Haunting Images: Differential Perception and Emotional Response to the Archetypes of News Photography: A Study of Visual Reception Factored by Gender and Expertise

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This dissertation explores how and why certain news photographs become memorable. Although researchers believe news photos count as forms of media expression, no one knows how influential these images really are in shaping societal attitudes. Social constructionist critics have argued that iconic images are pervasive markers of American collective memory. While icons have become the subject of intense media study, critics have ignored the presence of image archetypes that fall outside of the boundaries of the American iconic canon. They have also followed a top-down procedure of interpretation rather than a bottom-up method of collecting data from actual subjects.

As I define it, the news image archetype is an authentically captured image of a human predicament of the greatest magnitude and seriousness showing conflict, tragedy, and occasionally, triumph. Visually these images communicate through physical gestures and facial expressions either directly, when faces are visible, or by implication in panoramic shots.

Archetypal images can be iconic but need not be. Whereas icons are presumed to appeal to "everybody" by modeling ideology and "civic performance," archetypes need not exhibit any particular ideology. The common thread is more universally human than political. For this reason their appeal tends to be trans-cultural.

This mixed-method study tests audience response to 41 outstanding news photographs including iconic, archetypal and ordinary examples. The purpose is to ascertain whether archetypal images can be distinguished and recalled as outstanding exemplars outside the iconic category; whether image quality preferences vary by visual expertise and gender; and how study subjects "read" the archetype.

Using 2X2 ANOVA design, I studied four independent groups: male/female, visual expert/visual non-expert; n = 113. Study data indicate a convergence of ranking preference for some non-iconic archetypes that were rated as highly as famous icons. However, the strongest results show a convergence as to which image qualities (e.g., aesthetics, newsworthiness, emotional arousal etc.) were most important to viewers. The study found statistically significant differences of judgment on image qualities factored by gender and expertise. Qualitative results provided rich insights on factors affecting viewer response while composite data suggest multiple lines of future research.