ENG 4U 2011: Codes and Conventions in Media

Today, we focus on codes and conventions in media. We will begin by briefly discussing codes and conventions. We will attempt to apply this to the news; in the second half of the class, we will focus on sitcoms, or situation comedies.

Before we begin, however, you need to understand why the study of media matters. Here are some guiding ideas for our discussions over the next few days:

  1. Like any other form of communication, visual media (television, film, and video games) use a variety of techniques or devices to shape the message.
  2. The method we chose to express a message shapes the message itself. In fact, a famous Canadian theorist named Marshal McLuhan argued that the medium is the message.
  3. Like any form of communication, these devices can be used to intensify, soften, or even distort the message.


Codes and Conventions in Media

Every kind of communication has codes and conventions…even this stuff. (This image was taken by Travis S. via Flickr).

Code and Convention are related terms. Both refer to familiar patterns that are used to communicate meaning. There is a good chance that, by the end of this unit, you will see one source use these terms interchangeably. For our purposes, we will establish the following distinction:

Codes are relationships between symbols and meaning. We tend to view them as non-negotiable rules. An example of a code is our use of the word dog to describe the furry, four-legged creatures that some of us keep as pets.   The use of the word dog is somewhat arbitrary; if we collectively decided, for example, to use the word tuba to describe these creatures, we would all understand each other. Clearly, however, this would not hold true if I made the choice on my own.

Conventions are frequently repeated pairings of symbols and meaning that we tend to read in the same way.  For example, we expect immoral characters in horror films to die first, or for the bad guys in westerns to wear black. While these conventions are common, they are not as rigid as codes. A movie will not necessarily fall apart because a convention hasn’t been followed; think of how horror films “play” the audience by repeatedly hinting at conventions (the killer is behind the door) only to build greater suspense.

I will try to explain Conventions using the same topic as one the most influential theorists in the 20th Century.


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