How to Read a Newspaper and How to Read a...

How to Read a Newspaper and How to Read a Cartoon
The newspaper business is a strange one. Newspapers are a product of a given
culture, and their objective is to inform, to expose their readers to the events and
ideas that mark their time. Yet they are also subject to commercial reality. Their
survival depends on people buying them. Furthermore, newspapers sell an unusual
product: information. They don’t need to create news; there are enough things going
on that journalists can pick and choose what they want to report. But although all
papers may have access to the same information, each of them still has to select and
present the news in a way that sets it apart from the competition. Producing a
newspaper is chiefly a matter of organizing information on the basis of specific
criteria. It involves giving preference to news that will entice people to buy your
paper rather than a competitor’s.
Objective journalism versus editorial decisions
When newspapers are arrayed side by side, what generally determines which one we
decide to buy is its front page. The front page is a paper’s best advertising. It is the
equivalent of a shop window displaying some of the wares to be found inside.
Comparison shopping is easier if all the front pages are lined up next to one another.
With the exception of days when all the media focus on some extraordinary event,
the front page will differ significantly from one newspaper to the next. One paper will
highlight a win by a sports team, another will devote its biggest headlines to some
international crisis, while a third will analyse a recent government decision.
Front-page headlines provide the most obvious example of the news choices that
papers make in targeting a specific readership, but the differences don’t stop there.
The other pages of a newspaper are also designed on the basis of these editorial
decisions. This is what makes each newspaper unique and helps to set it apart from
its competitors. The need for editorial decisions means that a newspaper cannot stay
completely neutral. Deciding to focus on certain events rather than others is in itself
an indication of a point of view. Story content is not
usually biased to the same extent, however, as
journalists strive to meet certain standards of objectivity
characteristic of their profession. But article placement
and headlines are more significant and are often guided
by certain political or social leanings.
Clues to a newspaper’s subjectivity
When you open a newspaper, you should be aware of
clues to its opinions. The front page and news layout are
clearly the first factors to note, but some specific pages
of the paper are also worth examining closely when
trying to determine a paper’s subjective slant on the
news. The main role of these editorial pages is to
express an opinion, which is not always the same as
that of the newspaper, but it can occasionally put us on
the right track. Editorial pages include opinion columns,
M965.199.4567 : Where's
Joe?, John Collins, about
The Art of Cartooning
Where to Draw the Line? Editorial Cartoons in Quebec, 1950-2000
© McCord Museum, 2009
editorials and, of course, political cartoons. Besides being funny, cartoons also
convey a point of view. In many cases, humour makes them even more effective at
getting ideas across. In essence an illustrated editorial, a political cartoon is a
distinct news and opinion medium worth examining on its own merits.
How to Read an Editorial Cartoon
Political cartoons are art of the moment. They are produced daily in reaction to the
latest news and distributed immediately. Like the newspapers in which they are
published, they begin to lose their topicality the day after they are published. They
are literally “disposable after use,” as most people don’t keep old papers. It has even
been said that editorial cartoons are the only art form that can be used in good
conscience to light a fire! They are perfectly suited to their medium: newspapers
have a short life span and cartoons provide their punch. To hit harder, they dispense
with any unnecessary details that might bog them down. They have to be
understandable immediately, but they lose their bite just as quickly. Effective in the
moment, they often seem less funny when examined a second time. Art that is
created and consumed, sometimes even by flames, often in less than a day, cartoons
are a unique form of communication.
M998.48.11 : Poker Game, Aislin,
We shouldn’t forget that cartoons are usually
supposed to be funny. After all, their primary
function is to convey a serious message in an
irresistible guise. Not to mention that, using irony
and ridicule, cartoonists can usually go a step
further than editorialists. They often have to
make their readers laugh in order to get away
with what they have drawn. And if they manage
to make readers smile, there is a good chance
they will succeed in meeting their second
objective, which is to make people think. A
successful cartoon grabs the attention of anyone
who thumbs through a newspaper, makes a
reader stop and take a look for a few seconds.
But it also manages to make people think and
smile in the same brief moment.
Recognizing cartoon codes
It takes a certain amount of skill and knowledge
to interpret, or decode, an editorial cartoon. To
make their drawings simpler and therefore more
effective, cartoonists generally resort to a
conventional code -- symbols, pictures that are
worth a thousand words. If a man is stout and
smokes a big, fat cigar, you know he’s supposed
to be powerful. The cartoonist’s use of these
symbols is enough to get the message across
without words. Similarly, if a character is
depicted as small, the cartoonist probably wants
to indicate that he is weak or insignificant. To
understand a cartoon’s message properly, you
have to identify the code and interpret it
M998.51.207 : We love you! -Not right
now, I have a headache..., Serge
Chapleau, 1995
The Art of Cartooning
Where to Draw the Line? Editorial Cartoons in Quebec, 1950-2000
© McCord Museum, 2009
Cartoonists also use another set of codes, or rhetorical devices. These are methods
that mix pieces of current affairs to produce a desired comic effect. Being able to
recognize these devices is another useful skill for decoding a cartoon. According to
author Raymond N. Morris, these rhetorical devices include opposition, in which a
complex situation is reduced to a struggle between two characters, and
condensation, in which disconnected events are compressed into a common frame.
The device of combination refers to the deliberate juxtaposition of elements or
ideas with different meanings, whereas in domestication, a news event is depicted
using familiar or even folkloric cultural references. In other words, determining the
type of device at work may help you appreciate what is meant.
The work of a cartoonist is based to a
large degree on the references of his
society and his time. That is why trying
to understand cartoons from the past
may seem like trying to read a
newspaper from a foreign country: you
won’t understand it if you don’t know
the context. The characters portrayed
are often hard to identify, especially if
the drawing goes back to a time that
you haven’t experienced yourself. On
top of that, there are all the social
conventions, all the customs of another
M2007.69.69 : National holidays, Garnotte, 1996
age that have now been lost. In many
cases, a cartoon that made people
laugh at one time will not even get a smile out of someone who looks at it with no
knowledge of the context, who doesn’t have the cultural references required to read
On the other hand, cartoons can get a second lease on life when they are put in their
historical context. As commentaries on a specific moment in time, they quickly
become dated, but interest in them can be revived by reconstructing the situation in
which they were created. This is why, among the 20,000 cartoons conserved by the
McCord Museum and accessible online, hundreds of them are presented with reading
keys (what, where, when and who) that help us appreciate them once again.
Art of opinion
A cartoon is an editorial statement on
Cartooning requires both creativity and
critical judgment on the part of the
artist. When a cartoon is put in its
historical context, the political leanings
of the cartoonist can be determined.
What is his view of the situation? What
does the drawing tell us about his
opinions, beliefs, prejudices? Even an
old cartoon can spark a real debate
today between those who find it funny
and those who simply find it offensive.
Critical judgment is therefore another
M2002.133.18: Somalia, Éric Godin, 1993
The Art of Cartooning
Where to Draw the Line? Editorial Cartoons in Quebec, 1950-2000
© McCord Museum, 2009
quality needed for reading a cartoon. Give your opinion on what you see, discuss it
with the people around you. And remember that the cartoonist has done a good job
if he gets a smile out of you, and an even better job if he manages to get you to
The Art of Cartooning
Where to Draw the Line? Editorial Cartoons in Quebec, 1950-2000
© McCord Museum, 2009
Printed sources
Hou, Charles, and Cynthia Hou. The Art of Decoding Political Cartoons: A Teacher’s
Guide. Vancouver: Moody’s Lookout Press, 1998, 72 p.
Marquis, Dominique. “La presse catholique au Québec, 1910-1940.” PhD diss.,
Université du Québec à Montréal, 1999, 435 p.
Morris, Raymond N. The Carnivalization of Politics: Quebec Cartoons on Relations
with Canada, England, and France (1960-1979). Montreal and Kingston: McGillQueen’s University Press, 1995, 148 p.
Online sources
Walker, Rhonda. “Political Cartoons: Now You See Them!” Canadian Parliamentary
Review 26, no. 1 (2003),
See also, on the McCord Museum site
Rousseau, Karine, and Christian Vachon. Cartoons (1850-1900).
Rousseau, Karine, and Christian Vachon. Cartoons (1900-1950).
“Interpreting artifacts,” Inquire with ClioClic (Educational Guide). EduWeb, McCord
The Art of Cartooning
Where to Draw the Line? Editorial Cartoons in Quebec, 1950-2000
© McCord Museum, 2009