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Scanning the Front Pages

The Schapelle Corby Judgment

1Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen argue that in “contemporary Western visualization central composition is relatively uncommon” (Reading Images 203). In fact, “most compositions polarise elements as Given and New and/or Ideal and Real” (Reading Images 203). This is the regular situation on the front pages of Australia’s national and capital city dailies; but not on May 28. Rather than the favoured front page structures of left (Given) and right (New) and/or top (Ideal) and bottom (Real), on this morning the layouts in the newspapers centralised the Schapelle Corby judgment. While this is not unprecedented, it is the type of coverage usually kept for major issues such as 9/11 or the Bali Bombing. Even the recent release of Douglas Wood, which was arguably as, if not more, important for the Australian public in terms of the issues it raised about Australia’s involvement in the war in Iraq, did not receive the same type of treatment. Although further study needs to be undertaken, I believe this centralising of issues, that is the running of one story only, on front pages is a growing trend, particularly among the tabloids. The effect of this centralising layout structure is to reduce the news choice for the reader on front pages that they would normally approach with an attitude of scanning and selecting. While this approach could still be taken across the whole paper, the front-page choices are minimised. This essay will examine the coverage of the Corby verdict in the tabloids The Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun, The Advertiser, The Mercury, and The West Australian, because it is here that the greatest impact of centralisation on the encoded reading paths can be found. Although the broadsheets The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Courier-Mail, and The Canberra Times also centralised the issue, there is not room here to cover them in detail.

2May 28 was the peak of the media frenzy in the Corby coverage, or at least one of the peaks. As the story is ongoing—turning into something of a soap opera in its call to readers and television news viewers to tune in and see the latest bizarre development, such as the chief lawyer admitting he’s a crook—it could peak again, particularly if on appeal a heavier sentence is handed down. On May 28, the focus moved from Corby’s guilt or innocence to the horror of the twenty-year sentence. In each category—broadsheet and tabloid—the layouts were remarkably similar. At a glance, three of the tabloids are so similar that side-by-side on a newsstand they could have been mistaken for the same. Apart from the fact that Corby’s beauty gave her cultural salience, it is not clear why the Australian media was so taken with her story in the first instance when there are and have been many Australians on drug charges in Asia. My interest here is not so much why or how she became news—that’s an issue for another time—but that once she had captured the attention of the Australian print media, how did they visually treat the material and what are the implications of that treatment. I will argue that the treatment elevated her story, giving it the same weight as the war on terror coverage since 9/11.

3One of the first elements that draws the eye on any newspaper page is the photograph. Tim Harrower suggests photographs “give a page motion and emotion” (28), arguing however that it is the headline “that leaps out, that grabs you” (37). In reality, it is most likely a combination of both that draws a reader’s attention. Both encode the importance of a story with a dominating photograph or a large headline signalling a story’s significance. The varying size of headlines and photographs and their placement signal the page designer’s order of importance.

4Six of the ten major Australian newspapers chose the same photograph for their front pages on May 28: a picture of Corby with her head held in her left hand and a look of despair on her face. Four of them—The Daily Telegraph, The Mercury, The Advertiser, and the Herald Sun—used the full photograph, while it was heavily cropped into a horizontal picture on the front pages of The West Australian and The Age. The Australian’s choice was similar but the photograph was taken from a slightly different angle. Only one of these newspapers, The West Australian, acknowledged that Corby did not just hang her head in her hand in despair but rather was slapping her head and sobbing as the verdict was read. The television footage gives a different impression of this moment than the still photograph run in the newspapers. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Courier-Mail, in contrast, chose a photograph of Corby struggling with the courtroom police. The Sydney Morning Herald more closely cropped their version so that the emphasis is on Corby. More of the struggle is depicted in The Courier-Mail. The only newspaper making a substantially different choice was The Canberra Times. In this publication, the central vertical photograph was a close up of Corby with tears in her eyes. Her mien is more composed than in the photographs on the other front pages. The source for the photographs, with the exception of The Australian’s choice from Associated Press, was Reuters. Given that the event was in Indonesia and in a crowded courtroom, the array of photographs may have been limited.

5Of interest was the use of the photograph. The Daily Telegraph, The Mercury, and the Herald Sun ran it full-page, like a poster shot, with the mastheads and headlines over the top. In contrast, The Advertiser maintained a white background for their masthead with the photograph underneath enclosed in a heavy frame and the headlines imposed on top. The other newspapers ran the photograph to the edge of the page without an added frame. The Advertiser, The Mercury, and the Herald Sun chose to forgo their normal front-page teasers. This restricted the scan and select for the reader. Normally readers would have at least two stories, sometimes three, as well as two to three teasers or pointers (usually across the top of the page under the masthead) to scan and select their reading matter. On May 28, however, Corby was centralised with a similar reading path encoded for each of these newspapers. The photograph is the most salient element and the eye moves from this to the main headline at the bottom of the page. As the masthead is known and familiar, unless the reader is selecting the newspaper from a newsstand rather than picking it up from their front yard, it is likely they would only subconsciously register it. These layouts, with a reading path from photograph to headlines down the page, are closer to linear in design, than the normal non-linear format and more interactive front pages. Therefore, the coding is for reading “left to right and from top to bottom, line by line” (Kress and van Leeuwen 218). Newspapers are not normally read in a linear way, but

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“selectively and partially . . . Their composition sets up particular hierarchies of the movement of the hypothetical reader within and across their different elements. Such reading paths begin with the most salient element, from there move to the next most salient element and so on.” (218)

7There is also sameness in the headlines and their implications. The Mercury, the most unadorned of the layouts, has “20 Years” in block capitals with a subhead and pointer reading “Corby’s Nightmare Sentence, pages 2-6”. The implication is clear, Corby’s sentence is 20 years in jail and it is pronounced a “nightmare”. The Herald Sun also chose “20 Years” with a subheading of “Shock and tears over jail sentence”. Consolidating this notion of “shock and tears” were three smaller photographs across the bottom of the page depicting crying and sobbing women. No male sympathy was depicted, thus tapping into and reinforcing Australian cultural stereotypes that it is the Australian women rather than the men who cry. The Advertiser’s main headline declared “20 Years in Hell”. Beside this was a smaller underlined headline and pointer “Guilty Corby, sent to jail, Australians react in anger Pages 8-15”. There are slight distinctions in these three pages but essentially the encoded reading path and message is the same. That is not to say that some people may read the pages in a different order. As Kress and van Leeuwen argue “newspaper pages can be read in more than one way” (“Front Page” 205), however, the choice on these pages is limited.

8The Daily Telegraph uses headlines with different emphasis and includes text from the main story imposed over the photograph. Pointers square-off the pages at the bottom. A kicker head at the top of the page, below the masthead, and set against a photograph of Abu Bakir Bashir, declares: “This terrorist planned the murder of 88 Australians and got two years. Yesterday Schapelle Corby got 20”. This comparison does not appear on the already examined pages. Towards the bottom of the page, the main headline set over two lines reads “Nation’s Fury”. To the right of the “Nation” is a smaller headline, which says “20 years in hell and prosecutor’s still demand life”. The story begins beside the second line “Fury”. The message on this page is more strident than the others and was analysed by the ABC TV show Media Watch on May 30. Media Watch declared the “spin on the verdict” used by The Daily Telegraph as “truly a disgrace”. The criticism was made because Bashir was not convicted in court of masterminding the bombing therefore the word “planned” is problematic and misleading. As the Media Watch report points out, the three Indonesians convicted of masterminding the bombing are on death row and will face the firing squad.

9The final tabloid, The West Australian, presented a similar message to The Daily Telegraph with a headline of “Bomb plotter: 2½ years / Dope smuggler: 20 years”. The visual impact of this page, however, is not as striking as the other pages. The visual designs of The Advertiser, The Daily Telegraph, The Mercury, and the Herald Sun make it immediately clear that the Corby verdict is the central issue in the news and that all other stories are so marginal they are off the page. In contrast, The West Australian ran its normal teasers just below the masthead, offering four choices for the reader as well as weather and home delivery details at the bottom. The heavily cropped central photograph of Corby leaves in only her wrist and central facial features; it is not even immediately apparent that the photograph is of Corby. The story runs in an L-shape around it. Although Corby is central, the reading path is not as clear. The reader’s eye will most likely be drawn from photograph to caption and to headline or headline, photograph, caption. Whatever the path, the story text is always read last, that is, if the reader chooses this story at all (Kress and van Leeuwen, “Front Pages” 205). The story opens by announcing that Corby’s lawyers want the Australian authorities to “launch an investigation” into the case and Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer has offered the help of two Australian QCs in preparing an appeal. This introduction does not support the headline. The comparison with Bashir comes in paragraph three. While Corby still has salience, the inclusion of teasers on the front of The West Australian brings back the choice for the reader, albeit in a small way.

10Kress and van Leeuwen argue that newspapers “are the first point of ‘address’ for the readers” presenting “the most significant events and issues of the day for the paper and its readers” (“Front Page” 229). In the Corby coverage on May 28, the newspapers presented the court verdict as the most important of all stories on offer and her image became the most salient element, the “nucleus” of the front pages. All newspapers make choices for their readers in their capacity as gatekeepers (see David Manning White and Glen Bleske), but not, I would argue, to the extent that it appeared in the Corby case. A centralising approach to news can be understood with stories such as 9/11 or the Bali Bombing but does one woman’s plight over drug charges in Bali truly deserve such coverage? As a single event maybe not, but the Corby verdict again raised the issue of Australia’s uneasiness about the laws and culture of its Asian neighbours, feelings amplified in the wake of the Bali Bombing. The rhetoric used in the front pages of The Daily Telegraph and The West Australian clearly state this when they compare Corby’s sentence to Bashir’s. They demonstrate a paranoia about the treatment of “our girl” in a foreign judicial system which appears to deal more leniently with terrorists. Thus, one girl’s story is transformed into part of a much larger issue, a fact reinforced through the visual treatment of the material. There remain some questions. What does it say about the newspaper’s attitude to their readers when they centralise issues so strongly that reader choice is removed? Is this part of the “dumbing down” of the Australian media, where news organisations move towards more clearly dictating views to their reading public? Is it attributable to media ownership, after all four of these tabloids belong to News Corporation? These questions and others about the trend towards the centralising of issues are for a bigger study. For now, we watch to see how much longer Corby remains in the nucleus of the news and for further indication of a growing trend towards centralising issues.