Dissertation; Gaines, Elliot, I. Ph.D. June 1995

Mass Communication, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio.


Celebrities and Ideology In Television News: The Semiotic Demise Of Tonya Harding.


        The everyday practices of American television news conceal assumptions about culture and communication. Based on an understanding that news functions as a source of information necessary in a free society, the culture of broadcast journalism routinely produces interpretations of events selected from random occurrences in the world. However, woven into the fabric of facts and information, there is a system of values structured into stories that inhabit the technological context of TV news. Thus, television news is problematic because it claims to communicate a non-fiction presentation of real world events.

        This study examines the material practices of communication, the techniques and technology used by the institution of network television news. Using a cultural studies approach based on a semiotic analysis, this study focuses on the news circulated about figure skater Tonya Harding and the 1994 incident involving Nancy Kerrigan. This story was chosen as an exemplar that reveals the cultural and ideological assumptions embedded in the practices and structures of news production. Detailed descriptions of the empirical elements of network news reports illuminate the discursive practices of broadcast journalism and facilitate the critical interpretation of the semiotic text.


“The Semiotics of Media Images from Independence Day & September 11th 2001”

Toward a Relevant Truth of Media Images

The events of September 11, 2001 have altered assumptions about how people in the USA understand the context of their lives.  Many people watched news coverage of the events on television.  While unified by shock, grief, fear and outrage, media discourse surrounding the meanings of events and the subsequent matter of determining what to do, inevitably takes up different political points of view.  Because of the complexities of politics, history, and the limits of information available, the pervasive public discourse seeking the meaning of the events is dominated in American media, not so much by facts, but by rational appeals advancing partisan perspectives.  As Charles Sanders Peirce stated:

If one’s desire is neither to excite an idea nor to record a fact but to make a rational appeal, the only sort of sign that can possibly answer that purpose is that which represents its object by virtue of the disposition of the interpreter,--that is to say, a Symbol ( 1998: 461). 

Thus, the veracity of such appeals is limited to the symbolic nature of the discursive sign.  Images of the events are also simultaneously symbols and signs of the meanings relating to things that actually happened.  The sign functions as an index referring to the actual occurrences (of September 11, 2001) while the symbolic nature of the images evokes connotative meanings.  Connotations are understood as the meanings implied as a consequence of something, perceived from within a particular context or cultural understanding.  What one accepts as real is often based on beliefs that may or may not be true.  Knowledge is an embodied sense of lived experience mediated through cultural myths traditionally conceived to account for the inevitable and inexplicable in life.

Televised images of the events of September 11, 2001 were repeated again and again to become part of a collective, intersubjective consciousness.  The images broadcast that day, and repeated since, suggest an intertextual reference to the popular science-fiction, comedy, adventure film, Independence Day (Emmrich 1996).  The purpose of my analysis is to apply Peirce’s semiotic to explore those mediated images in an attempt to understand a basic, relevant truth that they represent to the observer.


“Semiotic Analysis of Myth: A Proposal for an Applied Methodology”

               This project recalls the structural origins of semiotics and builds a new formula to support interpretive analysis of media communication.  Semiotics offers logical and accessible tools that address the need to develop media literacy and understanding of the complexities of mass communication.  A formulaic semiotic methodology would be useful for teaching since it conforms to conventional logic more than traditional semiotics.  My purpose is to articulate such a theoretical formula as it is derived from the work of major theorists, demonstrate its application, and extend it to incorporate the analysis of cultural myth.

               Derived from the work of Roland Barthes, myth is recognized as an “ideological abuse,” confusing history with nature through unarticulated belief systems embedded in the form of communication.  Myth lies in the way semiotic structural components interact within sign systems in regard to time and space.  A logical extension of a semiotic model of first and second order signification is proposed as a new semiotic method for the analysis of myth.



A Semiotic Video Project: Teaching Semiotics Through Brent’s Narrative Biography Of Peirce

Introducing Semiotics Through Video

               Semiotic scholars generally understand and embrace the elegant clarity and logic of the discipline.  Perhaps because of the lexicon of the field, semiotics may seem exclusive and difficult for the uninitiated.  Though semiotics requires no more than other disciplines to access the relevance of its application, the logic of semiosis suggests an obviousness to those that take it for granted and dismiss it as contrived into obscurity through the use of specialized language.  The future of the discipline therefore is potentially a matter of the gradual and inevitable establishment of the semiotic lexicon into the everyday vernacular.   Just as Freudian psychology introduced terms like subconscious, neurotic, psychotic, and paranoia, through popular culture, literature, and film by the middle of the twentieth century, semiotics will take root through interdisciplinary carry it into the public life.   As the process continues and growing numbers of college students are introduced to semiotics, cultural hegemony will decide the growth and impact of semiotic study.

               Considering the problems of introducing semiotics at the undergraduate level, I have been exploring the use of media for several years.  One of my goals is to create a series of video programs specifically for teaching semiotics.   The central problem, considering the nature of the medium and complexity of the subject, is to convey subtle concepts in a clear and engaging fashion.  At the 1999 meeting of the Semiotic Society of America at Duquene in Pittsburgh,  Joseph Brent presented the opportunity to use his biography of  C. S. Peirce.  The idea of weaving Brent’s fascinating biographical narrative of  Peirce with the theoretical concepts and development of semiotic thought would hopefully provide a good combination for a compelling video.  At the same time, such a project inevitably opens up problems of media representations of the life and work of a brilliant, complex man that died in 1914.

               Considering the limited availability of historically relevant visual records and the intellectual complexities of Peirce's work, this project  is not only about semiotics, but also addresses issues specific to the semiotic nature of media communication.  Thus, as producer and director, I had to develop a script for audio/visual pedagogical devices to teach basic semiotics in a context that attempts to illustrate their development during Peirce's life. 

               Joseph Brent provided access to valuable photos from his book.  Issues for creating the program as a narrative include: representing the concepts of semiotics in video; writing the non-speaking scenes for an actor to play the solitary Peirce;  finding visual support for historical sections referring to laboratory science, and representations of Peirce’s life and his home, Arisbe. One actor with no spoken lines created a style of narrative that provided a solution to time constraints, equipment and budget restrictions.  What follows is the script of the video.


“Building Community Through Stories About Real Events: The Habitus Of Broadcast Journalism”

        This chapter explores the institution of broadcast journalism and explicates the everyday communication practices of TV news associated with the process of building community. Informed by Pierre Bourdieu's concept of habitus, television news is examined as an exemplar of a commercial mass medium communicating in a way that suggests that viewers are a community that share values, rituals, and common interests. Interpreted within a context of broadcast journalism, the habitus describes the essence of practice within an occupational culture engaged in communicating news and information with a vitual community linked by the media.




“Artificial Myth and ‘The Far Side’:  Toward a Semiotics of Media Literacy”


               Considering the significance of mass communication, this paper demonstrates a semiotic approach to media analysis.  Combining Barthes' cultural semiotics with the analytic semiotics of Hjelmslev, a formula is proposed that reveals myth as an empirical phenomenon.  As an exemplar of myth in media, cartoonist Gary Larson's "Far Side," is analyzed.  Barthes' concept of "artificial myth" is discussed as a way to reveal myth by displacing taken-for-granted phenomena and shifting attention to assumptions about everyday situations.  This semiotic approach is intended to inform media literacy and empower researchers with a method to describe media influences that are taken-for-granted.



“Media Construction of Cultural Identity and Myth:  A Semiotic Analysis of The Simpsons”

        The purpose of this paper is to look at the media construction of cultural identity and myth through a semiotic analysis of The Simpsons, a Fox Network television program that has enjoyed great popularity for several years. As a cultural trace, The Simpsons reflects established beliefs and character types in a program that is infused with representations of age, gender, and class.

        Cultural studies incorporates the semiotic method used to examine myth and meaning as it is embedded in a popular text. The codes of representation embodied in the signifying practices of a cartoon situation comedy construct a particular vision of the world. Semiotics provides an applied method to examine the empirical elements of the language, sound, images, and narrative structure of The Simpsons. I propose a semiotic theory that I apply to the analysis of a third order of semiosis, myth as defined by Barthes. This is grounded in well established semiotic theory, but I propose a new theoretical move that extends Barthes theory to Hjelmslev's formulation of semiosis to posit a new method for the analysis of the expression of cultural myth.

         Through an in depth examination of one episode of The Simpsons as a popular television text, we take a closer look at the circulation of ideas and values presented as entertainment. Dressed up like the cynical character of "Krusty the Clown," The Simpsons paints a smile over the construction of cultural identities and the negotiation of ideology.



“The Re-signification of Risk in Marketing Whitewater:  Ritual Initiation and the Mythology of River Culture”


               This study explores the communication strategies of an outdoor recreation business in relation to the divergent experiences of novice whitewater rafters and professional guides.  Outdoor recreation appeals to many people because of the pleasures and excitement of spontaneous interaction with nature.  While there are inherent dangers in activities such as whitewater rafting, marketing strategies appeal to families.  Dangers are resignified as safe-yet-adventurous in order to sustain the popularity of the commercial sport.  At the same time, stories about adventures and significant events constitute a mythology of the river and the cultural identity of guides. Binary opposition of adventure and safety is integral to the knowledge and expertise of the guide--a world apart from the inexperienced first time rafter.



“Interpreting India, Identity , and Media from the Field:

Ethnography and the Exotic Other”


This study explores the process of interpreting interviews and media collected during two visits to India.  Looking at the communicative nature of Indian identity, the author takes into account his own identity as an American exposed to a lifetime of exotic representations of Indian culture.  Recognizing the limits of time for study in the field, recorded media provides valuable evidence and opens discursive avenues to greater understandings of our world.  As a discursive space, the camera’s gaze focuses attention back to the ontological conditions of the researchers’ experiences as a forum for the negotiation of values and beliefs.  Evidence of the process of communication provides a better understanding of the construction of meaning and identity.  Thus, the mediated data, reconsidered later, recalls the eidetic essence of existential knowledge supporting the process of ethnographic writing.



“Communication For Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment : The Language Of Lived-Experience In Omt Pedagogy”


        This article addresses two recurrent problems in osteopathic pedagogy. Questions about (1),the scientific merits of osteopathic manipulative treatment and (2),the search for consistent, effective teaching methods for OMT have been persistent in the discourse of osteopathic medical curriculum. A solution is proposed for the tactical adaptation of a communication strategy based on a methodology developed from the philosophy of phenomenology. While grounded on scientific principles, the philosophy of osteopathy in the words of A.T. Still, William G. Sutherland, and others, advance concepts in metaphorical language that may seem obscure and dated to many of today's students. Evidence exists in the literature of osteopathic medicine that phenomenology is congruent with the philosophy and methods of teaching OMT. The philosophy of phenomenology offers an alternative paradigm to address questions of scientific merit, and could provide a consistent language to a rigorous, scientific approach to communication for OMT pedagogy.



“The Cultural Limits Of CNN World Report:

An Analysis Of Structures And Practices”


CNN World Report has been recognized for offering journalists from nations around the world the opportunity to report news and information about their own region to the Western media from a local perspective. While many studies have analyzed the content of broadcast reports, this study focuses on the structures of the program rather than the meaning or content of the news stories. By foregrounding the structures of the program and backgrounding the contents of reports submitted from international sources, this study examines the cultural limits of World Report and the "value-added" aspects of the signifying practices that CNN brings to the broadcast format of the program.

In the first part of the paper, I examine the motives and development of CNNWR and the studies of content analysis so far. In the next part I explicate the semiotic/hermeneutic method of analysis. Then I analyze a criterion based sampling of program segments chosen specifically to reveal the signifying practices and the "value-added" by CNN to World Report's program format as an ideological context for Western (American) audiences.



“The Narrative Semiotic Demise of Tonya Harding: A Construction of Femininity in Broadcast Journalism”


          This study examines the television news narrative involving figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding in 1994. The Harding/Kerrigan incident was depicted as a crime story, but Harding was condemned, not by evidence of any criminal action she allegedly committed, but by pejorative representations generated in the news. The purpose of this paper is to examine how broadcast journalism constructs news stories that perpetuate a system of values based on conventional notions of femininity while maintaining an appearance of objective authority.

Both Harding and Kerrigan signify championship figure skaters, but the same signifiers have different signifieds. Even though both women come from similar economic situations, the rhetoric surrounding them is built upon the issue of class which obfuscates the more volatile construction of femininity. A semiotic analysis demonstrates how Kerrigan is represented in terms of her "lady-like" manner as an acceptable "patriarchally constructed" image of femininity (Kaplan 1992, 254). At the same time, Harding is destroyed by representations of her athletic body, rough demeanor, and personality that place her in opposition to Kerrigan's femininity. As television news generates a rich semiotic text through codes of language, sound, and images, the identities of Kerrigan and Harding as celebrity women athletes are affected through the cultural practices of broadcast journalism.



“Villianizing The Other: The Semiotic Demise Of Tonya Harding”


                This study is a critical analysis of network evening news broadcasts covering the 1994 incident involving figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. Through semiotic methodology, the Harding/Kerrigan story is examined as a text that structures information through language, sound, and images. The study examines how meaning is generated through the discursive practices of television news production with a particular focus on the signification of cultural capital.

        Since electronic mass media constitutes a leap in the historical evolution of human communication, television news inhabits a special context for life's stories with its claim to represent reality. As a twentieth century epistemic framework, news media lend order to knowledge of the world that substitutes for direct experience. The discursive practices of broadcast journalism construct cultural identities through a language of technology and representational images which confer meaning upon events in the world. This study deconstructs the semiotic elements of the Harding/Kerrigan story. The analysis of the narrative demonstrates how two women, as signifiers of US Olympic figure skating, are signified in bipolar opposition to each other.

 The material practices of broadcast journalism are explicated to show how they contribute to the ideological maintenance of community identities. Exploring the concepts of habitus and cultural capital demonstrate the use of theory in grounding research and making sense of everyday experience. This is the application of social theory into the practical realm of television news production.

Bourdieu's notion of "cultural capital" legitimizes individuals and social institutions with the capacity to exercise influence and ideological domination in society. Celebrities in the news focus attention on social issues, but TV news conceals ideology with technique, technology, and narrative structures. As a manifestation of habitus, the culture of broadcast journalism renders television news in practice, as a cultural way of structuring communication.


Critical reflection on the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan story revealed the importance of evaluating the culture that produces such mediated events. While obfuscating other legitimate concerns in the news, the appeal of cultural capital exploits curiosity and amplifies intrigue. Patterns of news coverage in the Harding/Kerrigan story exposed the habitus of broadcast journalism as a cultural institution with a powerful hegemonic voice that can influence the social order of community.