The Media, a Shaping Force in Modern day Society



This critique revolves around the latest cover of Time magazine, which features Gaddafi on the cover. This paper seeks to shed light on the way the media influences how we think about specific issues. Specifically, how the power of imagery and diction play a pivotal role in shaping our opinions. The paper also looks at message factors and the influence the medium has on the content, as well as the consumer perception process to provide a more holistic view of how we consume pre-packaged information. The purpose is to encourage people to be more media literate, and develop an awareness of how they process information and what they accept and reject.

Lately the media has focused its attention on Libya and the uprisings taking place there. Gaddafi’s face has dominated T.V. screens and his voice is still echoing in our ears from his latest speech. The political instability in Libya is the subject of many of our conversations, as we find ourselves in heated discussions about whether it is a political analyst we need, or a psychiatrist to explain what is going on with Gaddafi.

Time’s latest issue places Gaddafi on the cover page looking grim and even sinister. To the untrained eye the image may represent a mere portrait to accompany the article inside. However, it is interesting to note that the dark color scheme and tonality, the dominance of the Gaddafi’s harsh features, and the far off look in his seemingly glazed eyes communicate just as much as the article itself. The dark background of the cover page contrasts sharply to Gaddafi’s pale complexion, making his expressionless face even more prominent.  It’s been said that the fastest way to unite people is to rally them in hatred of a common enemy. That is one purpose Gaddafi actually satisfies quite nicely, as he is depicted by the media as a modern day villain. So the photo chosen by Time of Gaddafi appeals to the consumers. Belinha De Abreu, a Connecticut media literacy middle-school teacher, explains “every photo is created by decisions–initially by what the photographer chooses to shoot, and later by photo editors and the work they do.” [1].(Reading Between the Lines, by Alina Tugend). Take, however, this infamous picture of O.J. Simpson on the cover of Time and compare it to the same picture on the cover of Newsweek:


“In this case by making the picture of OJ. Simpson darker, [Time is] giving the perception that he’s already guilty”(De Abreu) So, it is not always the case that the media is justified in how they portray people, and the objectivity of many sources comes to question. Nonetheless, the effect media has on how we view the world is unquestionable.

The headline reads, “Last Stand: after 42 years, the rule of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi is collapsing. How bloody will it get?” Does that question sound familiar? It should. It’s the same question we’ve all been asking. In 1963, Bernard Cohen introduced a theory that revolutionized the way people perceive mass media and the rippling affect it generates. The Agenda Setting theory described the mass media as, “a tool that influences public opinion by setting the agenda in public discourse.”[3] This is not to say that the media dictates what we think about, rather the media distributes the salience of issues. What the media deems important translates to what we prioritize. Time is but one source of information, and it is safe to say that it is following suit with other media industry leaders.

The corresponding article, “Gaddafi’s Last Stand” is as gloomy as the cover page. The author, Bobby Ghosh’s voice rings throughout the piece and the prevalent tone can best be described as baleful. It is obvious that Ghosh is no fan of Gaddafis’, but then again his fans are quite scarce. The question here is: Do we dislike Gaddafi because we have objectively analyzed his behavior and concluded that it is unlikeable, or have we relied on the media to tell us with what perspective to regard him? How many of us have had the time to study the matter in full depth and reach our own conclusions? We trust the media to do the research for us and just tell us what we need to know. So when we read words like the ones used in the introduction of the article, “Leave it to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi to show the world how a tyrant goes down: with bluster, belligerence and blood” we subconsciously assume the author’s attitude. The diction used here generates anger; words like ‘tyrant’ and ‘blood’ evoke negative emotions in the reader. In a way, Gaddafi is a symbol with acquired meaning distributed by the media. The media, rightly in this case, portrays Gaddafi in a negative light, and that meaning is transferred to us, the consumers of information, and we adopt the point of view of the media. That is, we depend on the various gatekeepers, to filter our information for us by dictating whose voice gets heard, and what messages are emitted. You develop a new outlook when you put a face on the media and recognize that editors and journalists decide what is newsworthy and how to report it. In some instances, there is a very thin line between fact and opinion, and we must enhance our media literacy skills in order to realize the difference. “Politically managed information and a profit-driven press do not brighten the prospects for an enlightened citizenry.”(The Politics of Illusion, p. 18)

Imagine that the picture depicted on the cover of Time was of Gaddafi visiting an orphanage. He is oblivious to the camera and seems blissful as he smiles compassionately at a little boy cuddled up warmly in his lap. The headline now reads, “Last Stand: after 42 years, the rule of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi is coming to a sad end.” The message sent here is completely different from the aforementioned one. In an alternate universe the reader may feel sympathy, or sorrow towards Gaddafi. If this same picture and headline were used in this universe, it would have alienated a lot of people; after all, Gadaffi is someone we all love to hate.

It is important to recognize the effect the medium has on the message. The medium communicates an image that is independent of the message it contains. How consumers perceive a specific vehicle guides their reactions to what they read. Time magazine is typically a respected source of information and is considered credible. So we are prone to accepting its contents as true. There are also message factors that should be take into consideration in this analysis, namely the message structure. We can start of with the order of presentation of information. In this specific article the bulk of the information is evenly distributed throughout, allowing the reader to follow at a fair pace and facilitating understanding. The key points are presented early in the piece and are repeated near the end to increase recall and retention. Conclusion drawing is another aspect of message structure. The majority of Time readers are educated people who prefer to come to their own conclusions rather than have their intelligence insulted by having the obvious explained to them. Despite the fact that Ghosh wrote with obvious sidedness, which is another message factor, he still presented concrete information that backed up what he was saying which smoothens the process of conclusion drawing. He provided historical facts and references and details about Gaddafi and his sons.  Finally, there is the element of visual vs. verbal messages. Obviously, the image of Gaddafi and the corresponding article are in harmony, which further reinforces the overall message: ‘Gaddafi the tyrant, has overstayed his welcome’.

The media environment can best be characterized as cluttered. To be the preferred source of information magazines and other vehicles must break through the clutter. Here, a brief understanding of the consumer’s perception process is paramount. Before any information can be perceived they must infiltrate two sets of perceptual screens. The physiological screen, which consists of the five senses, and the psychological screen which includes more subjective and emotional standards. (Belch& Belch, 2009) This is important to note, because over-communicated consumers have selective perception. The picture of Gaddafi looking menacing relies solely on our sense of sight, however the negativity of it exuberates from the cover and the effect it has on us is chilling. Hence, the physiological screen is penetrated. The same can be said about the psychological screen when the article is taken into consideration, because it evokes emotion the reader as explained above. The third element is cognition, this is where consumers accept the source of information and perception takes place.

People turn to the media as a source of information, as a matter of fact, according to Potter’s, ‘Media Literacy’, “a recent comprehensive study of media use found that about 30% of the waking day was spent with media as the sole activity, and another 39% was media use coupled with another activity. That sums to almost 70% of the average person’s day that includes some form of media use”(p 5). With so much media exposure, and a reliance on the various media gatekeepers to inform us about the ‘latest pressing news’ the effect of media on society is absolute.


Agenda Setting Theory, in, retrieved from:

Belch & Belch, 2009 Advertising and Promotion, San Diego; McGraw Hill

Bennett Lance, 2004,  The Politics of Illusion, Washington; Longman

Ghosh Bobby, 2011, Gaddafi’s Last Stand. Time Magazine. Retrieved from:,9171,2053575-2,00.html

Honan Matthew, 2008, O.J. Simpson and Wired’s Photoshop Experiment, retrieved from:

Potter, 5th edition, Media Literacy, California; Sage Pubns           

Tugend Alina, 2011, in American Journalism Review, Reading Between the Lines. Retrieved from:





1 Comment

  1. Jamil Addas said,

    I totally agree with your analysis and the way you described the effect of media on people. I believe that what is happening in Libya is not a revolution of people against their leader rather than the “revolution of media” against Libya and not Gaddafi!
    Amazing article Dalia, it reflect the power of observation you’ve got.

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