Representation and Journalism
Representation and Journalism
- Toussaint NothiasToussaint NothiasCenter for African Studies, Stanford University
The concept of representation is a cornerstone of the field of cultural studies. Representations are symbols, signs, and images used to communicate and construct meaning. They are at stake in a variety of fundamental cognitive processes such as perception and imagination. Language, for instance, is based on a system of representation where words stand for something else, such as an object or an idea. Representations are thus central to the process by which individuals and societies make sense of the world, assign meaning, and delineate norms, rules, and identities.
Journalism is a key site of production of representations. Unlike most other fields of cultural production, journalism is grounded in a regime of truth: it claims to represent the world as it is. Scholars interested in representation and journalism have largely opposed those claims. Journalism always involves covering certain events over others. News stories necessarily prioritize certain frames, voices, and contextual information, which creates peculiar kinds of representations. Those representations are constrained by the working conditions of journalists, but they are also shaped by broader political, economic, cultural, and historical contexts. In that sense, journalism creates representations but also reproduces representations that exist elsewhere in society.
Because the concept of representation points toward broader social forces involved in meaning construction, it has largely been used to explore the operations of power. Instead of asking “is any given representation true?” cultural studies scholars have been more interested in asking “how do relationships of power, domination, and inequality shape representations?” As a result of its development in the field of cultural studies, the study of representation has largely been oriented towards questions of inequalities and identity, most notably gender, race, ethnicity, and class.
With regard to the study of representation and journalism, three broad areas of inquiries are delineated. The first concerns how journalism represents different social groups, places, events, and issues through its coverage. This literature is wide and covers a range of issues in both domestic and international coverage. Most of those studies focus on the linguistic, rhetorical, and visual properties of media texts to deconstruct the ideological operations behind what often appears natural and common sense in the news. Another strand of research looks at similar issues of representation but in the context of journalistic production. In particular, these studies centralize the importance of who makes the news to understand the peculiar representations that journalism ultimately produces. Often relying on surveys, statistical data, or ethnography, these have contributed to an understanding of issues such as gender inequalities and lack of diversity in newsrooms. A final—and more discreet—literature investigates how journalism itself is represented in popular culture. Novels, films, television, commercials, cartoons, art, and video games routinely construct representations of journalism and journalists. These representations play a role in shaping popular mythologies around journalism and its role in society.
- Journalism Studies