Despite the perception in some quarters that cartoons constitute an important medium for framing social issues, they are often dismissed on the grounds of political absurdity and ideological insignificance. Cartoons are seen as offering just "passing chuckles" rather than any "deep reflection" on social issues. The perception may be related to the cartoon's discursive spatial limitation and its very nature as a visual mode of communication. Visual modes of communication are deemed deficient in performing analytical communication. By grounding cartoons within a theory of visual semiotics and visual persuasion, this paper attempts to address some of the concerns raised about the effectiveness of editorial cartoons. It attempts to find out how cartoons, as uniquely visual forms of communication, signify their meanings and manage to offer "deep reflection," rather than just simple "passing chuckle" on social issues.
Effectiveness of Cartoons As a Uniquely Visual Medium for Orienting Social Issues
IntroductionChris Lamb's book, Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons, paints a picture of the shrinking role of editorial cartoonists who are increasingly sidelined by a newspaper industry focused on the bottom-line. However, the recent Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in Denmark, which sparked violent protests around the world, speak to the continuing importance and potential power of cartoons as a medium of political communication.Some scholars see cartoons as an important medium for the formation of public opinion on salient social issues (Everette, 1974; Vinson, 1967). They are seen as "both opinion-molding and opinion-reflecting" (Caswell, 2004, p. 14), and they provide subtle frameworks within which to examine the life and political processes of a nation (DeSousa & Medhurst, 1982). Cartoons are intended to transform otherwise complex and opaque social events and situations into quick and easily readable depictions that facilitate comprehension of the nature of social issues and events. In doing so, they present society with visually palpable and hyper-ritualized depictions (selectively exaggerated portions of 'reality') that attempt to reveal the essence and meaning of social events.DeSousa and Medhurst (1982) identify four main functions of editorial cartoons: an entertainment function, which derives from the ability of cartoons to make us laugh at situations and individuals; an aggression-reduction function, which derives from the fact that cartoons provide a symbolic avenue for the public to vent its frustrations against social leaders; an agenda-setting function, through providing readers with a sense of the most salient issues and topics in society; and a framing function, the product of its spatial limitation (its condensed nature) and therefore its need to distill complex social issues into a single frame that captures the essence of an issue. The authors contend, "The major function of cartoons for readers, however, is as a frame for encompassing complex issues and events" (1984, p. 205).Cartoons are part of a mediated filtering system that helps construction and framing of social reality (Williams, 1997). The mass media have a major role in defining social issues (Spector & Kitsuse, 1977; Best, 1995). Their representations constitute ways of knowing, articulating, and interpreting different facets of our environment, and thus ways of exerting knowledge and power in society (Fiske, 1996). Editorial cartoons, as an integral part of the media, also play an important role in this process. While they occupy a very limited space in the print media, they are considered as playing a very important role in the editorial content of newspaper (Ursitti & Nordin, 1995).Coupe (1969, p. 82) argues that, "like all journalists, the cartoonist is concerned with the creation and manipulation of public opinion." But political cartoons are opinion messages, not factual reports. Cartoons are considered social and political commentary (Pieper & Clear, 1995) and provide a safe avenue for expressing opinions (Conners, 1995). They are journalistic visual commentary designed to influence readers in particular ways. While news reporters, emphasizing professional goals of value neutrality and objectivity, strive to create reports, the content of which are "deliberately void of meaningful interpretations of events" (Streicher, 1967, p. 439), cartoonists are free to choose sides. Caswell (2004, p. 15) sees cartoons as "rhetorical devices, persuasive communication analogous to print editorials and op-ed columns that are intended to influence readers." Cartoons, therefore, reveal themselves as more explicitly political and constructed rather than as attempts at objective renditions of social events. The cartoonist or caricaturist as an image constructor has the goal of purposefully condensing often very complex meanings "into a single configuration, a striking image" (Streicher, 1967, p. 434). Within a very abbreviated amount of space, they interpret nations, figures and events (Streicher, p. 438).Despite the perception that cartoons constitute an important medium for framing social issues, they are often dismissed on the grounds of political absurdity and ideological insignificance. E. H. Gombrich, in his 1985 article "The Cartoonist's Armory," commented on the extent to which political cartoons have been slighted as an important medium to be studied. Greenberg (2002, p. 181) notes that, "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 seriously." At the core of the slight and criticism is a consideration of the effectiveness of cartoons as a medium for orienting the public's understanding of social issues. For example, Robert Meadows contends:As elements of the popular culture they are the most explicitly political. But to th...