Out of all the countries affected by the European sovereign debt crisis (also known as the Eurozone crisis), Greece has been one of the most prominently featured in the media. Harsh austerity measures imposed by the government under pressure by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the rest of the European Union has triggered widespread anger among the populace, resulting in constant protests in the capital of Athens.
Looking at photographs which were used in the coverage of the economic crisis in Greece, this essay will offer answers to the following questions: what perception of Greece does the audience get from the visual coverage of the Eurozone crisis, and how is this coverage influenced by the way newsrooms work and journalists evaluate newsworthiness?
When looking at the way an issue has been covered in the media, it is important to consider factors that may affect a media organisation’s output. For instance, an examination of ways journalists and editors decide on the ‘newsworthiness’ of issues and events will give an idea of why certain choices are made in media coverage.
Johan Galtung and Mari Holmboe Ruge (1965) identified 12 different conditions taken into consideration by journalists and editors when trying to decide whether or not to cover a particular story. These news values include factors like negativity (where bad news is considered more newsworthy than good news), personalisation (where events are depicted as having a “human interest” angle) and unambiguity (where the implications of a particular issue can be presented as simple rather than complex), which could provide an insight into how – and why – picture editors at The Boston Globe would select photographs to tell the story of the Greek economic crisis.
45 years later, Tony Harcup and Deirdre O’Neill (2010) argued that Galtung and Ruge’s conditions needed to be updated to reflect modern media environments. They highlighted new factors to be taken into account, such as the potential for “picture opportunities” or an ability to entertain readers. They also argued that the media outlet’s own agenda or political leanings had to be taken into consideration. At the same time, they reaffirmed some of the Galtung and Ruge’s values: for example, negative or bad news were still likely to be deemed newsworthy (ibid, p. 276).
However, the presentation of news can not only be influenced by conscious political agendas within media organisations, but also by their everyday methods of production. Graham Murdock (1981), cited by Simon Cottle (2006, p. 35-37), writes about a number of production factors that influence news coverage, such the 24-hour production cycle, news ‘objectivity’ and the need for commercialisation.
With the 24-hour production cycle requiring journalists to consistently produce new content, stories tend to focus more on specific events rather than underlying causes and long-term concerns. The idea of ‘objectivity’ also encourages journalists to stick to events rather than in-depth analysis, as focus on a specific event would reduce any risk of being seen as partisan or imbalanced. Similarly, the need for the publication to attract readers would lead to a preference for news events such as protests and demonstrations, which can easily be “appropriated as entertainment” (ibid).
This essay will look into the visual coverage of Greece in economic crisis. By analysing photographs, I will discuss the ways in which Greece has been portrayed before going on to look at how this depiction could potentially have been influenced by various news values and methods of production.
When it comes to the analysis of media texts, visuals such as photographs that accompany news pieces are often neglected by researchers (Hansen et al. 1998, p. 189). In the case of photographs, the “denotative properties or qualities are foregrounded and connotation is repressed” (Deacon et al. 1999, p. 189). It is easy to look at a photograph and assume that it is portraying ‘reality’, forgetting to probe deeper.
However, semiotic analysis can provide a way to look at photojournalism and divine deeper meanings by allowing for the identification of “the sound-image (signifier) and the concept (signified)” (Hansen et al. 1998, p. 206). By identifying what the denotative elements of photographs connote, I will be able to identify the messages embedded within the images.
To carry out the semiotic analysis, photographs were selected from The Boston Globe’s photo blog The Big Picture. Managed by three of The Boston Globe’s picture editors, The Big Picture intends to “highlight high-quality, amazing imagery, with a focus on current events” (Boston.com, 2013). Sourced from agencies like Reuters, AFP and the Associated Press, the photos would be ones available to, and likely used by, many news outlets around the world. Since these photos have been curated by American picture editors, examining some of the images selected by The Boston Globe for The Big Picture can also give us an idea of how an American news outlet presents the Eurozone crisis to its audience.
The Big Picture’s post on Greece – entitled ‘Greece: Still in economic crisis’ and published on 17 June 2011 – features 43 images. It would be impossible, for reasons of length, to carry out an in-depth semiotic analysis of every photograph. Therefore, only some will be singled out. These images have been selected as an indication of the way the Eurozone crisis has been portrayed to followers of The Big Picture.
Analysis and discussion
In its coverage of the economic crisis in Greece, The Big Picture focused on the protests in the capital city of Athens. Most of the photographs were images of mayhem, violence and chaos, and a city of people in conflict with the police.
Photo 1 shows a masked protester, his figure warped by the heat of the bright orange fire burning in the foreground. The caption accompanying the photograph tells us that the fire is coming from a burning barricade in Syntagma Square in Athens. Behind the protester are more shapeless, faceless people, out of focus.
With fire often seen in visual coverage of violent demonstrations and war, the image of fire in Photo 1 can be associated in the viewer’s mind with destruction, conjuring up the perception of trouble and strife in Syntagma Square.
The distorted figure and hidden face of the protester in the foreground creates a sense of unease. Instead of being able to identify the protesters as ordinary Greek citizens, viewers can only see them as a faceless group of “angry youths” who “hurled petrol bombs”. As we are unable to see much of what the other “tens of thousands of protesters” are doing, it leaves us to imagine that all the protesters are somehow involved in such violence.
These factors – the fire and the unidentifiable protesters – combined leave viewers with an impression of Syntagma Square filled with a faceless, angry mob setting things on fire, destroying public property.
This narrative of a chaotic Greece with violent protesters on the streets is supported by many of the other photographs in the post. Photo 2 below is one such example.
The photograph shows protesters throwing rocks – according to the caption, their target is the riot police. In the foreground, a young male protester is throwing a rock with some force; his feet have even lifted off the ground. Behind him others are doing the same, with masses of people stretching all the way into the background.
The young man is dressed in a hoodie, often presented in the media as the fashion of choice for hooligans (Garner 2009, Braddock 2011, Jutras 2012). As Kevin Braddock (2011) writes, in media coverage of the London riots “a generation’s default wardrobe choice was transformed into an instant criminal cloak for London’s looting youth”, showing how the hoodie has become appropriated as a sign of misdemeanour and trouble-making. Thus, when we see this protester dressed in a hoodie foregrounded in the photograph – as if he is representative of all the protesters – we are encouraged to think of all the demonstrators as young hooligans.
However, the conflict has not just been depicted as a riot with demonstrators as the sole perpetrators of violence; the riot police have also been shown to be active participants in the clashes.
While Photo 1 and 2 depict the protesters as aggressors, Photo 3 shows a different side; a policeman about to hit a protester already subdued. The protester is lying on the ground, a hand held over his head in a feeble attempt to protect himself from the policeman’s truncheon. Behind them more riot police, looking threatening with their helmets and shields, corral protesters. Smoke – almost certainly tear gas – is everywhere.
All the riot police are wearing identical uniforms, their heads and faces covered with helmets and gas masks. They are armed with riot shields and truncheons. Furthermore, their uniforms are of a dark green reminiscent of military attire, giving an impression of violence and warfare within the urban environment. Unable to distinguish one from the other, one could argue that the riot police are not to be seen as individuals, but as representatives of the state waging war on the people.
In this context, the image of a policeman standing over a helpless protester with his truncheon raised can be interpreted as a symbol of state suppression (or even oppression). As none of the protesters in the photograph are shown to be violent, this image provokes an impression of a state using excessive force to control its citizens, with the tear gas contributing to a sense of chaos and uncertainty.
In Photo 4, we see a protester wearing a helmet and a gas mask hiding from the riot police. In one hand, he holds a hammer. The police stand just around the corner, also wearing helmets and gas masks, armed with their riot shields and truncheons. The streets are littered with trash, and graffiti is sprayed on the closed shutters and sides of stores and stalls.
This photograph gives the viewer a sense of a suspended moment before a clash between the protester and the riot police. The way the protester is standing braced against the closed stall with a hammer in his hand gives the impression that he is ready to spring round the corner and engage the riot police at any moment. The police’s shields, as well as the hammer the protester is holding, all evoke ideas of violence and conflict. Although we do not see any actual violence, it appears as if violence could break out at any moment.
The rubbish on the streets and the closed, vandalised storefronts paint a rather desolate picture of Athens, suggesting that regular business and the everyday activity has come to a halt. In this photograph, the city looks dirty and neglected, transformed into a battleground on which the protesters and the police clash.
Photo 5 is the only photograph in the post that is not of a protest. In it, Greece’s (now former) Prime Minister George Papandreou leaves a meeting with the president. He is surrounded by other people, and the accompanying caption identifies the two men in the foreground as security agents.
Many of the men are wearing suits, which carries connotations of professionalism and elitism. Especially when contrasted with the hoodie worn by the young protester in Photo 2 (and also Photo 6 below), we can identify the men in this photo as the Greek elite, and understand that they are in a position of power relative to the protesters.
With Papandreou in the middle of the group, flanked on all sides, we get the sense that he is being protected, perhaps from some danger. The stern expressions on the faces of the security agents suggest that there is cause for concern. In fact, when we look at the worried-looking frowns on everyone’s faces, we get the sense that all is not well with Greece’s leaders.
All in all, the photographs in The Big Picture’s post on Greece’s economic crisis present images of chaos and instability. Athens is depicted as a city gripped by angry demonstrations, where people are in constant conflict with the state and everyday life is disrupted.
Through the visuals we are given the impression that the streets of the capital have turned into little more than war zones. This can be clearly seen in the final photograph in the post (Photo 6) – the one that may perhaps be the take-away image for the audience, as it is the last one they see.
Photo 6 shows a lone protester, clothed from head to toe in black and holding a wooden stick, standing in middle of the road at Syntagma Square, watching as barricades and debris strewn across the road burn. The street is engulfed in the black smoke of the fire, and the streets are littered with rubbish.
Like the protester in Photo 2, this protester is also wearing a hoodie. Together with the wooden stick – which one can interpret as being his or her weapon of choice – viewers get the impression of yet another perpetrator of violence.
The road on which the protester is standing does not look anything like the everyday thoroughfares we are accustomed to seeing in big cities. Instead, it evokes memories of other images of conflict zones, as if Athens were in a state of war or rioting rather than just economic crisis.
When looking at images in The Big Picture’s post, a viewer unfamiliar with Greece may get the impression that the economic crisis has set off violence throughout the country, with Athens being particularly unsafe and chaotic.
After analysing what has been included in The Big Picture’s post on Greece’s economic crisis, my concluding section will highlight what has not been included and discuss how much theories of news values and methods of production come into play.
Although the post is entitled ‘Greece: Still in economic crisis”, all but one of the photographs was of protests in central Athens. Other issues related to the economic crisis, such as increases in suicide and HIV rates (Babad 2012), are not included. Other parts of Greece, such as Thessaloniki or the islands, have also been left out of the coverage.
Scroll down to the comments left by readers and one finds Greek complaints: although the photographs generally depict violent protests, the Spanish-inspired ‘Indignant Citizens Movement’ had been leading peaceful protests since May (Indignants 2011). When protests have gone on peacefully for almost a month, why does The Big Picture’s coverage focus only on the violence, giving viewers a skewed picture of civil disobedience in Greece?
These editorial decisions by the picture editors of The Big Picture may be explained by theories of news values and methods of production.
Although the post does not fulfil all the news values identified by Galtung and Ruge (1965) or Harcup and O’Neill (2010), some of the factors highlighted could nevertheless have come into play. For example, the argument made by both pairs of scholars that negative news is deemed more worthy of coverage could certainly apply in this case. News of clashes between the police and the protesters, with images of injuries and destruction, can definitely be considered negative news.
In the context of a photo blog, perhaps the most important news value would be the potential for “picture opportunities”, as raised by Harcup and O’Neill (2010). Described by Murdock (1981, cited in Cottle 2006, p. 36) as “the medium of public spectacle”, protests often offer the media plenty of “picture opportunities”. While protests in themselves are more visual than other austerity-related issues such as unemployment or poverty, violent protests provide even more of a visual feast. With fire, teargas and smoke everywhere as protesters wielding sticks and stones clash with police in full riot gear, the outbreak of violence in Syntagma Square provided the perfect “public spectacle”, leading to more dramatic and visually-arresting photographs. Other issues – such as that of suicide and HIV rates mentioned above – would be unlikely to create the same number of “picture opportunities” for the media.
One might also consider the 24-hour news production cycle, which – as discussed above – has led to more of an “event orientation” in news coverage. Unlike other austerity-related issues that may require more thought and context, coverage of protests can be quickly shot and processed, then presented to audiences.
However, The Big Picture isn’t a 24-hour newsroom, and isn’t required to keep up an endless flow of news. Even if many photojournalists may focus on photographing the protests to cater to 24-hour media outlets, the picture editors of The Big Picture would still have the time and opportunity to seek out non-protest photographs should they choose to do so. Therefore, even though its coverage of the Greek economic crisis is events-centric, it may be explained by some reason other than the 24-hour production cycle.
One such theory could perhaps come from Galtung and Ruge’s (1965) news values again: unambiguity. Although the economic crisis in Greece is a complicated issue that has had many repercussions, the protests in Athens are relatively simple for news outlets to cover and present clearly and concisely. While a deeper analysis of the economic crisis would require addressing nuance and complexities, the violent protests in Athens are fairly unambiguous, making them more preferable in a visual post.
The need for commercialisation could also very easily have had an impact on The Big Picture’s choices. The spectacle of the violent protest could easily be “appropriated as entertainment” (Murdock 1981, cited in Cottle 2006, p. 36) to draw the attention of viewers and generate more hits for the website, thus allowing it to market itself to advertisers and generate revenue.
The Big Picture’s photo blog on the economic crisis in Greece paints a picture of a country in chaos, its capital turned into a war zone between the state and its people. It’s an incomplete narrative in which one can detect traces of news values or methods of production identified by scholars over the years. Not every factor identified can be related to this particular case, but some factors – such as negativity, “picture opportunities”, unambiguity and commercialisation – are very relevant in helping us to understand the motivations behind editorial decisions.
Of course, this essay has only been able to take into account one blog post from a single American publication, which might not be representative of how the American media has presented the Eurozone crisis to its audiences. To gain a clearer picture, further study involving more publications – perhaps even with comparison to European press – would be required.