Framing and temporality in political cartoons: a critical analysis of visual news discourse *

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Auteur: Josh Greenberg
Date: May 2002
Publisher: Canadian Sociological Association
Type de document : Article
Length: 7 611 words

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Résumé : 

Les caricatures politiques constituent une forme visuelle du discours des medias. Les sociologues rejettent generalement leur valeur ideologique en raison du fait qu'elles offrent aux lecteurs des exposes absurdes des conditions du [much less than] probleme [much greater than] putatif et ne doivent pas etre prises au pied de la lettre. Toutefois, c'est par l'humour que les caricatures se sont emparees du bon sens et l'ont renfonce, et par consequent ont permis au public de classifier, d'organiser et d'interpreter activement ce qu'ils percoivent ou vivent relativement a l'actualite dans le monde a un moment donne de facon significative. Dans le cadre des theories interactionnistes de Goffman et de Mead, deux caricatures illustrant la derniere [much less than] crise [much greater than] des [much less than] vagues d'immigration [much greater than] deferlant au Canada seront etudiees.

Political cartoons are a form of visual news discourse. Sociologists normally dismiss their ideological import on the grounds that cartoons simply offer newsreaders absurd accounts of putative "problem" conditions and are not likely to be taken very seriously. Nevertheless, it is through comedic conventions that cartoons seize upon and reinforce common sense and thus enable the public to actively classify, organize and interpret in meaningful ways what they see or experience about the world at a given moment. Informed by the interactionist theories of Goffman and Mead, two cartoons illustrating the recent "crisis" of "migrant waves" to Canada will be examined.

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THAT THE NEWS MEDIA CAN BE SEEN as a forum within which institutions, groups and individuals struggle over the definition and construction of social reality is now something of a sociological truism. This process sees certain issues and events become the foci of collective concern or anxiety, that is, defined as "social problems," not by virtue of the objective severity or frequency of the isssue or event in question, but as a result of the organization and process of people talking and writing about them. Social problems become "visible" to mass publics, then, only when they are socially defined within "knowledge or knowledge-processing" institutions such as the mass media (Cottle, 1998: 8). As a claims-making arena where the cultural meanings of circumstances and events are constructed, news discourse provides a rich source of data for examining how everyday issues or events come to be defined as "social problems," and offers clues as to how meaning will be negotiated and understood by the public.

Claims about putative "problems" may be constructed in numerous ways. In focussing upon the discursive accomplishment of social problems, we find a distinction routinely made by scholars between verbal or written claims (e.g., speeches or media reports), and visual claims (e.g., posters, graffiti, advertisements). Scholars who examine the role that news media play in the construction of social problems argue that different modes of discourse are likely to register different kinds of attitudinal or behavioural "effects." For instance, distinctions are often made between how audiences will interpret "hard" news discourse, which is purportedly grounded in such uniform criteria as the preclusion of personal bias, fact--opinion separation, and the inclusion of opposing viewpoints, and "opinion" news, which are intentionally biased accounts of social phenomena that proclaim the status of the news outlet as a participant in debates pertaining to matters of cultural or political importance (Greenberg, 2000). The vie wpoints expressed in opinion discourses are important when considering the role that news coverage plays in the process of social problems construction because, unlike hard news reporting, opinion discourse blends normative prescriptions and factual beliefs (van Dijk, 1998). (1)

Whilst scholarly attention has centred mostly on the examination of written or verbal discourse, visual news discourse has remained relatively unexamined. (2) This study examines political cartoons, a form of satirical journalism and a type of visual opinion news discourse, and theorizes on the role of cartoons in the construction of social problems. Political cartoons offer newsreaders condensed claims or mini-narratives about putative "problem" conditions and draw upon, and reinforce, taken-for-granted meanings of the world. By doing so, political cartoons provide metalanguage for discourse about the social order by constructing idealizations of the world, positioning readers within a discursive context of "meaning making" and offering readers a tool for deliberating on present conditions. Cartoons "frame" phenomena by situating the "problem" in question within the context of everyday life and, in this way, exploit "universal values" as a means of persuading readers to identify with an image and its intend ed message.

In addition, political cartoons have a transitory character (Burke, 1962). This temporality, as far as the meanings of cartoons are concerned, is due not to the notion that an assertion or inference will lack meaning for some people, but that they will be more persuasive with people living under a particular set of social, historical, political, economic and cultural circumstances (586). The ideological appropriation of cartoon discourse as a "mental framework" for rendering social life intelligible concerns the question of how various conceptions of the world influence and modify courses to action on which individuals and groups move (Hall, 1988: 55) and therefore depends crucially upon the situated context occupied by the reader in everyday life.

Theoretical Framework: Framing and Temporality in Visual News Discourse

In what is now a classic treatise, Goffman (1974) argues that human beings organize or "frame" everyday life in order to comprehend and respond to social phenomena. When applied to studies of news, "media frames" allow readers to "locate, perceive, identify, and label" (21) the multiple happenings of the social world in a way that will be meaningful to them. Media sociologists have found the framing metaphor to be of heuristic value for understanding how journalists process and package large quantities of information, quickly and routinely. For instance, Gitlin (1980: 7) argues that media frames are "largely unspoken and unacknowledged [and] organize the world both for journalists who report it and, in some important degree, for us who rely on their reports." According to Gitlin, media frames "naturalize" the social world apropos certain discursive conventions. In other words, media frames function as the centre or core of a larger unit of public discourse (Pan and Kosicki, 1993: 56) and are intelligible beca use they are "tacitly presupposed within a particular linguistic practice" (Purvis and Hunt, 1993: 494). According to Snow et al. (1986), media frames have the capacity to do more than merely organize experience for newsreaders--frames also serve as a "guide to action" (464; emphasis added). Conceptualized in this way, framing essentially involves selecting "some aspects of a perceived reality [to] make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition... frames, then, define problems... diagnose causes... make moral judgements... and suggest remedies" (Entman, 1993: 52).

Political cartoons operate as frames for the organization of social knowledge insofar as they make use of various rhetorical devices-- metaphors, catch phrases, depictions, etc.--that purport to capture the essence of an issue or event graphically As Gamson and Stuart (1992: 60) have argued, cartoons "offer a number of different condensing symbols that suggest the core frame" of the issue. Cartoons help to render infinite amounts of detail into practical frameworks that are relevant and appropriate to social actors understanding the everyday world. In this sense, political cartoons channel the discursive possibilities for making sense of social phenomena; they legitimate (and thus facilitate) the grounds upon which some things can be said and others impeded. The structural organization of knowledge about the world within visual discourse may lead to what Mumby and Spitzack (1983) call "metaphoric entrapment": "The way in which a concept is understood becomes so tied up with a particular metaphoric structure that alternative ways of viewing that concept are obscured, or else appear to make less sense" (166; cited in Wittebols, 1991: 263). The visual image, its caption and the accompanying label or "punch line" provide clues to the preferred meanings and the types of outcomes or consequences that the artist feels may legitimately result from the activity, issue or event being depicted.

Despite offering a rather useful framework for examining the selectivity, partiality and inclusion or exclusion of particular claims, the "framing" metaphor is theoretically limited in terms of being able to properly capture the temporal or unfolding character of social reality (Knight, 2001). Indeed, Goffman readily acknowledged that the rules of a frame are analogous to the syntactical structures of language (1974: 236), a position which led some observers to critique frame analysis as far too static a model for capturing social process as it actually unfolds (e.g., Gonos, 1977). To account for the shifting and temporal character of the social world, our understanding of it and how political cartoons capture this process, Mead's theory of temporality (1929; 1932; 1938; Maines et al., 1983) may be useful as a complementary framework to the approach developed thus far. According to Mead, neither the past nor future exists as an objective social fact in the sense that there is no definitive claim to universal understanding about what has already happened, what is currently going on or what is likely to happen in the future. Rather, for Mead, "every conception of the past is construed from the standpoint of the new problems of today" (Schwartz, 1991: 221).

Furthermore, to find justification in a permanent or "irrefragable past" is, according to Mead, an endeavour hampered by awareness that "different minds within a generation will discover different pasts" (Mead, 1938: 95). In Mead's view, the definition of the present is always subject to change in light of the claims-making activities of social actors in the real world. Moreover, as real world events change over time, news frames must become "flexible to accommodate new contents and perspectives, and to rearrange what is already [embedded] within the frame" (Knight, 2001: 74). When applied to studies of media discourse, this suggests that news coverage organizes our understanding of everyday life in its temporal sense, i.e., it structures our awareness of the past in ways that are shaped by, and become meaningful for, claims about current or future needs. Indeed, as Schudson (1992) argues, journalistic accounts of the past not only legitimate the authoritative status of newsmakers as storytellers but they al so provide newsmakers and readers alike with analytic tools for describing and constructing meaning about future problems.

The temporal dimension of visual news discourse is of sociological importance not only because cartoons provide a lens through which an implied version of the past may be examined vis-a-vis present conditions but also because media accounts of social phenomena have repercussions for how societies relate to their own histories (Edy, 1999: 73). The claims constructed in political cartoons are illustrative of whether a society will see itself as a collective or a mosaic of different groups, whether it will interrogate its past critically or accept it as given, and whether and how it will see the past as relevant to the needs of the present and future. Thus, political cartoons not only grasp the way in which visual discourse conveys social experience, but cartoons also help constitute the subjectivities and identities of social subjects, their relations, and the field in which they exist (Purvis and Hunt, 1993).

Of course, this is not to say that political cartoons causally affect how individuals and groups will define themselves in moments of stability or crisis. Rather, in speaking of visual discourse, it is probably more accurate to refer to "the persuasion to attitude, rather than persuasion to out-and-out action" (Burke, 1962: 574; emphases added). Political cartoons are an optic to a "timely topic that exploits commonplaces of a transitory nature" (586). Political cartoons are thus both informative and persuasive. Cartoons render normative judgements about social issues by employing a variety of journalistic conventions, such as figures of speech, metaphors and irony As Savarese (2000: 365) notes, persuasive techniques such as the aforementioned are used either "deliberately or unwittingly to convince the public of a certaln point of view (for or against something) without being explicit." As the empirical portion of this study will endeavour to show, the persuasiveness of any claim about a given "social proble m" will resonate only when the audience being addressed is living in and experiencing a set of socio-historical conditions that enable those claims to make sense," that is, when the temporal positions of social actors correspond to the structural organization of discourse about phenomena in a meaningful way.

Methodological Considerations

This paper employs a hermeneutic framework for the analysis of political cartoons as visual news discourse. In doing so, it takes seriously Thompson's statement that discourse analysis should involve "a synthetic construction, a creative projection, of a possible meaning" (1990: 133). A word of caution: the political provenance of an approach of this sort requires methodological clarity, for as Purvis and Hunt (1993: 484) state, "the discursive practices through which subjects are constituted ... may have, but do not necessarily have, ideological effects." Thus, visual discourse analysis does not reveal how newsreaders will actually interpret the content of a cartoon in the context of everyday life. Rather, hermeneutic analysis of political cartoons allows the analyst to describe the "materiality" of discourse at the point of reader contact and provides clues to the range of possible readings readers may construct. Though a reader may be able to decipher, in whole or in part, the preferred interpretation of t he cartoon, this is not to say that s/he will accept it ipso facto (Knight, 2001).

Whereas most studies of social problems construction criticize news media for amplifying the situation and exaggerating the general public's level of anxiety (Sparks, 1992), significantly less attention has been paid to examining the visual signs and symbols that accompany written news reports. A hermeneutic analysis of political cartoons and its relation to social problems construction acknowledges the role that cultural and symbolic representations, myths, narratives and meanings play in organizing everyday experience and the interpretive process that ensues. Such a framework "accords to the various levels of human consciousness a fundamental role in the ontology of social problems" (Lupton and Tulloch, 1999: 510).

In making a case for the sociological import of political cartoons, this study draws upon the methodological schema developed by Morris's sociology of visual rhetoric (1989; 1991; 1992a; 1992b; 1993; 1995). Morris argues that cartoons capture the endless binary oppositions that organize social representations about the world and provide, as it were, a "cognitive map" for understanding everyday life. According to Morris (1993: 198-99), cartoons establish social goals and devise the division of labour needed to attain these by:

1. establishing the source of the cartoon (i.e., artist, newspaper) as an authority or expert in relation to the event or problem in question and identifying, locating and labelling certain "other" elements as "troublesome";

2. constructing a specific frame and setting an agenda that will "create or excite interest in a problem, generate a sense of intellectual crisis, identify the nature of the crisis, pinpoint its symptoms, and propose a course of action as the effective remedy";

3. constructing a normative agenda against which newsreaders may evaluate the cartoon's characters in moral terms; and

4. promoting the "desire for action" by ensuring that the preferred message resonates with the lived experiences of the audience.

Morris (1993: 199-202) also argues that four rhetorical devices will affect the contents, intended meanings and negotiated meanings of political cartoons. First, condensation involves the compression of disconnected or complexly related events to a common, singular frame. Second, combination involves the construction and organization of various elements or ideas from different domains with numerous and perhaps conflicting meanings. Third, opposition is a process whereby the complexity of a problem or event is reduced to a binary struggle. And fourth, domestication (see also Goffman, 1979) occurs when distant events remote from the everyday experience(s) of the reader are translated into concrete happenings that can be experienced as close and familiar.

To enrich Morris's schema, it is instructive to consider the ways in which visual discourse of the world transfers meaning and causal blame along a referential chain of signifiers within a particular image. Thus, I propose an additional analytic device: the notion of "transference." Transference normally operates in an implicit way that absolves the cartoon's actors of their absurd actions or commentary by displacing blame to another, normally non-visible, actor. The notion of "transference" fits neatly within the rhetorical framework of opinion discourse in that it not only evaluates social phenomena and social process, but it also explains these events in ways that have first and foremost to do with the allocation of blame and attribution of responsibility (Greenberg, 2000). One final caveat is worth mentioning here, which is that when performing empirical analysis, each of these processes--condensation, combination, opposition, domestication and transference--should not be treated independently but, rathe r, as strategies of "meaning-making" that operate within a broader "repertoire of cultural evaluation" (Lamont and Thevenot, 2000).

Context: The Putative "Problem" of Illegal Immigration to Canada

Crucial to the analysis of discourse is an awareness of the broader context within which a "social problem" is constructed. During the summer of 1999, four unmarked boats in near-abysmal condition arrived at the coast of British Columbia, Canada, transporting 599 undocumented, would-be refugees from China's Fujian province. From the arrival of the first boat, tension mounted among media observers, politicians, immigration advocacy groups and other non-governmental organizations, nationalist groups, academics, citizen groups and others, concerning Canada's commitment to provide humanitarian aid to those in need without appearing, at the same time, too lenient to unqualified, would-be refugees. Although upwards of 30,000 refugees from around the world attempt entry to Canada every year (Beiser, 1999), news coverage of these events suggested that these Chinese migrants were posing a unique and significant threat to law and order and national security Consider the following quotes from some of Canada's daily news papers:

If people can get around all of those [immigration laws], then you expose yourself to all of those dangers . . . criminal elements and people with violent political habits and communicable diseases (Preston Manning, Leader of the Reform Party, quoted in Danard, 1999: A1).

There are so many things that depress me about ... the near anarchy and chaos ... inflicted upon the country's immigration system that I hardly know where to start. Perhaps the best place to begin is with the debasement of our citizenship which all this entails. If all one has to do to gain this prized citizenship is jump ashore in Canada and holler "refugee," then we obviously do not think it is that valuable (John Crispo, Professor Emeritus of Political Economy, University of Toronto, Op-Ed column, Toronto Sun, 1999: 15).

Those chinese women who find themselves paying off their passage in the whorehouses of Vancouver and Toronto will I'm sure, be gratified to know that the federal government regards them as the moral corrective to the dark stain of Canada's history (Mark Steyn, National Post columnist, 1999: A18).

In order for political cartoons to be cognitively persuasive, they must address a timely topic that exploits transitory, common-sense ideas (Burke, 1962). Given this, even an exceptionally humorous cartoon exploiting the subject of "migration waves" (If, in fact, readers find such a topic humorous) would have a hard time getting published during periods when fewer migration attempts are made by asylum seekers, such as during the winter months when sea voyages to Canada are a climatic impossibility. Thus, the above quotes are offered in order to provide a sense of the discursive context from which the cartoons that comprise the next portion of the study can be seen to make sense. It suggests that as "part of the gallery for news accounts" (Gamson and Stuart, 1992: 61), political cartoonists draw upon, reinforce and reproduce the commentary of opinion columnists, editorial writers and other claims-makers or "opinion formulators" (van Dijk, 1998) featured more prominently in media discourse.

Analysis: Two Illustrative Examples

The two cartoons shown below illustrate some of the theoretical imperatives and methodological processes discussed above. (3) To varying degrees these cartoons illustrate the rhetorical processes of condensation, opposition, combination, domestication and transference in accounting for some of the responses and reactions to the migrants' arrivals by political, media and lay audiences alike.

The primary agent of folly in both cartoons is the federal government, whose immigration and refugee policies are held up to be not only intrinsically flawed but also negative in their consequences for Canadian citizens. This supports Press's (1981: 107-10) argument that satirical art in liberal democratic countries tends most often to involve appraisals of state performance, which emphasize the foolishness of government rather than private citizens and corporations. However, this criticism of government is implicit in this instance since "government" does not have a visible presence in either cartoon. Rather, humour, irony and irreverence are generated out of the ludicrous schemes hatched by the farmers in Figure 1 and the response of the upwardly mobile Canadians depicted in Figure 2.

The first cartoon, "Farmers and Immigrants" (6 September 1999), was published in the Vancouver Sun--a middlebrow family newspaper catering to a socio-economically diverse readership--and shows four farmers devising a strategy for gaining financial assistance from the state. Depending on the reader's situated position in social life, s/he may find it difficult to identify with these "simple folks," leaving the question of ideological appropriation uncertain. However, given that the cartoon has been published in a major newspaper that circulates in one of the country's densest urban areas, and especially due to the prominence of a "crisis" in farmer incomes as a salient issue in the Canadian news media at the time of the boat arrivals, it is quite possible that although the reader may not relate personally to the farmers' frustrations, s/he may do so empathetically.

Having established the farmers as comical characters, the artist then attributes to one of them a common-sense utterance suggesting that the first responsibility of the state should be to take care of its own citizens before attending to the wants of others. News coverage of these events indicated that among lay and expert communities there was widespread belief that the United Nations human rights convention enabling asylum seekers to more easily claim refugee status was too lax and opened the immigration and refugee systems up to abuse by criminals, thereby harming Canadian citizens and negatively affecting the ability of the state to meet new demands (Greenberg and Hier, 2001). While the artist is not presenting himself as a purveyor of "truth" by providing information that the reader lacks, he is telling the reader what the public is already presumed to know, which is that non-citizens are getting state assistance while "needy" Canadians are not. While mocking the absurdity of the farmers' plan, the arti st indicates no disagreement with their general viewpoint or with the emotional rationale motivating their plan for action.

The prescription of action is implicit in the causal connection that changing the refugee determination process will mean that farmers can now receive help from the state. The image suggests that the federal government's priority of addressing the needs of "legitimate" citizens is so out of whack that it is more willingly attending to the demands of "illegitimate" foreigners. Evoking emotion and promoting a desire for action is articulated here through the extreme ends to which the farmers are willing to go in order to gain the help they feel is rightly deserved. In this sense, the farmers' extremism is portrayed simply as a reaction to or mirror image of the government's absurd policy priorities. The ends to which the farmers are willing to go are also a measure of the distance between their priorities, i.e. the implied priorities of "real" Canadians, and the artist's appraisal of the state's priorities.

The absurdity of the farmers' scheme is also transferred implicitly to the absurdity of the migrants' arrivals. In this sense, transference operates as a mechanism of meaning construction that, on the one hand, travels along an articulatory chain of referents while, on the other, making this articulatory travel possible. The artist condenses the entire refugee process to a rather simple scheme, showing that if refugees can have it this easy, so too should farmers. Rather than working to change the government's stance in terms of restoring previously cut expenditures on farmer income, the characters seem convinced that a loophole in the refugee law is the surest and only means of obtaining their goal. The clearest indication that the cartoon employs the process of combination is the linkage of increased transnational population movements with decreased government funding to Canadian farmers, insofar as the image blends into a single and complete frame, containing both the crisis in immigration and the crisis in farmer income. The reader is invited by the cartoon characters to see the immigration and refugee system as the "cause" of (and solution to) the problems facing farmers.

The implications are numerous, but three are especially noteworthy: first, the suggestion is made that making a refugee claim is an easy, seamless process that offers great riches; second, the speaker suggests that the government bureaucracy is glaringly ineffective, i.e., the system is broken; and third the cartoon is "blind" to the positive characteristics of the country's policy so far as the presence of refugees is concerned. The cartoon does not address claims pertaining to the miserable material realities and deprivations that normally motivate refuge-seekers to flee their homelands, and it reduces the issue of farmer funding to a binary struggle ("us" versus "them"; "our" needs versus "their" wants). One may argue that what results from this is a dialectical construction of "self" and "other" that depicts a traditional conception of Canada under threat by a surge or wave of illegal migration, an interpretation consistent with Clarkson's (2000) textual analysis and Greenberg and flier's (2001) content analysis of press coverage of these events. This interpretation also suggests the importance of Burke's (1962: 579-83; 1966: 301-02) assessment that a key principle of rhetoric is "identification": "that kind of elation wherein the audience feels as though it were not merely receiving, but were itself creatively participating in the [artist's] assertion."

The second cartoon, "Brain Drain," published just after the third boat arrival (7 September) in the National Post--a right-of-centre highbrow paper with a national distribution that addresses Canada's political and business elite--establishes the artist as among a faction of Canadians profoundly concerned about the future prosperity of the domestic labour force and the economy. In this case, the federal government is again the target of blame and the agent of responsibility. Illegal immigration, however, is used as a lightning rod for public anxiety about other pressing "social problems," in this case the current state of tax policy and the problem this has created in terms of retaining an upwardly mobile class of young professionals. While the rate of tax reduction in Canada remains much slower than in the United States, sharp drops in personal income tax rates and stimulated growth in the high technology sector in the U.S. are believed by many elite claims-makers to entice highly educated and skilled Canad ians away from home.

In the second cartoon, a massive ship carrying Canadian citizens is shown to be sailing to the United States. The Canadian passengers are gesturing rudely at the small tugboat of illegal immigrants who, we are to assume given the direction of the boat, are on their way to "freedom" in Canada. In framing this issue, the cartoonist suggests that the negative effects of immigration policies are compounding the negative effects of taxation policies. The relationship of these two issues may be interpreted in three ways: first, that problem A (immigration) has a direct and causal relationship to problem B (brain drain); second, the relationship between these problems is ridiculous, and the cartoon is intended to be ironic; and third, while the public is becoming so upset over a small number of migrants whose wish is to come to Canada, no one is bothered by those citizens who, trained and educated by Canadian tax dollars, wish only to leave the country.

The cartoon implies that, on the one hand, the economic situation at home is so bad that the government cannot keep its own citizens from seeking a better life abroad--a "good life" is thus equated with economic prosperity. Seen this way, the "mooning" can be interpreted as being directed not at the migrants per se but the government. At the same time, the cartoon implies that less skilled, illegal immigrants, who are also in search of the good life, will fill the jobs that have been vacated by the brain-drainers. Whereas the first cartoon omits the material deprivations likely motivating asylum-seeking voyages abroad, missing from the primary frame in the second cartoon are the numerous other ships from all over the world (including the U.S.) bringing skilled and educated foreigners to Canada. Unlike in Figure 1, the artist does not appear to be offering the reader concerned about the "brain drain" any direct prescriptions to action (except maybe that it's time to leave) which is to say that there is no ind ication about what should be done to resolve the double problem of too many migrants arriving whilst too many Canadians are leaving.

Not all of the rhetorical processes discussed so far are as apparent in this cartoon as in the first one. The clearest processes at work appear to be those of transference and combination: the government's foolish immigration policy is combined with and linked to the foolishness of its taxation policies; and the problem of emigrating skilled Canadians is transferred onto the problem of immigrating unwanted foreigners. By framing the situation in this way, the cartoon is reinforcing a binary logic that positions "our" problems on the same plane with "their" presence. Moreover, the second cartoon appears to be interpolating readers across both nationalistic and economic axes, calling into question the country's ability to compete in the global marketplace, a concern rooted in the "reality" that desirable citizens are leaving in search of low-tax havens whilst undesirables are taking their places.


It is instructive at this point to recall the usefulness of Mead's notion of temporality for investigating how news discourse conceptualizes contemporary "social problems" in terms of past events, situated presents and future goals. In relation to framing analysis, the symbolic construction of temporal awareness is of paramount interest to sociologists interested in the ways in which the contours of public discourse are organized. It is important, then, to interrogate which topics the media present to the public for consideration and debate, and how claims about these topics are presented. Part of the standard critique of mainstream news coverage of social problems is that the news fails to adequately contextualize (historically, politically, culturally and otherwise) the events on which it reports. In Gitlin's (1980: 28) terms, newsworthiness is measured according to "traditional assumptions in news treatment: news concerns the event, not the underlying condition; the person, not the group; conflict, not con sensus; the fact that "advances the story," not the one that explains it" (emphases in original). This is to say that when news coverage focusses explicitly on immediacy (hundreds of illegal migrants from unknown regions of the world have arrived and declared refugee status) at the expense of examining the broader historical and political (i.e., push/pull) forces that have given rise to this (e.g., the capitalist world system is widening the gap between rich and poor countries, thereby creating a global environment more amenable to illegal transnational population movements) it is doing so in relation to a certain, taken-for-granted understanding of how the world works. The implication of this is that fragmented or partial accounts of an event contribute to a fragmented or partial picture of the situation. The lack of historical and social context creates a discursive space where readers are less likely to fully appreciate, understand or interpret the implications of events and issues (Larson, 1986).

Mead argued that the social construction of the past is of sociological concern because of the political, ideological and material implications it poses. The image of the destitute farmer, coupled with the implicit proposition that migrants and refugees "have it easy," connotes the gradual or eruptive collapse of what were previously shared perceptions about basic certainties, that is, old modes of capital accumulation and relations among citizens are being supplanted by something new and unknown. (4) Such depictions situate or place "readers qua subjects" within specific discursive contexts (Hall, 1977). For example, the interpellation of the "law-abiding citizen" brings into play a certain configuration of discourses which are presupposed to motivate such subjects to celebrate "hard work" and "respect for the law," and which set up the possibility of opposition to "rule breakers" and others who eschew these normative standards. When public debate is inflected with normative linguistic terminologies, such as referring to refugees as "illegals," "queue-jumpers" or "aliens," this attribution precludes analysis of the concrete ideological, political and economic conditions refuge-seekers might experience in their homelands (cf. van Duk, 1998). The extent to which graphic depictions of "migrant waves" will resonate with readers and precipitate attitudinal change or the desire to act is an empirical question which requires a methodological schema different from that employed here. Whether we are referring to visual or verbal/written journalistic texts, discourse "provides a vehicle for thought, communication and action" (Purvis and Hunt, 1993: 485). That is, visual news discourse has both an ideational and material quality that confronts readers and poses possibilities for changes in consciousness and calls to action.


The imaginary worlds that are depicted in political cartoons utilize comedic conventions to provide newsreaders with views of everyday life (Morris, 1991). The cartoons discussed here, addressing the "social problem" of "migrant waves," emphasize how the mundane discourses and rhetorical style germane to satirical journalism are illustrative of the discursive insinuation of concern and anxiety into daily life (Sparks, 1992). Thus, while cartoons are normally understood by readers to be satirical depictions of real events, they nevertheless draw from an available stock of public knowledge and reproduce a common-sense view of the world. In much the same way that newspaper editorial writers attempt to pressure political decision-makers to act in a particular way, the claims embedded within political cartoons have the capacity of persuading readers toward attitudinal change. Thus, cartoonists draw on timely topics that have already been established in the mainstream media as worthy of public attention. Though the y speak of the world in hyperfigurative terms, political cartoons are but one mode of opinion news discourse that enables the public to actively classify, organize and interpret what they see and experience in meaningful ways.

Limitations to the approach developed here deserve mention. First, as a primarily textualist analysis of cartoon discourse, the approach to visual discourse undertaken here may be seen as overly speculative, that is, offering no grounded views on what audience responses to such discourse would actually be. Whilst research into audience reception of these cartoons would no doubt strengthen the analysis, it is by no means a requisite stage through which all discourse analysis must proceed. A broader research agenda examining lay opinions about immigration and the construction of social problems generally needs to explore not just symbolic and metaphorical representation, which has been left largely unexplored by scholars but is attempted here (see also Best, 1991 and Lupton and Tulloch, 1999), but also the microcontextual contexts in which opinions about immigration and refugee issues are generated and experienced by newsreaders. Second, it may be objected that the cartoons discussed here have been misinterpret ed altogether. Satirical journalism in democratic countries is most often directed toward the decision making of government officials and so a political cartoon that targets the official state apparatuses (e.g., the Department of Immigration) is normally carried out as a "friendly gesture to ensure democracy lives up to its own ideals" (Morris, 1992b: 153; Press, 1981). This having been said, there should be little disagreement over the general interpretation that these cartoons depict the current immigration/refugee and taxation policies as "not normal" and in need of change before things get any worse--and as attributing direct blame for the ensuing chaos to the federal government and, if less directly, to the migrants themselves. And third, the attachment of meaning to the actions and opinions of the characters in each cartoon depends on a "cultural familiarity" (Morris, 1991: 249--50) and awareness of current events that is assumed by both the artist and analyst. That is, the reader who is sensitized by a n awareness of Canada's historic maltreatment of Chinese immigrants will likely reach entirely different conclusions about the meanings of these cartoons than a person with no such understanding of Canadian history. This suggests that political cartoonists will construct their accounts of "news" against a backdrop of assumptions about the social world, assumptions they expect to share with an implied readership community. Thus, whether we are talking about "food scares" (Fowler, 1991), "terrorism" (Wittebols, 1991) or "migrant waves," storytellers (journalists, cartoonists, novelists, etc.) shape the form and content of their accounts with a particular understanding about who their readers are and what they will find interesting, informative and humorous.

* The author wishes to thank Graham Knight, Charlene Miall, Sean Hier, Candace Kemp and the anonymous reviewers appointed by the journal for their insight and suggestions, as well as Cameron Cardow for his gracious response to questions and permission to reproduce his cartoons for the purposes of this study. This manuscript was first submitted in June 2001 and accepted in February 2002.

(1.) On epistemological tensions between "hard" news and "opinion" discourse, see, inter alia, Hackett and Zhao (1994).

(2.) Research on news photography (Hall, 1973; Banks, 1994; Kress and van Leeuwen, 1998; Huxford, 2001) and political cartoons (Morris, 1989; 1991; 1992a; 1992b; 1993; 1995; Gombrich, 1978; Press, 1981; Emmison and McHoul, 1987; Gamson and Stuart, 1992) have been sparse and disconnected when compared to research on conventional "hard news" reporting.

(3.) The author wishes to thank the artist, Cameron Cardow, for permission to repirnt these cartoons for the purposes of this discussion and for providing his account of why "migrant waves," "brain drain" and "farmer income crisis" were timely topics.

(4.) This image resonates with current theorizing about the advent of "late modernity," i.e., that the period of industrial capitalism is being replaced by a global risk society characterized by the "infiltration of new insecurities into the secure milieu of the welfare state" (Beck, 1997: 12; emphasis added). Illegal immigration is presented in these cartoons as one such insecurity about which we ought to be concerned.


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