gary Hart is among the partially discredited, a man to whom many Americans have mixed and mixed up feelings, a public figure who epitomizes problem-solving and failed promise, vision and blindness, victimization and self-destruction. He might well be permitted high positions but if he tried to run again for president, the discrediting attacks would start all over again.


At the bottom of the hierarchy, is the hell of bad publicity reserved for society's scapegoats and villains, who are perceived to have violated a valued rule of conduct. Scapegoats are the inverse of society's heroes. They are subject to ridicule, innuendoes, investigations and implied or stated accusations of wrongdoing, depending on the severity of the crime. The scapegoat has already been found guilty and there is widespread agreement that what he did was wrong; the image he presents has been stripped away and replaced by another that society believes to be more true. If he tries to present a more favorable image, the attempt will be viewed as an act of hypocrisy or a cover-up.

Scapegoats are often portrayed as wrongdoers, less often as clowns, and, not infrequently, as in the case of James Watt and Tammy Faye Bakker, or Zhirinovsky, as both at once. Their discredited image is often a caricature that sums up a social evil and provides a window into the values and perceived evils of an age. Like the seven deadly sins, there are a limited number of scapegoat images, but an infinite number of permutations and combinations, raising the possibility that we can create a master list of basic forms of failure or wrongdoing that can be combined and recombined to create the actual images in society and the news. These, in turn, can to some extent be correlated with the kinds of competence and goodness exemplified by society's heroes. Such a list can be created for different societies and different groups of people, to provide a window into the structure of different orders of value.

From among this reverse pantheon, we can see that Leona Helmsley symbolizes arrogant, corrupt wealth that believes it is above the law; Zsa Zsa Gabor, for a while, anyway, symbolized arrogance and frivolousness. Dan Quayle symbolizes pathetic incompetence. Willie Horton symbolized the evil of violent criminals and of out-of-touch bureaucrats who let lawbreakers walk the streets and destroy the lives of innocent people. (Later, as a result of the efforts of Democrats, he came to symbolize, for some, the manipulativeness of a Republican administration, that was prepared to use racist appeals and divide the nation, to win elections.) Zhirinovsky is depicted as symbolizing fanatical intolerance and demagoguery, and has been used (as shown elsewhere) to symbolize what some in the American news media see as the dangers in the Russian "soul".

As suggested above, when we see these categories in operation, they are always embodied in specific character types, who represent specific categories of good and bad, positive and negative value. As in much else that is described here, we can do a taxonomy of these character types, to get at a more detailed map of that aspect of the moral and social order which is expressed in news or other communications. There are celebrities who embody glamour; rich people who embody wealth; hypocrites; rescuers who embody heroism; boors who embody incivility; racists who embody bigotry; discriminators; creative geniuses; scientists; entertainers; scholars; geniuses; 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.

This caste system of image in the news is one part of the larger system that exists in all society. As a result of this system, the stock of all of us goes up and down in the eyes of co-workers, family and friends. Offices have their scapegoats and heroes. In everyday conversation, we mix up the categories, complimenting one moment, discrediting the next, making false compliments and casting deliberate discredit on our own action by facial expressions. The larger culture, as well as various subcultures have their heroes and villains and forms of action that receive praise and discredit, through all information channels, not just the news media. But in everyday life, our images play on a vastly smaller stage, and usually with less consequence.

These caste systems are held in place by what one might term a semi-permanent scaffolding, which consists, first of all of a certain amount of agreement over the rules, which determine what kinds of action and qualities will go into what category and how they will be treated, based on shared norms and values. In other words, it is held in place by shared orders of value. To put it in simple and commonsense terms, in America stealing is seen as immoral and it is discredited. Those who are shown to steal are themselves portrayed as bad and thus, discredited. Helping the poor is seen as good and gets credit. The Mother Teresa's of the world get the credit for enacting these ideals in their lives. In each case, the specific actions are seen as instances as more general values, and are treated accordingly.

The semi-permanent scaffolding is also built out of the fact that many individuals, organizations, ideas, etc. that have received placement, by a consensus, tend to retain their placement for certain periods of time. There is a kind of inertia at work both in determining the general categories and the placement of specific people and things within it. Those who have been treated as if they are located in a category will often be treated in future actions as if they belong there, as well, until circumstances change. News images may be reincarnated with each new story but they still must pay for the sins of the past. Those who have been blamed yesterday will likely be blamed today and tomorrow, although retirement and time have a way of turning yesterday's sinners into today's partial news saints, as Richard Nixon knew and ultimately proved.

Despite a certain degree of stability, the system still involves a good deal of change, as circumstances change and people act in ways that evoke reactions. At any one time, a certain number of people are undergoing partial or complete, forced or chosen "migrations" into other categories. These make up a percentage of breaking news, as lawmakers are caught in improprieties, lawbreakers are exposed, leaders create popular movements, presidents win wars or stumble, and both politicians and the press probe for weak points they can use to embarrass other politicians.

NASA was off limits for most of its career, because it was viewed as epitomizing America's greatness and American values of efficiency, courage, and exploration of the frontier. It was a patriotic icon. After the Challenger disaster, it underwent a forced migration to the fair game category and its administration was subject to extensive scrutiny. Once the press believed it had discrediting information on Dan Quayle's entry into the National Guard, in the 1988 election, he was herded into the scapegoat category and the feeding frenzy started, with aggressive interviews, mocking news stories and late night talk show jokes.

These placements also change over time, because the credit-discredit system – the value order and its rules of placement -- change. Christopher Columbus' stock goes down a little; that of the Indians goes up, because of new information, changed circumstances and new perspectives created by political battles. New information alone may alter the system, of course, but this process, itself, may be intensely political, in which new information is sought after or publicized specifically to change the system, or in conformance with a changed system's rules of credit and discredit, and its rewards and punishments.

As noted, the so-called scaffolding that has been described doesn't exist outside human action and perceptions. It is created anew out of all the actions take by all the players in the system and retains its force as a result of human memory and the persistence of personality traits, which leads individuals to repeat their actions. Most of it is based on thoughts and "computations," that are unconscious, not avowed or not consciously symbolized in words by most participants most of the time. Generally the computations by which journalists decide treatment, using this knowledge, are also made outside consciousness, although many participants are aware of an unsystematic version of this information at various times.

Thus, every time a journalist is to cover someone in the news, he or she must engage in various computations, to determine how he can and must and must not credit and discredit that person. This is part of a larger class of computations he makes in which he determines how to portray people and situations in general – what story to tell about them. For the journalist, one of the relevant questions is: who is the real and potential audience, consisting not only of those who would normally read, hear or watch the story, but also any groups that might become aware of what has been asserted and seek to praise or criticize the story, as a result. After all, it is the value orders of the audiences that will determine public reactions to what the journalists writes, says and shows.

In making these decisions, the journalist must determine what the recipients did (the facts); where it fits into the scheme of values that are being used to evaluate them; and what scheme(s) of values will be used. To engage in these computations, the journalist relies on a set of rules, learned throughout life, including on the job. He also relies on recent and current decisions made by others about the rules and about how that particular person fits in them. We can reconstruct all this by examining the journalist’s creations. We can also interview and study journalists (and other communicators) to learn about the thought processes they go through in creating stories.

What is essential is that the system is held in check by a powerful incentive: journalists who obey the rules get to play a privileged role, in which they help create the system while either remaining largely invisible, as with reporters who rarely appear in their own or other journalists' news stories, or always in the offensive position, as with television interviewers. Those who violate the rules or are perceived to have done so by a vocal group or individual, are themselves subjected to discrediting attacks. An interviewer who aggressively questions a nun in a television feature about her volunteer work or who implies a senator has committed a crime, despite a lack of anything that would count as evidence, will be perceived as a bully and himself subject to discrediting attacks. At the other extreme, a journalist who fails to discredit a scapegoat may also come under attack. Criticizing Mother Teresa may not be allowed but neither is not criticizing violent drug dealers, if one is to mention them in a report. When journalists cross a line, they can quickly become the issue.

The journalist is also constrained by the kind of journalism he or she is defined as doing. A front-page news story, by definition, is expected to stay relatively close to the facts and tell the various sides, without engaging in obvious attacks on one party in a local dispute. If it departs from this ideal, it had better do so do under effective disguise. An editorial cartoonist has no such constraints.

Within this vast arena of rules and people ready to enforce them, journalists still have a great deal of maneuvering room, which many use to advantage, so long as they know when there is maneuvering room and when their isn't. They can choose to highlight one set of facts or one videotape over another; they can, to some degree, choose to cover one story but not another; they can choose one adjective over another or use the ambiguities of language that allow them, for example, to overtly praise while covertly damning. They also, as suggested above, engage in all kinds of acts of credit and discredit which aren’t acknowledged and may reflect, not a consensus in much of the audience, but there own views or the views of their news organization or some combination thereof.

News personalities and some sections or news organization often turn their approach to issues of image into a distinctive style, which is part of their appeal. Thus, by virtue of personality and his professional judgment, Larry King approaches interviewing as a nonconfrontational, cooperative enterprise and prefers to treat everyone as off limits or worthy of high respect, even when he is asking somewhat probing questions, thus garnering viewers tired of all the animosity of regular news and also attracting guests who otherwise might avoid being interviewed. Sam Donaldson used to treat many interviewees as if they were at least partially discredited, if he believed he could get away with it. And he would similarly try to push them further down into those categories.

This caste system of image treatment is connected to other caste systems, including those based on who can and must appear in the news and one on who will help shape the news. Thus, the president has the right to appear a great deal, but no right to not appear a great deal. Most private citizens have no right to appear but a right to not appear in most instances, being defined as officially irrelevant or out of range. They have the right to stay out of sight of the cameras and protect their image, and the news media has the right to ignore them. Not surprisingly, journalists are usually considered officially irrelevant or off limits by other journalists, a professional courtesy borne of mutual self-interest.

Of course, what has been described here is a simplification. In the complex world even of the news media, many media organizations have their own caste systems of image treatment, depending on a range of issues, including their political ideology, the subjects they cover and how aggressively they cover the news.

And even though these general categories exist, most references to news figures are full of all kinds of nuances and shadings. Journalists can enhance one part of someone or some idea, event or group of people, while attacking another part. They can do one thing one day and something else the next. One kind of news product can do one thing; another kind another. They can attack one aspect of an action while enhancing another aspect of the same action. They can say the means were creditable but the end deserves discredit; or the end was creditable but the means deserve discredit. Similarly, the press or other politicians may discredit the actions of someone, but not challenge their larger status.

In addition, it should be noted that many acts of image treatment are based on the instrumental manipulation of values. Here, journalists don’t treat someone as a scapegoat or saint because they believe them to be so, based on their own values. Rather, they do so to create an exciting story or get a political enemy or merely because they know the audience will demand this treatment. Thus, investigative television news shows are forever looking for and creating villains, so they can have exciting investigative stories to offer the audience.

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