In its news reporting tabloid journalism both utilises and disregards standard, unbiased journalistic practices. The photograph is heavily dependent on the context into which it is placed and is heavily influenced by text, graphics and headlines. By deconstructing the way tabloids use photographs this practise can be used to analyse the elite press' viewpoint.
The early picture press
Becker sets out the history of photography's inclusion into the three main Western news sources - elite periodicals, tabloid press, and weekly supplements - some of which were specifically created to use photography. Becker explains that technology and increasing advertising revenue allowed for mass circulation magazines for a undifferentiated mass audience.
The tabloid = sensationalism = photography
By the 1920s sensationalist images and news reporting by the tabloids were creating an ever diverging rift between the elite press and tabloids who broke ethical guidelines to make more profit. Becker claims that sensationalist stories were reported or created for the sole reason of grabbing attention in order to sell more papers.
The daily press 'supplements' the news
With the exception of the tabloids photographs rarely appeared in the daily papers until the 1920s. Photographs were getting a 'bad press' because of tabloid abuse and were seen as not for use in serious news. With that said, photographs were highly popular and the elite dailies created supplements in order to use photographs but at the same time keep them separate from their more serious news reporting.
The picture magazine legacy
Between the world wars the picture magazine and photo essay emerged as a serious way of reporting news. The photojournalist became an acceptable part of journalistic practice. Barriers between high and low culture were being broken down and photography was becoming accepted as popular art.
In the post-war years Walter Benjamin's view of the de-fetishization of the art object had nearly been reversed as particular genres of mass culture (including photojournalism) were being reconstructed as privileged art forms. This re-fetishization of photography did not include the images that appeared in the tabloid press.
The contemporary domain of the tabloid
Becker analyses the format that the tabloids use and the way photography is presented into three broadly overlapping categories:
- private or previously non-famous persons in circumstances that make them newsworthy.
- celebrities that correspond to conventional constructions of news.
- events that correspond to conventional constructions of news.
Plain pictures of ordinary people
Becker analyses the way ordinary people are portrayed in their own surroundings and showing strong emotions to illustrate the accompanying news story. They are portrayed for the viewer of the image as equals. These images, usually frontal in nature, strongly resemble family album photographs and help to make the images seem familiar and relatable.
People shown closely cropped in an I.D. format can be read by the viewer as involved in an act of criminality.
Beckers's analysis explains that celebrity images are often posed at home in a manner that supposedly 'reveals' the person behind the famous facade. Emotions are less extreme and usually happy. These images are constructed in the same way as the 'ordinary' people. The difference is that these images rely on the viewer recognising that the person is famous and therefore being allowed a privileged glimpse into their lives.
The candid celebrity shot in unguarded moments are also usually staged and can form part of the celebrities constructed public facade. Completely candid images do appear but are far less common than realised.
Performance photographs from file are often used beside text that explains wrongdoing (drug abuse for example). The text beside these images create a strong discontinuity with the image.
Paparazzi images are often composed in a haphazard way incorporating unguarded facial expressions and uneven lighting. Becker explains that these images have become a style and can be read as 'grounded in the theory of the higher truth of the stolen image'. Becker uses the word 'style' here to caution that these images can equally be (and often are) constructed, and no more true than any other image.
The news event
Becker states that action images and the public unaware of the camera are usually shown in news events. These events are not necessarily unplanned as often with planned events such as at major national occasions the press have strategies in place for photographing the public in a way to create news worthy stories.
'Specific technical effects practised in photojournalism are integrated into the tabloids construction of realism' [...] 'The techniques work to enhance the appearance of candour, lending additional support to the construction of these images as authentic.' Becker (1992).
Becker states that:
'candid photography is usually accepted as belonging to 'a higher order of truth than the arranged pose' [...] 'ignoring the cultural practices we use to distinguish between nature and artifice'. Becker (1992).
All of these headings look at ways in which the photograph is constructed to appear to show the reality of the news story. They often use conventions that are part of journalistic practice even when the new story itself may be well outside the remit of the elite press.
Becker claims that the meaning of photographs change with their context. By placing text alongside an image or manipulating it in some way the basic connotation of the image may change. This creates new denotations. By showing how meaning can change with an images context Becker is highlighting that ALL images can be used as a political act whether that be by the tabloid press or in the elite newspapers. This is why the elite periodicals are so careful to distance themselves from the tabloids. These claims strongly bolster Becker's argument.
I found the essay quite hard to unpick at first and I had to read it a number of times, making lots of notes. Once I had done this, however I found the arguments quite clear and easy to follow. I think that further analysis of the way the elite press use imagery, rather than primarily focusing on the tabloid's corruption of journalistic ideals, would further strengthen Becker's case.
Becker, K. E. (1992). 'Photojournalism and the Tabloid Press' in Peter Dahlgren and Colin Sparks (eds) Journalism and Popular Culture. London: Sage.