‘Broadcast news today is more concerned with entertaining than informing.’ Discuss

Lord Reith the first Director General of the BBC would probably agree with this statement. It was he, after all, whose memo that broadcasting should ‘Educate, inform and entertain,’ formed the basis of Public Service Broadcasting guidelines which the BBC and all other UK Public Service Broadcasters’ subsequently adopted.

 

Against this criticism one theorist, Hartley suggested that: ‘Infotainment is just as active in reaching people as was the serious press. The only difference is that its forms belong to TV.’

 

John Fiske showed the similarity between news and soap opera – open ended narratives, heroes and villains, stock settings, same issues, running stories and regularity and news gratifies many of the same needs that our love of soap fulfils.

 

Every day on our bulletins we see a clear increase in interest in topics like celebrity news with items like: Madonna’s adoption of the baby from Malawi and the controversy that sparked; Kylie’s public battle with breast cancer; more recently Liz Hurley’s wedding for which no photographs were available and yet broadcasters still felt it necessary to send reporters down to camp out on the doorstep of the reception venue; and the very public and acrimonious divorce of Sir Paul and Heather McCartney. These items and others like them can now take the headline spot away from political or social news.

 

Of course some would argue that the networks are providing what we, the audience, want and the boom in sales of magazines like Heat, OK, Hello etc all testify to the pleasure of voyeurism in almost all of us. Rolling news channels in particular are able to pander to this need for gratification in us, for with their unlimited time they are able to distend normal stories with all sorts of additional padding like interviews, studio debates and at times pure speculation in the absence of anything more concrete. One instance of this was the catastrophe of 9/11, and while watching endless looping forage of the planes crashing into the twin towers commentators were guessing that the dead would number in the tens of thousands. In the end the figure was somewhat less than 3000. or another was the Asian Tsunami but in this case in reverse since the death toll began at under ten and ended up at over a quarter of a million. But again we had the same amateur video footage looping endlessly while the distressed public saw the same mother lose hold of her child and watched him swept away in the tumult of the flood water time after time.

 

And others would argue that there are still plenty of channels out there with programmes to satisfy the need to be informed. Channel 4s one hour 7pm broadcast has plenty of opportunity to investigate weighty matters in depth; BBC 1 has a variety of programmes to cater for a diversity of tastes from BBC Breakfast for the busy in the morning who don’t have much time to spend on watching, through Newsround for the younger ones, to the 6 o’clock News for the family viewing to the more adult bulletin at 10 o’clock.

 

Each programme has slightly different content and approaches agenda items in a different way. Even the studio is different according to the audience it is targeting; Breakfast is bright, yellow, cheerful and informal with its red settees, low table and picture window, but its presenters still observe the more formal attire of the BBC news teams; Newsround has a basically blue studio, the presenter is dressed more casually and is usually standing, and to encourage different age ranges material is presented in a variety of ways from the ticker bar to the e-mail and text messages. The mainstay of the network is the two main bulletins at 6 and 10pm which use the same studio mise en scene: an opaque glass and wood topped desk, chairs for the anchors and large glass screens for back projection of film footage. Informality though has even crept into the BBC’s presentation, in that the anchors are often standing up holding their papers at the start and sit down later in the programme. In line with their remit to present the news impartially this new studio layout makes no secret of the cameras and lights as the establishing shots of these programmes pan through them and with the opening credits all combine to give the impression of news being brought from every part of the world to your living room as fast as it is possible.

 

This is even more obvious on the News 24 ident where there is a graphic of a signal (in red) being beamed, from many different locations around the world where there is breaking news, up to a satellite and then around the world to, first, a radio telescope (up till quite recently located at Goonhilly Downs in Cornwall) and finally into the BBC’s newsroom before coming ‘live’ to you. The whole process seems as unmediated as possible. And yet a simple comparison or analysis of programmes soon reveals certain truths. The first is that there is an agenda. Editors of news programmes choose stories according to a set of News Values. First categorized by Galtung and Ruge in 1965 others have subsequently done similar work but all come up with similar lists that suggest that news items needs to fit into certain categories and judged on their newsworthiness. Tuckman said that journalists routinely apply a set of conventions in choosing and selecting news and so often celebrity news fits the news value of simplicity.

 

Iyengar’s research suggests that the ‘episodic’ way most news stories are framed (such that they focus on the events themselves rather than the causes or history of those events) makes it difficult to understand the social causes of issues like crime or poverty and instead attribute blame only to the individuals themselves.

 

It is perhaps easier to entertain than to inform since a story say about the Darfur famine may have a very complicated history and it may be simpler to focus on the victims than the historical and political reasons for it. And the 5 Britons kidnapped in Ethiopia recently only made it into the news because the story corresponded to the news value threshold, had they been any other nationality it is doubtful we would have heard about it. The most famous example of this was that the Michael Buerk
coverage of the Ethiopian Famine in 1985
only made it into the news because of a lack of other news and look at the impact that made on Western consciousness with Band Aid, Live Aid and, 20 years on, Live 8. Yet it could so easily have not registered at all.

 

There are many reasons why Broadcast news is accused of entertaining rather than informing and one of them includes the style of the programmes with more reliance on green screens, cgi, live interviews and comment, outside broadcast even when inappropriately outside No 10 in the middle of the night when nothing is going on! The most ludicrous example of this was the ITV’s decision to portray an election contest as a quasi Big Brother elimination contest complete with flashing panels and judging, all of which combined to undermine the political value and purpose of the item completely. There is increasing tabloidisation of the news without a doubt.

 

BBC News presenters accused of ‘prancing’ by
Chris Mullin MP
in May 2006, in attempt to make news more lively and dramatic! BBC news controller Peter Horrocks defended it as appropriate in modern times, though he himself didn’t like it, he saw the need for it. Also although it might be seen on News 24 it wouldn’t on the ten o’clock news ‘different programmes for different audiences.’

 

Another reason is the content: with less foreign and political news than ever before as we become more insular and less interested on what’s going on overseas probably because we understand it less. This trend has been identified as ‘dumbing down’ and critics, like Susan Sontag, who wrote that she dreads “the ascendancy of a culture whose most intelligible, persuasive values are drawn from the entertainment industries” and which has spelt the “undermining of standards of seriousness,” certainly view the increasing tabloidisation of even the most conservative of networks with concern.

 

In the week of 15th May 2006 Bruce Forsyth was interviewed on BBC 6 o’clock news about his kidnapped dogs; after questions in the press the BBC replied that it represented an issue of wider concern (i.e it was not just about celebrity!)

 

Ultimately, then, it must come down to choice. In the past it was known that we watched the news because we felt we ought to, that somehow it was ‘good for us’ but with the multitude of channels on terrestrial, digital, satellite, cable and freeview and with more choice than ever before the fact that more people watch the news now than ever before means the broadcasters must be doing something right.

 

Audiences also get different things out of news and current affairs programmes. These uses were identified as Audience pleasures by McQuail in 1972, and included:

  • Diversion – escape from routine
  • Personal relationships- to feel companionships – Reginald Bosanquet ITN newscaster 1960s (viewers switched on to watch him and considered him a friend.)
  • Personal identity – reinforce own values – feel we are right in our opinions!
  • Surveillance – need to know what is happening in world

 

 

What this means in fact though is that the audience is spread across more programmes, this is called fragmentation of the audience and is the reason why broadcaster target smaller and quite specific audiences; for example C5 and BBC 3 are both targeting the 18-30 B C1 and C2 viewer and hence the similarity in style of programmes with hourly 60 second bulletins. These break into other programmes and are unashamedly informal and chatty with an emphasis on entertainment stories. One example was BBC 3’s item on Elton John ‘slagging off the press’ and commenting ‘we won’t repeat the ‘f’ word he used.’

 

You could also mention the hypodermic effects model of audience; CNN; fox News and the Fox Alert story; Liz Hurley’s wedding in the news again because of punch up among reporters outside the venue in India! BBC News 24 anchor said ‘Liz Hurley took centre stage again today in 2 weddings and a punch up.’ Sky programmes having advert trailer for a Sky News special- interview with an ex-heroin addict – Rachel’s story Saturday at 2pm and 9pm 10th March – is this really news? Alex Thompson told us that a story of 2 British Commandos being killed in Iraq without pictures lost out in the news bulletin to a story of 16 Afghans massacred by American troops after an ambush which did have pictures. And I haven’t really talked about Current Affairs programs [Tonight with Trevor McDonald and Anorexia / or Panorama on Asbos or Football backhanders] or other networks like Al Jazeera in English which has no intention of entertaining for entertaining’s sake!!

 


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