Date of Award

2001

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Communication

First Advisor

Carolyn Marvin

Abstract

Most broadly, this research investigates journalistic norms, the nature of photographic meaning, and the relationship between the word and image. These issues converge here in a study of photojoumalistic representations of death. This project identifies and analyzes the different visual codes constructing the massmediated experience of death produced by American photojournalism over the last three decades. This project considers how these news photos routinely envision death. What is shown? What is concealed? What can be said in words but not shown in pictures? And what significance can be attributed to these decisions? These questions are asked of the elite and popular or tabloid press. To answer the questions, I observed and interviewed American newsworkers, assessing the professional beliefs and norms that inform decisions about when and how to publish images of death. I also categorized, counted, and analyzed various types of published death photographs in two elite papers (the New York Times and Washington Post') and two tabloids (the New York Post and Philadelphia Daily News). Many of my findings overturn conventional thinking about the role of photojournalism in the American press, especially as it is found in tabloid papers. I explain that while explicit pictorial depictions of death are rare, verbal accounts are not. Tabloid photojournalism, compared to that in the elite papers, is particularly reluctant to show death. The corpses shown in the elite papers often depict the foreigner’s corpse, making that body a public spectacle while preserving the privacy of the American death. When tabloid papers cover international or domestic death they are more likely than the elite papers to displace the corpse with some connotative reference to death, instead depicting, for instance, the crumpled car, leveled building, or distraught survivors. While “tabloid” or “sensational” influences are commonly blamed for increasingly saturating the press with images of blood and gore, the less respected papers have continued to shun such sights. These and other findings help us to better understand how reportorial practices routinely organize verbal and visual discourse concerning one of our most symbolic events: death.

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