Transparency and the news

“In this day and age it is increasingly important that the TV news audience regards news as a transparent process.” Discuss with textual examples how far you think the broadcasters are successful in this aim.

[With apologies for Jamie Steele for all changes to his original}


Transparency describes the way in which the creations of the culture express or disguise awareness of the human condition. It examines the products of contemporary culture which includes TV News, to show how they reveal or conceal our desire to recreate ourselves and society in the image of the un-fallen [?] World we know should exist. For example local television news, Look East in our region and Anglia news on ITV offers the audience smaller scale dangers and disasters, where more obvious forms of fiction take us the audience, to the conclusion with a generally happy ending in order to turn fear into hope. Local TV news does so by framing its depictions with stories of communities coming together and victims saved. For example on February 14th the last item of ITV 1s Anglia news was about a baby …………….and left the audience on a note of hope rather than fear. Moreover the local news like the national news frames the constant and exaggerated depictions of danger with the presentation in a calm way by professional news readers who are seen as part of the community and this is strong enough to counter the strong sense of danger.


News programmes appear to be the most real and least mediated programmes on TV. In the UK and the USA the news on TV is widely seen as more reliable than any other source on news and the BBC throughout the world is held in high esteem for the trustworthiness of their reporting. Unlike newspapers TV news programmes are not supposed to take sides but are required to present an impartial and balanced summary of significant events. This dates back to the memo of Lord Reith the first DG of the BBC who regarded it as essential that the BBC could only be impartial if not required to pass on governmental views.


TV news also offers apparently ‘raw’ evidence of events as they happen. (Think 9/11; the Iraq war; the tsunami…). News stories are unavoidably handled from particular points of view. Broadcasters emphasise the informational and factual nature of the news; news can be gathered, uncovered or exposed. The idea that TV offers a window on the world still seems to be common in the newsroom. The newsreader is presented as a neutral observer. By reading the scripted news the newsreader dressed formally in an orderly studio, speaking generally dispassionately directly into the camera, and seated behind a desk, which appears to give them a sense of authority, appears to speak the objective discourse of the truth. This is particularly represented by the BBC with Huw Edwards embodying these criteria. Although the content of the news may be far from reassuring the newsreader’s manner is and the ‘tail piece’ often offers a happy ending. Within the stories chosen a limited number of individuals are deemed news worthy and appear regularly; Ken Livingstone the controversial labour mayor of London is always good ‘news’! (Currently the Michael Jackson case is taking up a lot of air time – 10 minutes on the first day of his trial on ITVs lunchtime edition but only 2 minutes on BBC at 1pm, indicating very different selection criteria at work.) Livingstone was treated with 2 ½ minutes on BBC at 10pm on Feb 14th 2005 and second place in the running order, while on the ITV only 2 minutes were allotted but most of those to the claims that this was a ‘holocaust row’ and to the mayor being close to tears and sixth position in the bulletin. Both broadcasts however cast Livingstone in the role of villain according to Vladimir Propp’s analysis of characters in storytelling. Interestingly the pressure group of holocaust survivors were given a vocal role while the mayor was barely accorded the opportunity to defend himself, ensuring that ITVs viewers were in no doubt about the feeling towards his unfortunate remark.



Ordinary people are rarely represented on the news while elite persons, group and organisations seem to be given undue coverage. However on a recent C5 broadcast at noon this balance was redressed when there was a lengthy interview with a 50 year old recent divorcee, Sue, who was thoroughly enjoying her new found freedom. Here we had not only a woman but also the over 50s getting, perhaps, a fairer representation. But this does illustrate the point that there are many minority groups whose interests are too rarely given time on the news, or if they are then much of that publicity is negative e.g. trades unions, and equally demonstrate the fact that basically news is about ‘white, middle –class men in suits’; they are both the selectors of what is newsworthy and the focus of it too!


Library footage also serves to authenticate stories with the immediacy of live TV being valued for its ability to give us news as it’s happening and to follow developing stories like the Russian School No 1 siege, both of which tends to disguise the process of construction.

An accusation often levelled is that news has an agenda. Themes in the news can display a covert political agenda, although this may be more obvious on commercial channels like Sky News 24 owned by Rupert Murdoch of The Sun and The Times empire but can even be seen on the BBC – most recently and famously during the Andrew Gilligan affair and subsequent Hutton report which castigated the BBC for effectively claiming the government had led us to war under false pretences, (despite the fact that as Tim Gardam says: …ITC research showed that 63% of viewers found the BBC’s coverage fair to all; 25% found it biased towards Britain and America; and only 12% biased towards Iraq or the anti-war lobby…‘ ) and which has led to minister Tessa Jowell and this year’s green paper recommendations setting up a new set of five principles.


Another argument against the transparency theory is that news viewers do not necessarily think what they are told to, there is a correspondence between the order of importance the media gives to issues and the order of significance attached to them by the public and by politicians. Whilst this might possibly represent a fair reflection of existing public concerns it is usually interpreted as suggesting the agenda-setting influence of the news broadcasters.


On the BBC on February 14th 2005 the news began with the story of the Lebanese bomb which killed the prime minister. The coverage included a report by a female journalist, video footage and images of destruction and the dead an injured being carried away on stretchers. Then we were given a brief history of the conflict, a video statement with translation voice-over and video footage from Arab TV the Al-Jazeera network. The second story was Ken Livingstone, a 2 minute story on the Iraq elections, and 2 ½ minutes on the McCartney murder in Belfast from an Irish reporter. Over on ITV the running order was similar in that the lead story was also the bombing in Lebanon, though here Trevor Mac Donald used emotive language like: ‘brutally thrown back…shattering a decade of peace…doomsday for Lebanon‘ to engage the audience’s feelings more, where Huw Edwards had informed viewers in a much more dispassionate way. In fact the angle put on this story by ITV was much more angled at who was to blame, with Syria being mentioned immediately coupled with the suggestion by America that it would have no sympathy with their troops remaining in the Lebanon after this event – this simple association of Syria with the enemy like Saddam being associated with Hitler in our minds was identified by theorists Lewis and Philo. Then after a story on hare-coursing an interview with the widow of Mac Cartney in Belfast in which she called them ‘scum‘ and ‘animals‘.


In recent times viewers have been encouraged to become much more conscious of the production processes which go to make any programme or film so the aim of news broadcaster has been to make that process as unobtrusive as possible. (Schlesinger called it: “putting reality together“)


This has been done by making the studios more obviously like workplaces (BBC) with the windows opening on to the workers busy behind the scenes getting the news in and passing it on as quickly as possible, with clean lined studios which resemble the hub of a wheel around which the world rotates (ITV); by using cgis to cleverly fill in where understanding of a difficult story might be compromised and with the ability to get reports in from field reporters in even the most difficult and inaccessible places in the world using video-phones and other satellite technology all interlinked with straight cut editing. Hence the viewer sees the process of the news being broadcast as a seamless one and is not encouraged to think of the fact that the news is most definitely a mediated product, it is constructed and packaged to be delivered to a particular audience watching at a particular time of day.


Most broadcaster must be considered to be successful in their aim in convincing us that news is a ‘window on the world’ in that the viewer rarely does stop to consider whose viewpoint he/ she is getting or to question the choice of stories or the delivery of them. This in itself is worrying because humans are by nature a suspicious lot and rarely trust anything. It is only when the technology breaks down (which it does with pleasing regularity) that we are ‘left with blue or green curtains.‘ This usually means blank screens where a live or video or phone report should have been but isn’t, and the anchor is left floundering listening to his /her earpiece getting advice on what to do next, that we suddenly regain our perspective and see news as a series of selected stories being told to us!


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