News producers today want their audience to believe that the news that they see is an unmediated and unbiased product. Despite the BBC’s remit, originally given by its first DG John Reith and updated in 1990 in the British Broadcasting Act, that the news be ‘presented with due accuracy and impartiality‘ with the best will in the world it is not really a possibility merely an ideal.
To help create the illusion, studios today are open, uncluttered, with glass windows giving the impression of journalists busily working behind the scenes, brightly coloured in strong but rich and warm colours like the BBC’s with rich red and dark blue hues, dark wood and glass topped tables, encouraging the viewer to feel at home, warm and secure in this environment; encouraging trust.
Heavy drumbeat theme tunes impart a feeling of importance and with the BBC’s opening sequence the ripple effect on screen while British and world place names fade in and out all persuade the viewer to feel the equal importance of everywhere to the BBC’s news teams.
ITV’s graphic representation of the face of Big Ben with the chimes all connote authority and add to the seeming importance of London as of world significance in the realm of the news.
The choice of stories is the most major way in which news broadcasts can definitely be accused of not representing the world in an unbiased or impartial way. How could we possibly think our news was representing the world as it is to us? How many of our stories are international in content? Most international stories only get on to our news unless the story happens to affect someone who is British and then it needs only be one or two Britons even if 5,000 Sri Lankans happen to be killed in rioting for example. This is an example of the news value, first identified by Galtung and Ruge in 1965, that of ……………… wherein the newsworthiness of a particular story is determined by how interested the audience will be in it; here the fact of Britons being involved however few, is likely to be of more interest than if none were.
Since TV news’ inception it has been understood that news is boring but necessary and audiences have traditionally sat still in the sure knowledge that it was good for them to know what is going on in the world. However modern audiences are less tolerant and have been switching off in droves since the explosion in satellite stations has enabled more choices of channels to be available. News producers have realised that in order to capture and then hold an audience something new is needed.
First studio sets were updated along American studio lines in the early 1990s. From the traditional, middle-aged, white, male sitting behind a desk representing the traditional authority figure, UK channels have gone in for men and women, younger, multi-ethnic and in the case of the recent channel 5, the presenter has no desk at all and perches somewhat uncomfortably on a curved bench with just a large blue screen behind, holding a sheaf of papers in one hand.
Second and most obviously in recent years particularly the commercial channels have gone in the direction of assuming their audience is more interested in news items if they involve well-known persons. (This conforms to the news value of ‘elite-persons’.) Hence anything that David Beckham and Victoria do at the moment is immediately reported and very often will hold first place. Quite recently the initial appearance of Michael Jackson in court to answer charges of child molestation was greeted with a real media circus which began hours before his actual arrival. 24 hour news channels like Fox filmed every moment and had continuous moment to moment commentary for several hours; SKY had some footage but took breaks for other news and News 24 had about 5 minutes summary at the top of the hour after he had actually arrived in court. By contrast the BBC didn’t even rate it the first item on the six o’clock news. (Satellite news channels particularly those with 24 hour broadcasting find this type of event a god-send, poor news days must be their worst nightmare! )
Third the format has been drastically revised. Now all news bulletins conform to certain conventions: appetisers or hooks are necessary and these will be found in the form of very short headlines at the beginning of the bulletin before even the opening sequence and theme tune. The order of these hooks does not necessarily bear any relation neither to the order in which the story will be broadcast nor to the length of the item or even its importance as a story. These are merely there to entice the audience to tune in and stay tuned in. TV news is written for people who are not really listening so the words used must capture and hold the viewer’s attention; therefore the story is generally written in a conversational or narrative style designed to highlight the most dramatic parts of the story. If there is a human interest angle too, then so much the better and the story will be told purely from that point of view. This was particularly in evidence in the recent second Gulf War where with certain conventions preventing the showing of dead bodies for instance and with government restrictions in force over some aspects of some stories it became quite common to show footage of women weeping and wailing over the loss of their loved ones. Even on one occasion a group of ex-pat Iraqi women living in Saudi Arabia were interviewed about how it felt to be out of contact with their families in war torn Baghdad.
Another convention is the intermediate summing up of the main headlines, this assumes that some people have just tuned in and shows that producers no longer expect the viewer to stay for the entire length of the bulletin. This is obviously an important convention for commercial channels particular with the ‘and after the break…’ summary of what is to come and yet it has even slipped into the BBC’s programme format. And of course for years now we have been familiar with the ‘And finally…’ item which arose again out of the need for commercial channels to deliver an audience in a buying not depressed mood, again it is a common feature of all channels keen to ensure that we are left in an upbeat spirit to ensure that we return!
It becomes more and more obvious as you analyse any individual news programme that news broadcasters go to great lengths to give to programmes the appearance of a ‘window on the world’. But any news programme has a great number of constraints upon it: shareholders, boards of directors, advertisers, government restrictions etc. are the most obvious external pressures but there are more subtle internal ones: e.g. the actual newsworthiness of any one story over another – who decides? The people who make these decisions are called ‘gatekeepers‘. These were identified by Lewin and White in the late 1940s and later redone by Snider in 1967 among others when looking at why newspaper editors choose one story over another. They originally found that they did it because they believed their readers would like the story, later researchers discovered the answer to be more complicated and that there is a chain involved in the selection process from the journalist on through to the programme editor and that the organisation became the gatekeeper.
Then there are the practical constraints of timing, availability of video footage, the plethora of stories available and whether background knowledge of the audience is sufficient for the story to make it through the ‘ambiguity‘ news value.
If these are just some of the selection processes that any news story has to go through, is it any surprise that some have levelled the charge of ‘fiction’ at the news as a whole?
Schlesinger once described news as ‘putting reality together‘ in his study of how the institution can affect the choice or presentation of stories.
The Glasgow Media Group in their study of the presentation of the miners’ strike of the early 1980s discovered a bias in the way language and photographic conventions were used e.g. in the use of the long shot of groups of miners and close ups of individual bosses thus giving tacit approval to the individual as opposed to the group who were presented visually as being more powerful and therefore bullies. This was seen again in the presentation of the firemen’s action of late 2002 early 2003 where firemen were always seen en masse in uniforms huddled around a brazier and bosses were interviewed in shirt and tie and in close up thus creating the impression of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and ensuring that the public knew who was ‘in the right’.
This idea was further supported by Lewis and Philo who suggested that TV news reinforces simple associations, most recently: Saddam = Hitler = bad!
Iyengar suggested that the episodic nature of TV news meant that audiences were not encouraged to question root causes and ultimately individuals are blamed for society’s ills.
One of the most obvious ways in which we can see that TV news is definitely not a ‘window on the world’ is in the presentation of women. Feminist research conducted by Van Zoonen discovered that while women make up 51% of the world’s population they do not make up half the news stories! Almost invariably women are portrayed in negative ways, grieving widows, victims of rape etc. hardly a fair representation!
Perhaps it would be wrong to be so scathing of news organisations’ attempts to be unbiased and impartial and to represent people in the right way, perhaps we as the audience should share some of the blame? Some organisations have been accused of ‘dumbing down’ the news. Well what should we expect? Research shows that we are more interested in the Beckhams’ activities than in third world problems or wars of which our understanding is very limited. But to accuse news of being a ‘fiction’ because of the selection and construction processes goes too far. The framework and method of delivery may be constructed but the story is still true. And here satellite channels and, more importantly, internet accessibility, are able to guarantee this.
With the plethora of news programmes, formats and even 24 hour channels available to us we have choice like never before and we do choose – apparently our preferred deliverer of news are those channels whose news programmes are most like the tabloid newspapers we also seem to prefer. Fortunately for the more discerning viewer there are still, in this country at least, cutting edge investigative news programmes like World in Action, Panorama and Correspondent etc. Let’s hope there will continue to be.