Friday, December 16, 2011

Pictures and dog whistles

You know the old saying...a picture is worth a thousand words. I'm one who endorses that 100%. Although I'm not that schooled in how our brains work, I think part of the reason is that the information we take in from a picture (or music and perhaps other forms of art) enters our thought processes in a different way and tends to by-pass many of the rational filters that operate when we read or listen to words.

That sometimes is a beautiful thing and its why any form of art is a powerful way to communicate. But it also means that power is available to reinforce prejudices and stereotypes that may prove uncomfortable to the rational mind but reside in a more embedded form in all of us emotionally. In other words, pictures make great dog whistles.

I ran across an example of that today when I visited The Daily Caller. Yes, I read there quite regularly. Its a right wing site created by Tucker Carlson that is about as subtle as a jackhammer when it comes to propaganda. It helps me keep track of how the opposition is thinking and framing things.

Anyway, there are two stories highlighted there today. The first one is titled Young voters unenthusiastic about Obama's re-election prospects. Here's the photo that accompanies that story.

In contrast is another story titled Unemployment benefit claims drop, but real joblessness persists. Here's the picture with that one.

You see what they did there? Of all the photos they could have used to represent young voters and the unemployed, they picked the ones that reinforce the message that young voters are predominantly white and the unemployed are mostly people of color. Readers won't actually think about that just slips in and is put alongside all the other emotionally laden prejudices we've all built up over the years in this culture.

While The Daily Caller is a publication that seems to revel in this kind of thing, the truth is that it happens all the time in most of our media. The way to combat it is to bring those messages out for a rational look and think about what they're telling us. In other words, tune in to the dog whistles embedded in pictures.


  1. That child created a site? Daddy must be so proud!

  2. ....that reinforce the message that young voters are predominantly white and the unemployed are mostly people of color......

    But isn't that true? Are not most 'young voters' white? and do not people of color have a higher unemployment %?

    What exactly has your panties in a knot this time?

  3. That first photo seems an odd choice for an article supposedly about how young voters are unenthusiastic about the President. Those (mostly white, true) people look anything but unenthusiastic.