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Politics and
editorial cartoons
by Jogin Tamayo

Fifteen years ago, I received my first libel suit not on damaging articles but on an editorial cartoon. The suit failed to get past the prosecutor’s office. That is how strong the impact an editorial cartoon can make on the public’s consciousness.

An editorial page can never be complete without the editorial cartoons. In fact, in a recent survey by a group of students from St. Louis University, it was learned that students tend to look at cartoons first before the columns and the editorial itself.

Editorial cartoons serve as visual commentaries on current events. They are usually satirical rather than merely humorous in nature and they are effective in sending the cartoonist’s political viewpoint. They also add depth to an editorial article in a newspaper or magazine. Cartoonists usually use caricatures, a deliberate distortion or exaggeration of a person’s features, to make fun of well-known figures (often politicians). These cartoons can play a significant part in swaying public opinion.
Actually, editorial cartoons, also referred to as political cartoons, are nothing new.

Right after the invention of printing, political artists in the mid-15th century in Europe and in the 16th century in Germany mass-distributed types of drawings now referred to as cartoons. Cartoons, in the form of broadsheets or broadsides (single cartoons printed on large pieces of paper), began to be posted in public places with the intent of swaying people’s beliefs.

The broadsheet cartoon subsequently played a vital role in mobilizing public opinion in events such as the Eighty Years’ War between the Dutch and the Spanish (1568-1648), the Thirty Years’ War in Germany (1618-1638), and the European wars against Louis XIV of France (late 17th century to early 18th century).

Caricature, a process that is the foundation of much cartooning, derives its name from the Italian verb caricare, meaning to charge, load, or exaggerate. Caricature drawing originated in 16th- and 17th-century Italian art studios, where famous artists such as Annibale Carracci and Gianlorenzo Bernini created exaggerated, humorous drawings of individuals.

In 1780-1820, England had its so-called Golden Age of Caricature. Thousands of broadsheet caricatures – essentially editorial cartoons – were produced, addressing the fashionable follies, political gossip, social scandals, and great issues of the day. The caricature-style cartoons of the Golden Age became hilarious, grotesque, and at times even vulgar.

However, in the Golden Age of the World Wide Web and streaming media networks on the Internet, editorial cartoons somehow lost its glitter especially among the young. While editorial cartoons are still preferred over opinion writers, editorial articles, and even letters to the editor, only a very few give good perceptions or understanding of such.

Last March, a group of five Louisians bravely launched a survey on the students’ understanding of political cartoons in the Philippine setting.

The group, composed of Evelyn Enteria, Leanne Eusebio, Rowelyn Manalo, Stacy Martinez, and Isabel Marie Ylanna, under their teacher Crizel Sicat, engaged at least 40 Louisians enrolled in Biology in their survey regarding their interest and awareness on editorial cartoons. The survey was made using questionnaires and samples of cartoons.

At least three editorial cartoons, all about politics, from national dailies were presented to the respondents who were asked to write their understanding on the drawings. In one cartoon depicting a puppet-candidate held by faceless campaign contributors, only 20 of 40 students or 50 percent gave good understanding of the topic. In another cartoon where Comelec was portrayed as a baffled monkey in front of the automated election machines, 19 of 40 or 47.5 percent had good interpretations, while a poor 22.5 percent or nine out of 40 gave correct perceptions on the third cartoon about three senators all running for the presidency.

While one of the objectives of the editorial cartoons is to initiate reactions on certain issues, more than half have veered away from the true meaning of the symbols and expressions of the characters being portrayed. The survey report also added the significance of symbolism in cartoons. William Fetsko in his book “Using and analyzing political cartoons,” said that symbolism “...means the use of visual arts to represent something other than what it actually means or represents.” The effectiveness, therefore, does not only rely solely on the creator or the cartoonist but also on the public’s perception and understanding.

From the data collected by the students, extra efforts were made to determine the low percentage on understanding editorial cartoons. Among the reasons mentioned by the respondents are improper drawing or rendering of symbols embedded in editorial cartoons; symbols used are too complex to understand; and finally the lack of awareness of present issues in the society.

The survey revealed the respondents’ lack of awareness of social and political issues led to their difficulty in understanding even simple editorial cartoons. It was also concluded that these were also due to disinterest in reading newspapers, lack of awareness of problems besetting his surroundings, and unclear or vague depictions of symbolisms in cartoons, among other things.

Newspapers continue to play an important role in molding public opinions. It has been recommended that students should spare some time in reading the newspapers especially the opinion pages. Critical comments, reactions, and opinions on burning issues affecting the community are encouraged; while there is also a need for universities to conduct forums or related activities to further enhance awareness on news and editorials. The SLU surveyors added that editorial cartooning should be added or incorporated in subjects of journalism classes, and cartoons be given more prominent space to allow more interactions among readers. It was also noted that cartoonists were being placed in the lowest level of the organization structure of the editorial board and that the artists’ contribution to the newspaper should not be underestimated.

An editorial cartoonist is a news writer, a feature writer, an opinion writer, and an artist rolled into one. The editorial cartoon is a very strong medium to create public opinions just as it did five centuries ago. Cartoons are supposed to amuse you, make you laugh or smile but at the same time make you understand issues in just a few seconds.

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