The codification of meanings of objects in any form of communication is known as semiotics. Semiotics is a study of how meaning is created and how meaning is communicated. Our actions and thoughts are governed by a complex set of cultural messages and conventions and dependent on our ability to interpret them instinctively and instantly. These messages are known as signs, which can be text, audio or video.
According to the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who also coined the term “semiology”, a sign is a whole consisting of a material signifier and an immaterial signified. This signifier can be dots, lines, shapes, sounds, etc; anything physical entity that we link to or associate with some idea or notion. The signified is what that physical entity refers to in our minds. The associations between signifier and signified are established with a rule (known as code) that we learn during our lifetime and established by society. This code is a rule or convention that associates a word, picture and object with a certain meaning.
In the context of television, film, newspaper and other media, images are used to codify certain information. This, of course, is reliant on the assumption that the audience possesses the necessary knowledge, appreciation and social conditioning to decipher these signs. This is how the media codify meaning. For example, let us consider the trend of Hollywood movies showing African-Americans as police chiefs. This image communicates to the audience a message of a liberal and understanding America that is inclusive and accepting of all the people regardless of their race. This image is especially symbolic in the context of shootings of unarmed African-American people by white police officers. Such portrayal of black chiefs above white constables in the chain of command of an institution that has historically served to segregate and oppress the racial minority of the society defuses any tensions about inequality by emphasising that even the most hard-lined racial organisations have now become desegregated.
Furthermore, there is an added feature of semiotics in media in that signs and symbols can be communicated through “settings”. Camera angles, lighting, background music and the like help to create a context in the minds of the audience and thus, influence their decoding of the given messages. Let us take the opening scene of a movie. We see a steam train passing through lush green fields. The sun is shining brightly with a soft melody playing in the background. The sound of a train chugging and whistling is heard. The camera is placed at an angle that the audience sees the train’s thick black smoke coming out of its chimney. Combine all this in a continuous image and we feel that the image we are seeing is that of a rural environment. No words are shown on the screen explaining this to us. Yet, we automatically understand this because of semiotics. We are taught to associate sunshine and fields with villages and the lighting, background, foreground, music all work together to create a picture in our minds. This is media codifying meanings to objects. This is how the media plays with semiotics.
The media play with graphics, audio, visuals and special effects to drive the audience to interpret its text in a certain way. And in many cases, it is successful. But the viewers are not mindless mannequins. They have their own social, cultural and linguistic contexts within which they again interpret the messages following their own specific ideologies. So, while media texts may be denoted as intended, their connotation is fully in the hands of the audience. Media’s codification of messages can’t be understood by considering the audience as a passive group of recipients. This is how the media codify messages.