firefighters and american flag

The Importance of Myth – New York Firefighters


Analysing media texts is incredibly important because it can help develop our understanding of the world and our culture. This is particularly true for non-fiction texts.

The September 11th attacks against the United States of America, and the unthinkable scale of the destruction, shocked the world. Rolling 24-hour news recorded the horrific moments the planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York and citizen journalists documented the devastation from the streets.

Captured at Ground Zero by Thomas E Franklin, a photographer and journalist, the following image was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and was included in Life Magazine’s 100 Photographs that Changed the World. With the great symbols of American financial power reduced to rubble and almost thousand people murdered, it is no surprise that the photograph gained such recognition because it reinforces the American sense of bravery and resilience.


Analyse the following photograph in terms of semiotics and myth.

firefighters raising the American flag

Points to Consider

Semiotics is the study of signs and their meanings. In this example, you will need to describe the image of the hard-worked firefighters, the way their uniforms are covered in concrete dust, the background of mangled steel beams and rubble from the collapsed buildings, and the way the men are hoisting the American flag up a pole in the middle of all this chaos. You would also need to comment on the striking red, white and blue of the flag compared to the grey dust filling the air.

These are the dominant signifiers of the text that combine to deliver the message of hope and fortitude.

Of course, you have to analyse the connotations of these signifiers. For instance, the firefighters look exhausted, which informs the viewer of their tremendous efforts. How does the background reinforce this meaning? What connotations are carried by the American flag? Comment on the fact the flag has not been dirtied or ruined by the attack.

Analyse the Myth

The denotations and connotations are the first order of meaning in Barthes’ sign theory. However, he identified a second order – the myth. This signification refers to the cultural meanings conveyed through language and signs. The theorist also argued these myths often reinforced ideologies. Therefore, when Americans wave their “stars and stripes”, the signifier, they are not simply identifying their country, the signified, because the flag has become a symbol of bravery, independence and self-determination. This ideological level of meaning is the myth.

Firefighters, the signifier, risk their lives to safe people in danger, the signified, but the media often represent them as the epitome of self-sacrifice and heroism, the myth.

If America is the “land of the free and home of the brave”, you need to explain how the image of the American flag and the firefighters support that myth of resilience.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!