‘Truth’ Is in the Eye of the Beholder; How Things Are Represented in the Mass Media Often Depends on Where Political and Economic Power Lies, Writes Saliem Fakir

Cape Times (South Africa), March 6, 2007 | Go to article overview

‘Truth’ Is in the Eye of the Beholder; How Things Are Represented in the Mass Media Often Depends on Where Political and Economic Power Lies, Writes Saliem Fakir


We live in a world saturated with imagery. But images do not exist neutrally as they mediate our impressions of the world. Images both unearth and hide things. They are like words, pliable in the hands of the handler.

Images of war tend to have this property, as audiences rely on the authority of the media and government to tell the truth, and in war governments usually have a monopoly over what news gets to us from the frontline. Wars are as much won on the ground as they are in the minds of people – and so governments have an interest in portraying positive images of the conduct of war.

Susan Sontag provides an apt appraisal of the problem with pictures, she writes: “The limit of photographic knowledge of the world is that, while it can goad conscience, it can, finally, never be ethical or political knowledge.” (On Photography)

By far television and film have displaced all other forms of written or electronic media as the mainstays of our knowledge about the world, especially political knowledge.

One of the foremost scholars of television media, Neil Postman, writing on this subject in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, suggests that television has created a new symbolic culture that displaces the role of direct speech and the power of written media on our cultural imagination.

Postman suggests that, given how television rules so much of our lives, it is no longer what Orwell once suggested, “Big Brother” watching us, it is us watching “Big Brother”.

Contemporary political culture is a product of mass media and understanding its power helps us to understand how our political views are shaped by it. Images, too, are not simply just creations of the men and women behind media production – images are also often rooted in popular prejudice that has been passed on from one generation to another.

These prejudices are given enhanced effect by the mass media and what Postman calls universal resonance that with time become staple ways of seeing and believing. They are, in fact, assimilated as truths about objects, people, or events in a way that renders their use as having no relation to real objects and people with time.

Racial prejudice, fears about foreigners, stereotypes about other people’s culture and caricatures about nations feed visual imagery, and they in turn are reflected back to us reinforcing our views and perceptions towards a particular direction.

The viewer of the image does not come to a picture with first-hand knowledge of the image’s context, placement in reality, who took the photo, why, and why out of all those possible photos snapped with the fast-moving aperture of the camera the one we see was particularly chosen. What did the editor have in mind? What impression were they trying to bring across?

Yet, the viewer is made to feel, through this sudden levitation into hyper-reality, as if they were witnessing the real thing. There is the illusion of connecting, of knowing, of being informed.

Recently, this very non-neutrality of images was demonstrated when certain segments of South African society reacted with emotion and anger to the picture of Tony Yengeni standing with sword in hand ready to lunge at a bull.

Reactions to this picture were entirely based on conjecture. It was impossible to tell what the bull was feeling or what its condition was, or for that matter what motivated Yengeni. Yet gauging from letters sent to newspapers, readers expressed moral outrage and condemned Yengeni’s cultural practices as backward. But how could a picture have done this?

Clearly it was not the image of the bull about to be slaughtered but what readers brought to the interpretation of the picture as prejudgments that had a lot to do with how they made sense of the picture.

Images that are broadcast to audiences around the globe, whether they are typecasts of Muslims, Africans, Latinos, Europeans and even Americans, are always embedded in specific tensions of that historical moment and informed by its political context which would inevitably determine how images are used and portrayed. …

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‘Truth’ Is in the Eye of the Beholder; How Things Are Represented in the Mass Media Often Depends on Where Political and Economic Power Lies, Writes Saliem Fakir
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