21 april 2013

Beauty and the Beast

ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL – and simple – ways to combine visuals and words: Run a strong photograph, one which your audience simply cannot miss, and let the headline suggest how that photo should be interpreted. Thereby, the text works as a scalpel that removes unintended meanings from the image (basically, there are three different ways to perform the operation, as described in this e-booklet).

By a strange coincidence, two of my morning papers used the exact same formula for yesterday’s front page – even though the cover stories had no other similarities.

POLITIKEN’S TOP STORY, like most others’ on that memorable day, was about the suspected Boston terrorists. The AP pic shows Dzhokhar Tsaraev on a neutral white background, a mug shot or passport photo most likely, and the headline says ”Here is the new enemy image of the USA”.
The smaller, slightly more intellectual Copenhagen daily Information promoted a two-page reportage in the weekend supplement, discussing (quote) ”the new enemy image of Danish politics” – personified in the Danish Minister of Finance.
The white headline below the somber depiction of Bjarne Corydon translates like this:

Both front pages carry a portrait of a man and a headline stating that this particular man is something more than just a man; that he is a threat, maybe even the personification of evil?
They both use a strong photograph to nuance their statements (to be fair, Information’s headline is in fact a question, albeit a pretty slanted one). But they use the scalpel – the headline – quite differently, almost in opposite ways.

POLITIKEN PLAYS ON AN ELEMENT OF SURPRISE. If Dzhokhar Tsaraev had looked like Mohammed Atta, we would find it easy to believe that he is simply an evil person. But this handsome youngster with soft brown eyes and casual hairdo, so much like the kid next door (the white background is, of course, adding to his pureness)? He can’t be evil. Someone must have been leading him astray. How could he possibly be our enemy?

Nevertheless, the article tells us that’s what he is. The beauty turns into a beast.

What the article does not substantiate – and I see this as a weakness in an otherwise strong piece of communication – is the idea that Tsaraev and his brother are not just two tragic individuals. The headline implies that their likes can be found elsewhere in the American society. Quite possibly, drawing such conclusions would be premature … but I still think that is what the headline says, and that the overall message suffers when it turns out not to be the point of the article. The headline ”promises” more than the package can deliver.
(In this particular case, that is of course a good thing, as nobody wishes to live in a world where every cheerful, good-looking, brown-eyed boy has to be viewed as a potential threat. However, if we focus on the communication, it is still a problem).

INFORMATION’S APPROACH IS LESS SUBTLE. Every pixel of Sofie Amalie Klougart’s portrait communicates drama, gloom, even horror. The background looks cold and dark, the lighting is hard, one eye staring, the other one scowling in the shadow: Sure, this guy could easily pass as the Prince of Darkness.
However, as hinted at by the headline’s question mark, this reportage actually discusses whether that is a fair designation. In the eyes of many Danes, Bjarne Corydon has become a symbol of all the things that are wrong with politics. This article makes an attempt to diversify the conversation, quoting experts who believe that our Minister of Finance is simply trying to do what he thinks is right and – maybe atypical for a politician – will not yield even when people start to hate him.

Hence the question mark. But is that enough?
All in all, the statement adds up to: Obviously evil man (image) + THE EVIL FORCE (headline) + question mark. Lots of evil, little doubt.
In the eyes of most people – even the well-educated, creative-class readers of Information – I am afraid the overall message will still be: You’re right, he’s evil.
The beast remains a beast.

SO, IF YOU FOLLOW MY DRIFT, how could the message have become clearer?
Well, in this case, the image is so powerful, and almost one-dimensional, that the headline might have worked better had it offered an alternative interpretation. Maybe even contradicting the image (which is in fact how Politiken executed their top story).
Try to imagine the same photo with a headline like, for instance, ”The Good Shepherd”. Could be pretty effectful, huh?
In any case, what is important is to let your audience understand, even before they start reading the article, if you are out on a different mission than the one they’ll expect. If you don’t, many will miss your point and just see what they have gotten used to seeing.

TO SUMMON UP: A newspaper story has two layers. In both the examples I have discussed today – strong as they are – there is a tiny discrepancy between the message of the top layer (photo + headline) and the bottom layer (the actual article). No big deal, these are still great examples of visual communication. But as the top layer defines the bias – it ”tunes me in” and implies how I should read the bottom layer – there is a risk that I won’t get the finer details of the message.
As we also know, some people rarely proceed from the top layer – and this part of your audience might simply misunderstand what you are trying to tell them.

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