-THE NEWS MEDIA
Horror movie right there on my TV
Shocking me right out of my brains
Horror movie, its the six thirty News.
– The Skyhooks.
The news media is in our face each and everyday with immaculate women and fatherly men bringing us up to date around the clock. I am, of course, specifically talking about television news, however, much of what I will say is true for radio and print news as well. But what is news? Stuart Hall, 1978 quotes:
At any given moment billions of simultaneous events occur throughout the worldAll of these occurrences are potentially news. They do not become so until some purveyor of news gives an account of them. The news is the account of an event, not something instringic in the event itself.
When considering the social production of news we should also discuss what is thought to be newsworthy. By looking at headline news stories we can see that they contain elements of drama and intrigue. In this paper I will look specifically at the three commercial evening news programs in South Australia seen on channels 7, 9 and 10. In looking closely at the social production of news in South Australia I will reflect on the connections drawn between the news media, cultural meanings and everyday social life.
As the quote in the first paragraph says, billions of events happen around the world everyday. What we are considering are the elements that make an event newsworthy, meaning the event is of enough interest to enough people to keep the audience watching and thus the companies buying their advertising time. News programs face problems of regularly producing and distributing a commodity that is both irregular and unpredictable. The production is governed by deadlines and what is referred to as the news hole which is the twenty two minutes each night that needs to be filled with news. So whether war breaks out or a cat gets stuck up a tree, whether it is a light news day or a heavy one the twenty two minutes gets filled nothing more nothing less. (Tiffen, R. 1989)
We need to keep in mind that it is imperative that commercial news programs appeal to populist views. To keep selling advertising spaces at top dollar the news programs need to keep up the ratings. This in turn explains why commercial news programs report events that will be of interest to the majority and never concentrate on stories which are relevant or interesting to a minority group only.
Journalists render stories as newsworthy to fill the news hole, to fit the deadlines and appeal to the majority to keep ratings. There is also a whole set of news values which constitute good news. The most primary value is that the story is out of the ordinary, stories which in some way breach our normal expectations about social life.(Hall et al. 1978) Extraordinariness, however, is not the only news value in making good news. Other news values include events that happen to the elite and famous personalities, events which are dramatic or show human characteristics of humour, sadness or sentimentality etc. and events which have a negative consequence or events which are part of an existing newsworthy theme. Perennial themes such as football, the Melbourne Cup or Christmas find a regular place as good news. Also local news is considered very important and often stories will headline specifically because of their local content. (Hall et al. 1978)
Before writing this paper I viewed all three commercial evening news programs in South Australia from Tuesday the 29th of October, I took notes on the type of events each station thought to be newsworthy. Sure enough the previously mentioned news values were evident in South Australian commercial news. All three news programs had approximately the same format, roughly eight important and short stories then an ad break, four or five global and general interest stories then another ad break followed by sport, ads and weather to conclude. Channel Ten was slightly different as it is an hour long, it included a recap on major stories and more general interest stories. At this stage I will look at the stories that are reported before the first ad break as these are considered to be the most newsworthy.
It is clear to see just how well local stories rate if we look at the opening stories on each news program. Eight out of the ten opening stories on channel Nine were South Australian. The only national stories to come before the ad break were a murder case in Victoria and an increase in wages for the Coles Myer chief. Channel Seven was slightly more balanced with four national stories and four South Australian stories. However, it was interesting to see that channel Seven only reported one international story in the entire program. Channel Ten had six South Australian stories out of seven. It seems that South Australians only wish to hear about South Australians, even if this means hearing about the Christmas pageant before a fatal building collapse in Cairo, as we did on channel Nine.
Another news value which is clearly evident in the first ten stories on each channel is the negative conclusion, drama and human emotion. To use channel Nine as an example again we can clearly see how negativity equals ratings. The first two stories show state economic problems with Peter Davies racist remarks causing problems in Asia and work strikes and job loses in Port Augusta. The next story looks at the problems with Optus laying overhead cables in our suburbs and the negative public reaction to them.. We then hear of police corruption, police bashings, the murder of a haemophiliac, murder in Victoria and an unfair pay rise to the Coles Myer chief . So it seems bad news really does make good news on television.
One of the news values mentioned in Hall, 1978 is the lifestyles of the rich and famous. I found evidence of this in both channels Nine and Ten but not in channel Seven. The celebrities mentioned were the royals and Priscilla Presley. The story regarding Priscilla Presley is rightly justified by her visit to Sydney and Melbourne. It was a poor attempt, from both channels Nine and Ten, however, at justifying reporting the Royals because they had arrived in Thailand. What importance or relevance to Australians this news had is clearly only the status of the personalities.
When looking at the high ratings and interest achieved by reporting stories based on personalities we should consider the personalities that the media tries to hide behind real issues. An example of this is Pauline Hanson. Sure she has raised important issues and sparked political debate that should be covered, but the news media has taken one step further. Now we hear about Pauline Hanson every news program recently no matter what she has done, if anything, that day. She has become a personality, she is ratings. The same can be said about the royals, in particular, Diana, the media pretend to report important issues when really the only important element is the personality themselves.
Television is the most trusted form of news media (Triffen. 1989) and the public has faith that what they see on television is an honest account of the events. This is when we need to look at production priority, honesty or ratings. A shocking example of the news media restructuring reality is the 60 Minutes coverage of the Iran/Iraq war. Both Journalist George Negus and executive producer Gerry Stone were accused of a set up because the Iranian artillery began firing again purely because the media were there. This is what Negus said about the set up:
People, even armies, now recognise the propaganda value of the media and theyll do things they normally wouldnt do for our benefit.
Media commentator Phillip Adams adds to this:
The greater problem now, is that terrorism, hijacking, all of these of course are media events – the media is a partner in these events. If there wasnt media cover they wouldnt take place. (Henningham. 1988)
This reconstruction of events can also be seen when John Howard, on his first day as opposition leader, was asked to replay his arrival to parliament earlier that morning as channel Seven had missed it. Howard went to such lengths as recalling his car and driving around the block, getting out of the car and walking up the steps, just so this momentous scene could be seen on channel Seven.
News programs have often been accused of misrepresenting events by the use and misuse of cut away shots, both of crowds and interviewers. A great deal of speeches and addresses etc. are filmed with one camera. This means that the crew will film the speaker address the crowd then after the speech is over they will film the crowd reactions and edit them together as if shot coincidently. This can of course change the way the speech is viewed on television. Henningham, 1988 states Television viewers look to the audience of speakers for cues as to whether the speaker is worth serious attention. Interviews are filmed in a similar way, subject then interviewer, then edited together as if done at the same time. This can cause problems if the wording of delivery slightly changes the second time around.
Television news is, no doubt, dominated by visual aesthetics, what looks good is interesting and pleasing to watch. The visual back up of each story confirms it validity making television a trustworthy source of information. Every story in my observation contained pictures from both the event and/or the channel library. It has been said that if a story doesnt carry footage it is not considered newsworthy and may not run at all. This visual style of television news is typically American and is quite different to the traditional English style. In the 1950s the BBC had no moving pictures with their news coverage at all. It was simply the radio news played over a picture of the Big Ben. (Henningham, 1988)
For communication to be possible you need a speaker and a listener to interact. We know a lot about news readers but what do they know about us? How do they view their viewers?It is said that journalists know little about their audience, partly because they dont have access to the information. Their opinion of their audience is low, deriving this opinion mainly from the people who call in to the show. One journalist said If the station callers are representative of their whole audience them we are all in big trouble. (Henningham, 1988)
Television news is the most trusted form of news today. Yet most of us know we dont always get the whole truth and nothing but the truth. News programs are made in tight deadlines and the news hole has to be filled no matter what happened during the day. Journalists will organise programs by following news values to decide what stories are newsworthy. This is why Adelaide commercial news usually contains a great deal of local content, stories of drama, emotion and negativity, personalities, perennial themes, populist views and of course visuals, visuals, visuals. While television news has the facade of an honest and reliable form of news media it is quite clearly shows a misrepresentation of everyday social life, thus creating meaning and myth in our culture.