Representation refers to the idea that everything we see or hear in the media has been constructed.
Representations themselves can take many forms such as radio segments, newspaper articles, photographs, films and television programs. Just about everything you see in the media is a representation of something. Every day we’re inundated with representations of people, events and ideas. While some media representations – like television news and documentary film – may seem realistic, we have to remember that they’re just constructions. At best, the media can only represent reality. What we see on our television screens or on the front page of our daily newspapers is someone else’s interpretation of reality.
And this can be said of everything in the media. When you see a politician or celebrity in the newspaper, you’re seeing a constructed image of that person, a representation. It’s not a real person, it’s a constructed image of that person.
Representations are created through a process of selection, omission and construction.
Consider a photograph – probably the most basic type of media representation.
It’s often said that the camera never lies. But like all media representations, photographs are constructed. Before you even take a photograph, you’ve selected what’s going to be in it, made decisions about what you’re going to omit or leave out, and you’ve also decided how the subject of your photograph will be represented, making decisions about how they’ll be lit and what type of camera angle you’re going to use. These decisions all influence the meaning that you create and how audiences will read your representation.
The word ‘code’ refers to any system of signs that are used to communicate meaning. We’re surrounded by these codes – traffic lights, written language, mathematics, clothing, body language. These codes are made of signs that have culturally agreed meanings. The meaning of a sign can be denotative or connotative. The denotative meaning of a sign is its literal meaning, the concept that it refers to. The connotation of a sign refers to the cultural or personal associations it might have for the person reading it.
Colour is a great example of a code. Different colours have culturally agreed meanings and connotations. In western society, the colour black is associated with mourning and depression. The colour green with environmentalism. Pink with femininity. When you’re dressing yourself, you probably think carefully about the colour of your clothing and the meaning it conveys. This is also true when you’re making media products. Anyone who’s ever made a film knows that codes like shot size, camera angle, camera movement and mise-en-scene all contribute to the message you’re sending.
When you’re thinking about the media, it’s often interesting to consider how events, ideas and people have been representation. Deconstructing media texts in this way is also useful because you really start to understand how meaning is created in media texts and, hopefully, become more successful at making them yourself.