Last week we brainstormed and created a list of the various titles we assign to men with guns. We learned that with each title comes positive or negative associations that are everything but unbiased. We emphasized the responsibility of the journalist to clarify and, instead of defaulting to the use of words packed with preconceived meaning, be objective.
But in a world of changing media, language isn’t the only way we frame stories. Remember the sketched images of a bruised and confused Jennifer in California Watch’s In Jennifer’s Room, and the shadowy figures and silhouettes of the investigative comic strip Invisible Injury: Beyond PTSD. These images made us feel something that, had reporters simply written down the facts, we may have never experienced.
I decided to take some words from our list and type them into Google. Would the images each search generated fit the mold of our definitions?
I started with the most controversial: terrorist. I wasn’t surprised by the scores of men holding artillery guns. What did alarm me were the related searches at the top of the page: bomb, attacks, 9/11 and beard. It seems that instead of distinguishing, as we tried to do in class, between domestic and foreign terrorism, the widely-accepted visual definition of a terrorist is a Middle Eastern man with a gun. Should we eliminate terrorist from our vocabulary as many reputable news sources are doing?
Next, I searched soldier (note that the first associated search was American). Many of the images were silhouettes backed by American flags; others depicted kneeling soldiers before a cross; and others, like this one, showed soldiers with children. Honor. Respect. Bravery. Legitimacy. All words that we used to describe this title. But do these words only apply when we’re talking about an American solider? What are we saying about other countries when our soldiers become the saviors of their children?
After scrolling through pictures of Divergent‘s Shailene Woodley and Veronica Roth’s Insurgent book cover, I finally stumbled upon this. We said that insurgent was one of the words on the list most likely to cause alarm. We said it insinuates active violence and feels threatening. And here you have it: a foreign male with a powerful weapon and, again, a masked face. I Google searched the definition of an insurgent: a rebel or a revolutionary. Then, American insurgents. Instead of man on a deserted street holding a machine gun- red, white and blue, patriot and anti-imperialist.
With several clicks of the ‘search’ button I saw the central idea of this class come to life: society and culture shape media, while media simultaneously shapes society and culture. Are our definitions of men with guns determined by our national identity? Without a doubt.
How can we revolutionize our use of words and images as media insurgents?