The October 2003 issue of National Geographic magazine featured a 40-page cover story on the nation of Saudi Arabia. The lengthy article and 27 photographs both attempted to paint a portrait of a complex society in which modernity and tradition coexist, sometimes easily, sometimes not.
But in spite of the editors' best intentions, the text and images actually conveyed quite different impressions, with the visual information ultimately undermining the thrust of the story. That's the conclusion of a study just published in Journalism, an academic journal.
In the study, conducted by Andrew Mendelson and Fabienne Darling-Wolf of Temple University, 42 undergraduates were presented with a version of the 2003 magazine feature. One-third of the participants read the text only. Another third only saw the accompanying photographs, while the final third saw the text and photographs as they were originally presented in the periodical.
Afterward, their impressions were shared in focus-group interviews.
The encouraging news is that "all versions of the story successfully managed, at least to some extent, to challenge previously held perceptions," the researchers write. Even those who viewed only the photos were struck by images of Saudi cities, which were far more modern than they had imagined.
However, "participants having only viewed the photographs were more likely to remain focused on the more exotic, foreign and tribal characteristics of the Middle Eastern nation than those having read only the text," they note. "Despite their initial surprise at photographs of cities, suburban homes, and car-filled parking lots, photos-only participants repeatedly chose to focus on one image of a camel."
"In contrast," the researchers write, "those having read only the text of the article most frequently commented on the diversity of Saudi society, the level of urbanization and technological development and America's cultural influence."
OK, but what about those who — like the magazine's regular readers — were exposed to both the words and images? For them, the text "seemed to successfully mitigate participants' impressions of Saudi anti-Americanism," but it did not "successfully counteract the exoticized image of Saudi Arabia that informants brought to the study."
The researchers found "the presence of images resonating with the perceptions of Arabs that participants brought to the interview (camels, desert, palaces, Aladdin) seemed to work to reinforce rather than challenge such perceptions." This occurred "even though images aimed at contradicting such stereotypes (cities, cars, modern homes) were also included in the articles — and despite the article's efforts to complicate such perceptions in its textual description."
The scholars concluded that "regardless of the photographers' and/or editors' intent ... the most stereotypical photographs were the ones that ultimately stuck in the viewers' minds." Presumably as a result, "readers exposed to the visual narrative — even when combined with the textual narrative — expressed more stereotypical views of the subjects than those exposed to the text only."
So what can editors of illustrated books, magazines and newspapers take away from this study? "If the photos and text are meant to tell a unified story, perhaps another format is needed," the researchers write. "This could be accomplished through explicit references within the story to issues raised in the photographs, or the explicit references in the captions to issues raised in the story."
In other words, be aware that the text and the images may be telling two different stories, and take steps to integrate them — or risk diluting the impact of the journalism. That photo of a camel may be eye-catching, but it won't lead readers out of the desert of misconceptions.