Light on the Dark Side: Images
and Reflections from Outer Space

- Phil MacGregor

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      Although relatively new to the newspaper armoury of depicting space, it is hard to see many of these videos as especially innovative — their format gives them a terrestrial feel, especially since they are often constructed in conventional ways of terrestrial broadcast. The news values of topicality are paramount, but not so much those of wonder, surprise, discovery, or aesthetics. They do not resonate within the imagination in the primary way that some still images do — as, since they rarely portray points of astronomy directly, their mediation is not transparent, but apparent. There are ten times more still pictures than videos viewed on these sites, if you include picture galleries.
      In terms of numbers, it's fair to say there are more pictures online than are ever recorded as being the case in print journalism. Because of picture galleries, the statistics show many more pictures included online than text stories. In itself this fact suggests that picture value, the value to news of the illustration or representation, is becoming more salient. It has to be reiterated that the majority of illustrations are of rockets, however, and the focus of the story is not first and foremost the picture.


Conclusion and Summary


      This article has reviewed how to categorise and interpret space imagery in journalism and how some of the pretty pictures can be interpreted by reference to cultural history and art history. It has also discussed how public interest is aroused through aesthetic and ideological connotations of the images.
      Visionary optimism tends to govern much of the journalistic outlook on space news and imagery, driving the public towards admiration for adventure, forms of machine worship, and exploration. Pictures tie into romantic tropes of the beautiful, into ideals of technological purity, of new beginnings, of the romantic pioneer, and of the urge to be freed from impurity and pollution. This optimistic ideology, scorned by Adorno (Op. cit.), is assisted by the familiarizing images of space, and the interpretations of the pictures of inert matter into friendly earthbound terms.
      These sentiments often amount to a pleasure of cognitive dominance of humankind resulting from space exploration. In contrast to the trivialization of humanity in sublime concepts of vastness and human feebleness, space images also permit notions of human hubris of achievement. This is why, even where the sublime, a negative pleasure, does seem to operate, there is paradox since such sentiments sit alongside positive reactions to discovery and dominance.
      Images are valued also because they extend scientific knowledge. Still images and videos provide insights into terrain, surfaces, clouds and so on, or present the unexplained, or enigmatic behaviours of matter. Pure astrophysics, in the language of physicists, is almost totally absent. Images act as a bridge between scientists and the public, and within that it is aesthetics that provide the active ingredients in the human responses. Although news values suggested by Hansen such as “surprise” and “weird and wacky” criteria may apply, these labels do nothing to explain why the public is attracted to imagery. On the other hand, by looking at aesthetic traditions, reasonable assumptions can be made about pleasure. The sublime enshrines Romantic tropes that help explain popularity, already having much modern currency in popular and psychedelic art, and so do classical aesthetics of geometric form associated with modernist purism. The artist Mondrian thought there was nothing more perfect and economical than a space rocket launch. In terms of sociological theory, news values for this branch of science popularisation need the addition of aesthetics. Public engagement with scientific activity is fostered by the visual idioms that scientists choose in presenting their work on space.
      The Internet medium itself is greatly helping the communicative effort not only in journalism but through offshoot media like Facebook. On the ideological side one might conclude, like Kessler, that the mentality of Manifest Destiny and the frontier is active and working through the Romantic traditions and the sublime. Many composites of starscapes fall into this bracket. At the same time, ideals of conservation and environmental conservation operate through another set of space images.
      Turning to the role of the medium, online journalism allows more pictorial matter to reach the public. Except perhaps for the New York Times, the imagery is a vital element of news display, sometimes becoming the reason for the image inclusion. Without the visualisations, much space “news” would surely be excluded. Whereas in print the relation of image numbers to text was at most 100 percent, for online, there are far more pictures than unique stories. The storytelling with pictures is enriched with an explanatory force in multi-media formats that was never available to single media outlets.
      While some pictures link to some conventional news values, first of all, these have to be adapted somewhat to suit space terminologies and realities. So the prime value of “proximity” as a news criterion is still often apparent just the way it is for general news. However, crucially, its subject is no longer person or nation, but proximity or relevance to earth as a whole. In the same vein, whereas humanization and “relevance to everyday life” are markers of Hansen's values for news in general, in space the issue is whether there is life or potential for life at all. The news values are thus in both cases taken to a wider degree of generalization. The topic of extraterrestrial life is the one that connects most with the news value of controversy. The normal expectation of negativity in news values is reversed for this kind of science representation, for which the dominant sentiments are positive.
      As to the journalists' ideals of objectivity and truth-telling, these terms have to be nuanced in space. Independent verification is not an option for the journalist as a visual observer. Evidence is confined to scientific evidence and does not serve to decide rival versions of social and political truths and ideologies. As noted above, the witnessing function of the image is conducted for space journalism by outside agents and technologies.
      For the sociology of journalism, one can conclude that the online environment has followed a trend of the “turn to the visual” noted by the art historian W. J. T. Mitchell. In permitting space to so many forms of image, online journalism is widening its appeal as it broadens and breaks down its own genres. For the sociology of news values, the argument is that for space imagery, aesthetics need inclusion, although the very complexity of cultural realities within the term aesthetics argues against the usefulness of a single word define appeal. It is the particularity of aesthetic traditions that connects science imagery with a public, whether it be sensibilities cultivated through modern or popular art, or through older traditions of classical proportion, or the Romantic Sublime in its latter day form.
      In parenthesis one must add that the importance of text in space sciences is paramount — images initially depend on meanings written by website workers but taken from some form of scientific authority, even though the overall effect of the appeal of the image can transcend the scientific interpretation. To know that a Hubble Deep Field photo shows the furthest distance so far attained in the universe is essential to its appreciation. Likewise, although the online visualisation does provide significant drama, which is the drama of spectacle, it is only a marginal human drama (in that all knowledge acquisition is potentially dramatic), and rarely one based on conflict. Drama results from aesthetic power or the familiar narrative of science in extending knowledge boundaries, rather than being directly linked to human risk, danger, and fate. The knowledge of science is often depicted as being removed from the concerns of everyday life. In public consumption, the imagery is exotic and mostly escapist.