Contemporary society is becoming more and more dependent on visual media, not only for entertainment, but for information and news as well. Therefore, journalism has been forced to adapt to this shift in order to appeal to modern audiences. The rise of photojournalism brought with it a new set of rules and strategies for reporting news, framing stories, and forming ideologies for audiences. (Parry, 2010). When looking at photojournalism in politics, a new issue of “pseudo events” has become common (Marland, 2012). According to Marland (2012), pseudo events are “activities designed to achieve media coverage which are so devoid of substance that their newsworthiness is open to interpretation” (p. 215). Essentially, they are presented as reality, but are executed solely for the purpose of visually framing the subject in a positive manner. They are usually completely staged for the purpose of the photo being taken, due to the increased demand of visual representation in contemporary society. In the case of Justin Trudeau, Canada’s 23rd and current Prime Minister who was elected in 2015, visual framing was and is a fundamental aspect of his campaign. Trudeau’s public relations team is world renowned, and he has been deemed the “the political equivalent of a YouTube puppy video” by many critics (Kassam, 2017).
This is an issue first because it frames subjects in an overly favorable way, impacting the public’s perception of them, without that favoritism being necessarily earned. This may result in them having less accountability to their promises, since they are seen favorably regardless. This is the case with Justin Trudeau’s representation in media and the news.
Figure 1 above is a prime example of a pseudo event captured for the sake of positively framing Trudeau for the public. In the photo, Trudeau is captured running past a group of students taking grad photos for their prom in the spring of 2017. It was later revealed that this photo was taken by one of Trudeau’s photographers, proving that the photo op was no coincidence, and indeed another publicity stunt. It may seem harmless, but the use of pseudo events such as this critically impact the way a politician is framed in the media, and strongly helps to shape citizens’ opinions of them (Marland, 2012).
Secondly, the use of visual framing in pseudo events can be argued as a form of propaganda and does not hold up to the unbiased and objective standards that journalism is usually held to (Becker, 1995). Parry (2010) argues that visual framing in photojournalism plays a key role in how news is interpreted today. Therefore, images such as figure 1 carry a lot more weight to them than meets the eye. Although many may write it off as being harmless, the continuous and strategic exposure to such visuals can result in the public’s perceptions being skewed away from the truth. By using such tactics, Trudeau has the potential to gain intense favoritism that could cloud citizens judgments of him, allowing him to get away with things that he otherwise would be scrutinized for. Although this hasn’t resulted in anything substantial yet, it is important to be aware of the impact such framings can have over our ideologies (Burgin, 1982).
On the other hand, there are some benefits to the tactics used to frame Trudeau, such as gaining the attention of more and younger populations to be interested in Canadian politics, getting media attention for marginalized groups such as the indigenous peoples, and helping Canadian politics gain a better reputation worldwide. Although the use of pseudo events can be perceived as being insincere, or even worse as propaganda, one could also argue that it brings to light important issues that are otherwise not given attention. For example, Trudeau often speaks up on and makes appearances at events for issues that are widely ignored by other politicians (such as Donald Trump).
Journalists should take responsibility for ensuring the news they report stays unambiguous, transparent, and objective (Becker, 1995). This becomes difficult when public relations, marketing, and other levels of news media are involved. Therefore, the public needs to be educated enough to be able to decipher between photojournalism, on the one hand, and photo ops or pseudo events on the other. By doing so, they will gain the power to see through the gimmicks of PR campaigns. Our politicians will then be required to do more than smile pretty for the camera, and instead live up to the promises that they made when they were elected.
Katie Denslow (Rotterdam, The Netherlands)
Figure 1: Justin “caught” running by a high school prom. Kassam, A. (2017, May 26). Stop running from the truth: Justin Trudeau is playing us with his PR stunts. Retrieved January 28, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/26/justin-trudeau-jogging-yoga-shirtless-photos-pr-stunts
Becker, H. S. (1995) ‘Visual Sociology, Documentary Photography, and Photojournalism: It’s (Almost) All a Matter of Context’, Visual Sociology 10(1–2): 5–14.
Burgin, V. (1982) Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan.
Kassam, A. (2017, May 26). Stop running from the truth: Justin Trudeau is playing us with his PR stunts. Retrieved January 28, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/26/justin-trudeau-jogging-yoga-shirtless-photos-pr-stunts
Marland, A. (2012). Political Photography, Journalism, and Framing in the Digital Age: The Management of Visual Media by the Prime Minister of Canada. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 17(2), 214–233.
Parry, K. (2010). A visual framing analysis of British press photography during the 2006 Israel–Lebanon conflict. Media, War & Conflict, 3(1), 67-85.