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In the Beginning was the Image: The Omnipresence of Pictures

Time, Truth, Tradition

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Edited By András Benedek and Ágnes Veszelszki

The authors outline the topic of visuality in the 21st century in a trans- and interdisciplinary theoretical frame from philosophy through communication theory, rhetoric and linguistics to pedagogy. As some scholars of visual communication state, there is a significant link between the downgrading of visual sense making and a dominantly linguistic view of cognition. According to the concept of linguistic turn, everything has its meaning because we attribute meaning to it through language. Our entire world is set in language, and language is the model of human activities. This volume questions the approach in the imagery debate.

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Images in the Hungarian Online News (Gergely Havasmezői)

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Gergely Havasmezői

Images in the Hungarian Online News

1.  Visual Elements in the New Media

The traditional, illustrative role of images in journalism is changing. “Digital media environments usually demand from the journalist to combine and mix text, images, video, audio and other visual graphics […],” states Fondevila-Gascón et al. (2013: 1). This fits into the much debated thesis of the “pictorial turn”: that images (again) take more important roles in our communication. “People first think in images, only later in abstract words,” states Kristóf Nyíri (2000). “The ratio of the images is increasing on the internet and in the printed press (e.g. in the tabloid press) too. Pictorial communication is turning quotidian,” writes Ágnes Veszelszki (2008).

All these permit online organs to use visual elements more boldly and in new roles. The online audience got used to images appearing as self-standing contentual elements – that is, images carry decodable meaning independently of the text, and they contribute to the content of the article equally with the text. Infographics, which speeds up information processing by compression (Veszelszki 2014) is a good example.

However, not all media use these opportunities. Traditionally, the media used mainly photographs (Fondevila-Gascón et al. 2013: 52), and although online editors tend to like technical novelties, their journalistic attitude and practices often lag behind (Steensen 2011).

In this study we analysed the image usage of the most visited Hungarian online journals, divided into two groups: “traditional” media (those that have a print version, their online versions thus being of secondary importance) and “new” media (those exclusively online). Our theses are: 1) there are significantly more visual elements in the articles of the “new” media; 2) significantly more visual elements have self-standing contentual value in the “new” media and they appear in roles that does not exist in the “traditional” media at all.

2.  Methods

The eight most visited Hungarian general-interest news portals were selected based on publicly audited data. 168 Óra Online, Magyar Nemzet Online, Népszabadság Online and Válasz.hu belongs to the “traditional” media group; !!444!!!, Index, Origo and VS.hu belong to the “new” media group. We saved the papers’ ← 113 | 114 → own articles that appeared on the homepage at the time of the sampling (5–6pm) and had a publishing date of that day (between 20 and 23 July 2015).

We decided to use every visual element that was edited purposefully into the article. The reason for this is that boundaries are blurred between objects and images, both in appearance and functionality: a “gif image” is essentially a small video; a real video may be started by clicking on a static cover frame; maps are moveable and zoomable; a Facebook insert may contain comments and other elements; charts are often interactive. Simple photos can be interactive, too: clicking on them may open a full screen image or a photo gallery.

3.  Results

3.1  Frequency of Visual Elements

One hundred thirty-four articles appeared in the “traditional” media, and one hundred seventy-two in the “new” media. VS.hu leads with 6.21 images per article on average; Magyar Nemzet Online finishes the list at 0.38 per article. “Traditional” papers publish on average 0.60 visual elements in an article; “new” media publish 2.32, almost four times more (for more data see Figure 1). If we count images against the total character numbers of all articles, “traditional” media publish one image in 4,555 characters, and “new” media publish one in 976.

Figure 1: Visual elements per article. The leading place of VS is somewhat difficult: a single article, which we will analyze later, contributes with 78 visual elements. However, it is reasonable to include it since the paper frequently publishes articles of this kind

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(source: diagram created by the author) ← 114 | 115 →

It is rare in the online media to use lead images (images appearing in the “lead,” illustrating the whole article). The usage of homepage images differs widely, too (the term meaning here that the article’s title and lead appears on the homepage illustrated by an image). Some decisions seem logical: for example, Origo’s low number of homepage images could be a decision to ease the congestion on the homepage because the paper publishes much more articles on it than the others. Some seem a little strange: for example, MNO uses a lot of homepage images but in the articles it uses the least visual elements by far, meaning that the paper took the effort to find an image for most articles, it just did not include them in the articles themselves. In general, we can say that there are no common image policies among the papers.

3.2  Functions of Visual Elements

There was only one paper where the traditional illustrative use of images did not prevail: 444.hu (39%). At the other end of the list there are Válasz.hu and 168 Óra, having only illustrative images (for more data see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Distribution of image functions among articles that have at least one visual element

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(source: diagram created by the author) ← 115 | 116 →

Among those articles of the “traditional” media that apply at least one image, 87% uses them only in an illustrative role. The number is 73% for the “new” media. The difference between the two groups is minor but consistent through all image roles (articles written about an image: 2% and 7%, respectively; articles about videos: 6% and 7%; articles about a Facebook or Twitter insert: 0% and 1%).

There are some articles where images and text are equally important: “the text loses effect without the picture, and the picture also loses effect without the text” (Veszelszki 2012: 104).

Among the articles that use at least one image, 6% in the “traditional” media and 10% in the “new” media, behave this way. In some articles the visual elements appear in a new role: they are in interaction with the text, forming the message of the article together, achieving a goal that separately none of them could. The following analysis of two of them highlights their methods.

Figure 3: Screenshot detail of the site where the article “These corporations rule the country” appears. The cat picture is a “gif” short video

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(source: Hungarian newsportal 444.hu, W1; screenshot taken by the author)

The article titled These corporations rule the country (W1) writes about a list of the greatest corporations of Hungary. The text briefly discusses some factual oddities of the list, however it is given a new and much stronger message by the lead (and homepage) “gif” image of a grotesque fat dancing cat (Figure 3). Memes of ← 116 | 117 → cats are usually presented for a humorous goal, therefore the image raises a light-minded feeling; moreover, the English term “fat cat,” referring to the corporations, is recognizable for many Hungarian readers, too. The cognitive approach of the text and the intuitive approach of the image together present the message that the ranking of the corporations is not to be taken too seriously. This message is not present in either the text or the image separately.

Figure 4: Screenshot detail of the article “Zsolt Németh might have sent the woman back to the kitchen with a corny joke”

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(source: Hungarian newsportal 444.hu, W2; screenshot taken by the author)

The article titled Zsolt Németh might have sent the woman back to the kitchen with a corny joke (W2) writes about a supposedly embarrassing utterance of Zsolt Németh, a Hungarian politician. The text is only one paragraph long; there is, however, a lead photo above the paragraph: one that shows Németh sitting on the right side of the prime minister Viktor Orbán at an event that is known as being significant for the PM (Figure 4). The image, meaning “Németh is really close to the PM,” thus shames the prime minister, himself not even present in this particular piece of news. Again, the message of the article is decodable only by the interaction of image and text. ← 117 | 118 →

We risk the opinion that this role of visual elements demands a greater than average decoding ability from the reader, but they have potentially the greatest impact on him, too – creating the impression of thinking along the same lines with the author, discovering hidden meanings, the feeling of a common mischief.

Among the analysed sites, it is VS that uses the benefits of online visuality to the greatest extent. The layout of the site is different from the standard news portal: images are dominant on the homepage and on the article pages (always applied as lead images). It is more important, however, to take a look at the column “Mega”.

Figure 5: Screenshots of the article “If you came to Hungary”. Up left: a scrollable photo gallery. Up right: a text block. Down left: a chart. Down right: a video insert

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(source: Hungarian newsportal vs.hu, W3; screenshots taken by the author)

The column uses advanced web programming to create interactive, multimedia articles in which images, videos and texts are equally important (Figure 5). Journalists, photo and video professionals, design specialists and programmers work together on them. At the time of our sampling a new “Mega” article appeared on the site: “If you came to Hungary” (W3).

The prevalence of visual elements is clear. One can “scroll” the article and get a new window of content, however the basic layout of the window is static. Most content is based on an image or a video, and they occupy the whole area of the screen: there are no spatially separate blocks; all content is treated the same. Text, when it appears, usually hovers over the visual elements. A timeline shows where the reader is in the article and provides control over it. ← 118 | 119 →

The article uses the interaction of the text and the visual elements heavily. Textual blocks, describing facts, are followed by photos and videos setting the mood and showing personal faces and stories. Charts help with processing the information presented in the text. The timeline, the act of scrolling, the few buttons that point to hidden features, and the interactive photo galleries enable the reader to actively discover the article, as opposed to a passive recipient role.

3.3  Comparison with Fondevila-Gascón’s Study

Fondevila-Gascón and his group studied the image usage of four news portals of international fame (Fondevila-Gascón et al. 2013). All would belong to the “traditional” group of our study. They counted only photographs, so in this comparison we will use similarly restricted data.

The 2013 study found that the journals published 44.2 images a day on average. The same data in our “traditional” group is 18.25, in our “new” media group 69.75, meaning that the four leading Hungarian newspapers in the “traditional” group publish merely 41.29% of the amount in the foreign papers, while this percentage at our “new” media is 157.80%. The 2013 study writes that photographs far outnumbered videos and other “graphical complements”: the same is true for both of our groups.

The illustrative usage of images dominates all four papers of Fondevila-Gascón’s study (even the lowest ratio, that of Corriere della Sierra, shows a fivefold advantage for illustrative images). The same is present at the Hungarian papers, too, with the exception of !!444!!!.

4.  Conclusions

We studied the frequency and functions of the visual elements at the most visited Hungarian online newspapers. We divided the papers into two groups: “traditional” (those having a primary print version with an online version secondary to this) and “new” (those exclusively online). We did not limit the study to simple pictures because the boundaries between the types of visual elements are indeed blurred.

Our first thesis was that there are significantly more visual elements in the articles of the “new” media. The thesis gained confirmation. “Traditional” media use 0.60 visual elements in an article, “new” media use 2.32, almost four times as much. Curiously, no “traditional” paper reached one image per article and no “new” paper published less than that. Compared with the results of Fondevila-Gascón et al. our leading “traditional” papers fall short of their four newspapers at 41.29% of their image number, however our “new” papers outperform them at 157.80%. ← 119 | 120 →

Our second thesis was that significantly more visual elements have self-standing contentual value in the “new” media and the images appear in roles that does not exist in the “traditional” media at all. The thesis got confirmed, though less strongly. In the “traditional” media group 85% of those articles that have at least one visual element uses them only in illustrative roles; the same value in the “new” media group is 73%. Given the short timescale of the study (one day per paper) the difference is not that convincing. However, it is clear that Fondevila-Gascón’s statement is true for Hungarian media, too: “[…] photos have only relative meaning for the presentation of the content. They might serve as eye-catcher but they are neither important in terms of transporting, nor communicating an own message”.

There exists, however, a role for the visual elements in the “new” media that cannot be found in the “traditional” media: the interaction of image and text, the two presenting together a new meaning that cannot be reached by only one of them alone. The pages !!444!!! and VS.hu are notable for their usage of such interactions.

The ratio of images continues to grow in the online media (Veszelszki 2008). A current example: in October 2015 the site that previously used the least visual elements in its articles by far, MNO.hu, switched to a new page and new image policies – we did not yet gather data from the new page but it clearly uses images more often.

The online public grows accustomed to images presented as self-standing contentual elements. This is why digital media needs to combine image and text. The process of the “pictorial turn” will surely lead to even more papers using images as self-standing contentual elements, equal to the text.

References

Fondevila-Gascón, Joan-Francesc – Seebach, Swen – Cardona-Pérez, Carlos (2013): Photography in Digital Journalism: A Comparative Case-Study Analysis Between Newspapers in Canada, France, Italy and Spain. Research Open Journal of Science and Technology 1/5: 51–62.

Nyíri, Kristóf (2000): A gondolkodás képelmélete [Picture Theory of Thinking]. Nyelv, megértés, interpretáció – A nyelv mint a kortárs filozófiai áramlatok közös problémája. Conference 5–6. 10. 2000. http://hunfi.hu/nyiri/ELTE_2000_conf.htm

Steensen, Steen (2011): Online Journalism and the Promises of New Technology. Journalism Studies 12/3: 311–327.

Veszelszki, Ágnes (2008): Vizuális megoldások a kreatív szövegalkotási gyakorlatokban [Visual Solutions of Creative Writing Exercises]. Anyanyelv-pedagógia 2008/1. http://www.anyanyelv-pedagogia.hu/cikkek.php?id=33. ← 120 | 121 →

Veszelszki, Ágnes (2012): Connections of Image and Text in Digital and Handwritten Documents. In: Benedek, András – Nyíri, Kristóf (eds.): The Iconic Turn in Education. Visual Learning Vol. 2. Frankfurt: Peter Lang. 97–110.

Veszelszki, Ágnes (2014): Information Visualization: Infographics from a Linguistic Point of View. In: Benedek, András – Nyíri, Kristóf (ed.): The Power of the Image. Emotion, Expression, Explanation. Visual Learning Vol. 4. Frankfurt: Peter Lang. 99–109.

W1 = http://444.hu/2015/07/23/30-legnagyobb-ceg.

W2 = http://444.hu/2015/07/23/nemeth-zsolt-visszakuldhette-a-trefarepat-az-asszonnyal-a-konyhaba.

W3 = http://vs.hu/mega/menekultek-magyarorszagon. ← 121 | 122 →