In constructing and communicating an image, to evoke a response from an audience that can alter a reputation, communicators, journalists among them, do other, overlapping, things, as well. Among these: they exert power and act subordinate to recipients; try to change the status of recipients on issues such as power and wealth; try to aggress and inflict injury or help; and try to cooperate or oppose.

Here, the focus will be on the relationship between image construction and actions that involve power. Much of what journalists do involves exerting power, both over the recipients of coverage and audiences. The very act of treating situations as the raw material for news stories involves the exercise of power because it allows journalists to select the information that will be used in their stories. Those covered by the press perpetually learn what it is like to be used in this way, to be the raw material for the creation of stories which are about them but over which they have no control, and which may portray them and situations they are involved in, in ways that are very different from their own perceptions. By deciding what material is selected and by converting people into characters in a story, as it were, journalists exercise a kind of power that is essential to the news business, and leaves the recipients of coverage often feeling impotent and used. Indeed, if you want to find out what it is like to be treated as a means to an end, and not an end in yourself, be the subject of a news story and discover yourself converted into a character in someone else's narrative.

These aren't the only situations in life in which people use other people as a means to an end, of course. But here, people find themselves suddenly playing roles in a miniature world, captured in the bottle of the news story; they see a character who others are told is themselves but which bears only a very limited relation to how they see themselves.

This power to construct the image of the recipient, is what makes all the other actions, including other exercises of power, possible. Most commonly, these actions fall into two clusters. First, the journalist may use his power to discredit the recipient, which typically harms and opposes, or is intended to harm and oppose, the recipient. Such efforts often involve an act of overt dominance, as well, of the journalist over the recipient, an act that is well described by saying the journalist is trying to put the recipient. Second, the journalist may use his power to credit the recipient, helping and cooperating with, or intending to help or cooperate with, the recipient. Such efforts often, although not always, involve an act of subordination to the recipient, as well, in which the journalist gives up his power to shape the recipient's image and, instead, shapes it as he believes (or knows) the recipient wants it shaped. (The journalist may also help and cooperate for other reasons -- because his judgment tells him this is the proper way to do the story or these are the facts; as a way of exerting power or harming someone else, and so on.)

We thus have two basic clusters of action: discredit/harm/opposition/dominance and credit/help/cooperation/and perhaps subordination. Here, we also have to distinguish what these actions are intended to do from what they actually do, since these may be quite different.

The cluster of discredit/harm/opposition/dominance is often easy to see in communications such as news. After all, to denounce or accuse someone, to expose them, and expose them to ridicule, are forms of domination and aggression, in the sense that they seek to hurt the recipient and make him or her vulnerable. The power relation here is most obvious when journalists ask discrediting and, potentially, embarrassing questions in televised interviews, trying to elicit Perry mason-style confessions that never come, and putting public figures on the defensive. Here, we have before us blatant efforts at dominance and aggression - attacks - in which there is a sense that the journalists are trying to dominate, to overpower, and force the interviewees into submission. The fact that journalists know this approach virtually never succeeds, suggests that what they are actually trying to do isn't elicit honest answers but be shown in the dominant, attack position on television and portray the interviewees to the public as someone who is trying to hide information.

This form of aggressive domination, in which A tries to overpower B, make B appear weaker and vulnerable, has to be distinguished from another form of power -- the power to control or influence what others do. This form of control or influence need not be exercised only from a formal position of power.

Journalists may try to help or harm in at least two ways. They may be trying to evoke good feelings or inflict emotional pain directly, through the flattering and/or practically helpful or unflattering and/or practically harmful quality of their portrayal, in which case the recipient is their audience and much of his reaction is colored by the fact that he knows other audiences are attending to this, as well. The journalist may also be trying to set in motion other events, causing presidents to fire appointees; grand juries to begin investigations; voters to reject candidates, and so on, which may bring about various states of affairs desired by the journalist, including, but not limited to, emotional reactions in the recipient. But journalists need not be trying to help or harm, oppose or cooperate in any direct or significant way, in their portrayals. The subject's reaction and fate may be largely irrelevant to them, because their only real goal is to create a certain kind of story. Thus, the same portrayal may be an effort to sadistically torture and drive a subject crazy, or the journalist may be utterly insensitive to, and unconcerned with, these effects, or sensitive to them but not letting them influence the story or interview.

Journalists may also exercise the power of control or influence over those they cover by evoking certain kinds of behavior in them. Subjects, after all, know that if they engage in action A, they will get, say, negative coverage, but if they do B, they will get positive coverage. So the journalist's standards, as perceived by the recipient, will determine much of what the recipient does in public.

But this also gives the subjects of coverage a certain amount of power, since, as the journalist's raw material, they can affect how he or she portrays them by carefully controlling the impression they create. In other words, by constructing an image of themselves, they can control the image the journalist constructs of them. No matter how much the television journalist may want to portray politician A as incompetent, if politician A comes off on camera as articulate and in control, that is the video image that will be carried on the Six O’clock News. So the politician can exercise some control over the news story by controlling him or herself, and anything else that might affect the image of him, which leads to all kinds of manipulations, efforts at staging and orchestration.

Similarly, journalists exert power over audiences, by evoking certain kinds of reactions. They try to evoke a state of uncritical faith, in which audiences believe the story provides a window onto the world; an accurate account of events. In their stories, journalists encourage audiences to be uncritical, to passively take in the information, and focus on the elements of the story itself, rather than the form or fact of the story or on the story-tellers. They encourage audiences to assume that this really is an account of the world, rather than a highly selective narrative construction that bears a complex relationship to the events it claims to be about. In so doing, journalists are covertly constructing an image of the story and themselves, as story-tellers, in the story, and they are seeking to get audiences to submissively agree to their portrayals.

Journalist also exercise power over audiences by evoking emotional reactions, through their stories. They evoke sympathy, empathy, anger, a desire to ridicule, admiration, and so on, playing audience reactions in the same way (precisely the same way) that authors, playwrights, directors and screenwriters do. In fact, journalists typically judge stories by the kinds and intensity of reactions these can evoke; they plan the reactions and execute the story accordingly, although they typically do most of this unreflectively. Among these reactions, journalists frequently, in the form of the story, invite audiences to react with a sense of power and invulnerability, as they all look down into this miniaturized world, in which characters play for their amusement and information and they also, paradoxically, in the content, often try to make audiences feel vulnerable, by sensationalizing dangers that are portrayed.


Power can be partly defined by whether it is exercised in a state of formal domination, equality, subordination, or an undecided power relation. It can involve giving orders or engaging in ministrations. It can involve cooperation, which means those who are influenced or controlled do what is desired without opposing it, although various carrots and sticks may be behind this relation. It can involve outright opposition, in which case some kind of obvious contest of wills goes on involving not only opposition, but perhaps harm or threats of harm, or promises. It can also involve partial cooperation and partial opposition, in which the opposition may or may not be concealed. It can involve simulated cooperation, combined with actual opposition. Giving orders can evoke compliance or refusal; obeying versus resisting. pretending to obey, or obeying part way. Most relations involve partial cooperation and partial opposition.


By the most general definition, power is usually considered to be the ability to get things done. It is the power to do, to act, to accomplish some kind of work: to move a large object from location A to location B; to use troops to take over a territory; to construct a building. Similarly, position can also be defined this way. After all, it is people in positions of power, whatever that power may be, who have the ability to get things done. In society, this kind of power consists of the ability to move people toward certain ends, and command resources, to get things done.

But power also has another common meaning, which can't be reduced to the first: it refers to relations of inequality. Power is the power over other people. It is the ability to give orders and have them obeyed; the ability to provide rewards and impose sanctions; the ability to siphon resources and the results of other people's work for one's own use. In this sense, power, like image, is a position in a social network, so power and position bear a close relation. It is what can you do in relation to others and, when it is exercised, it is what you actually do.

There are situations that resemble relations of inequality, in which the one in the dominant position doesn't have the power to control the other's behaviors. I'm thinking of news interviews, in which journalists pummel public figures with embarrassing questions and the public figures are put on the defenses, in the losing position. These combine power and aggression, of course - they are attacks - nevertheless, there is still as sense that the journalists dominate and the interviewees are forced into submission. And yet there isn't exactly an ability to coerce any kind of behavior.

These situations are much like what we see in groups of animals in which the one in control must face or fight other group members down. The two forms of dominance -- the ability to control and the ability to overpower are clearly very closely related.

Back to Image and Action