Libya Air Strikes: A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

Bob Rainmore, 22 March 2011

Categories: War | Libya | The Guardian | BBC News |

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For this piece I will briefly compare the make up of two differing photo reels from the BBC and the Guardian’s website. The table below gives the percentage of pictures that a specific item appears in. Note that the percentages do not sum to 100% as some pictures contain more than one item (e.g. rebels celebrating on a wrecked vehicle).

Comparison Table:

Item shown in pictureThe Guardian: Libya air strikesBBC News: Air Strikes on Libya and Western Nations attack Libya
Coalition planes, ships or weapons in isolation 25% 47%
Dead bodies 15% 0%
Explosions 15% 7%
Non-Libyan protests 0% 7%
Pro-Gaddafi forces or sentiment 5% 20%
Rebels celebrating 20% 0%
Rebels in isolation 0% 7%
Rebels overlaid over destruction 35% 0%
Wrecked buildings 10% 7%
Wrecked vehicles 50% 13%

First let’s examine the two most prolific items from the Guardian. We see that half of the photos involve wrecked vehicles - over half of these vehicles are clearly military (e.g. tanks), the rest are unclear as to their type. It is evident that the editor thinks that the destroyed military vehicles are the most important thing for us to see. These are scenes of war and we are being told that the coalition is starting one.

The second highest recurring item is rebel fighters overlaid over the destruction caused by the coalition forces; it should be noted that this item has been assessed on the combination of the image and the supplementing text - in two images there are people overlaid who are not clearly rebels but have been named as so in the caption. The editor clearly wants to juxtapose the rebels with the coalition strikes (also witnessed by the high percent of rebels celebrating); the editor wants us to perceive that the strikes have been applauded by the rebels, were carried out for the rebels on the side of the rebellion. This is in contradiction to “the official line” that the strikes are to stop civilian deaths and do not have the aim of any sort of reform per se.

Now moving to the BBC: almost half of the images here contain the coalition war machine itself; planes, missiles, ships etc. The editor has made a choice: the most important thing for us to know is what the coalition has in terms of military power. Could this be the patriotic west beating its chest? It would be easy to feel pride when presented with this cold side of war: no destruction and no death; just unhuman, technological metal perfection. This is the stuff that appears on Top Trump trading cards and for which destructive power is celebrated. There’s no blood, no smoke, no death.

Second we see pro-Gaddafi forces, resilient after the strikes. The second most important that the editor wants us to know is that the forces of Gaddafi are still strong, still willing to fight and die for their leader. One image shows a propaganda video of a golden hand crushing a US plane - the message here: Gaddafi hates the west and by inference: you. The choices seem to push us into thinking that the strikes need to continue, we haven’t “won” yet. There’s still a threat.

To close let’s cross compare a key item of interest: death. There is no direct evidence of death in the BBC photo reel; the editor evidently doesn’t want us to see dead bodies or blood, doesn’t want to us to be made acutely aware that people are dying. The Guardian does. The editor picks photos of mangled corpses, of one man covering a corpse with a rug out of respect; the editor wants us to know that the west is killing people.

I think the two differing outlooks we are meant to take away from these photo reels are manifest:

The Guardian wants us to be aware of the actual human scale death and destruction that is being carried out by the west coalition forces. The Guardian want us to be aware of (and be appalled by) the human damage caused. We are also pushed into thinking that this military action is very much for the rebels - this is obviously in contradiction to “the official line” of the west.

The BBC wants us to be removed from the pain and death of the strikes and reminded of the cool, hard and pristine strength of the west and the coalition - we don’t need to think of the humans dying, only of our own potency. We are also informed that the pro-Gaddafi forces are still resilient and the situation will potentially need further intervention (maybe readying us to accept further future strikes?).

Categories in which this article appears: War | Libya | The Guardian | BBC News |

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