Media gatekeeping has been a critical theoretical tenet in the formation of iconic images. Traditionally, news photographs became iconic, in large part, through their prominent placement on elite newspaper front pages.
But as we rapidly move away from print news and toward a digital news environment, what is the effect on this traditional tenet of iconicity? Additionally, with the rise of social media, elite media outlets are no longer the sole gatekeepers.
A recently published research article that I co-authored with Dan Morrison sought to understand differences between identification of iconic imagery, comparing a prompt of commonly used elite media images to an unprompted response in an effort to ascertain which images are, in fact, considered most iconic by audiences. Our research also considered events across time, from historic events to more recent events that have fallen within the timeframe of the rise of digital news and social media. We studied images from seven events: World War II, John F. Kennedy assassination, 1969 lunar landing, Vietnam War, September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina, and 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
Our findings show that while audiences recognized and remembered the commonly used elite media images, they were not always the ones that were considered most salient in regard to iconicity in the collective consciousness of audiences. In other words, if you ask people to identify the most iconic image of an event, and then provide them with “iconic” images determined by the elite media, they were more likely to accept the prompted response. But if you ask audiences to freely identify iconic images, they did not always identify the mass-mediated images. This became especially apparent with events that fell within the Twenty-First Century.
Our findings echo those of previous research that a volume of photos as made available through technological advances is complicating the formation of a collective visual consciousness. Historically—as the data have shown—while there can be more than one image that is representative of an event, there is often one (or maybe two) that could be considered the “crowning image” of an event. Our data from the Twenty-First century events have shown that audiences identify more than one representative image from major news events. But could any of those images really be referred to as iconic? Not necessarily, especially when considering the theoretical understanding of iconicity.
We argue that this trend will continue as social media escalate in popularity and as audiences continue to move toward social media (and away from traditional media) as a news source. Rather than turning to a handful of elite newspapers or evening news broadcasts—which still have the ability to create a crowning image—audiences also have unlimited opportunities to seek out and receive imagery via digital news and social media.
The resulting effect for iconic imagery is that social media may utterly destroy the uniformity of image selection and collective visual consciousness. The democratization of the news via social media has had the unanticipated effect of allowing mass audiences to choose which images are the most important to them personally. Indeed, the elite media outlets are no longer the sole dictators of “crowning images.”
To learn more about our research, visit: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21670811.2015.1081073
Dahmen, N. S., & Morrison, D. D. (2015). Place, space, time: Media gatekeeping and iconic imagery in the digital and social media age. Digital Journalism. DOI 10.1080/21670811.2015.1081073
Header and feature image credit: Iwo Jima flag raising, Joe Rosenthal via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_the_Flag_on_Iwo_Jima
New York Times front page credit: https://www.nytimes.com/store/raising-the-flag-at-iwo-jima-the-new-york-times-framed-front-page.html