The newscast has anchored broadcast media schedules since their invention and has delivered mundane and momentous news and information daily from near and far, entwining itself with society, culture, and the politics of the day. Synonymous with the great conflicts and crises of mediated history – particularly US-centered history – the televisual nightly newscast has embedded itself into the narrative of nations (and even, at times, their conscience), connecting an apparently simultaneous, unified, and collective audience.
Changing Significance Of The Newscast
For instance, the long US military involvement in Vietnam became known as “the livingroom war” because this was where the consciousness of the nation was deemed to reside. Partly, it was the arbiters of late twentieth-century mediated events, and notably network television’s heyday – the news anchors – that provided daily continuity, ritual, and reassurance to millions of viewers across the States, helping to contain and negotiate a way forward through even the most catastrophic and anxiety-provoking news. The nightly news format, its success and potential power, epitomized in the Oscar-laden 1976 movie Network, became a global format, mimicked in countries around the world.
However, the mid-1990s appeared to mark a shift and a decline of the television evening newscast as a national investment of discrete viewing time in a shared space and time – that of the living-room. The centrality of the newscast and its pivot – the news anchor – has appeared to be under threat in relation to massively increased competition and transformations in the very architecture of news gathering and dissemination. For instance, the rapid departure of the leading presenters of the period, with, e.g., the retirement of NBC’s Tom Brokaw in 2004 and CBS’s Dan Rather in 2005, and the death of ABC’s Peter Jennings in 2005, appeared to mark a shift to a new news order. What then are the newscast’s prospects in the apparently fragmenting news cultures of the twenty-first century?
Wholesale deregulation, the technological transformations of the digital era, and the subsequent mass proliferation of news providers and news channels have transformed the news landscape into a patchwork of interconnected, mobile, and colliding discourses. The constancy and ubiquity of television and online news in particular has led to some commentators characterizing its presence as “ambient.” For instance, television screens (and audiences) are sometimes concentrated but sometimes scattered throughout private and public spaces, including in airport lounges, bars, and railway stations (McCarthy 2001), not to mention reception areas of company buildings, waiting rooms, and a whole variety of transport: planes, coaches, taxis, etc. Hargreaves and Thomas (2002, 44) define “ambient news” as “like the air we breathe, taken for granted rather than struggled for.” More usefully, Cottle (2006, 51) situates news in his mapping of a complex “new media ecology” of “public sphere(s) and public screens.” Similarly, audiences for news and other programming have become increasingly “diffused” (Abercrombie and Longhurst 1998) as they both consume and apparently constitute the new media ecology through the “red button,” citizen journalism, and Web 2.0.
Peculiarities Of The Newscast
However, despite the heralding of the portability and availability of the tools of news production and the apparent blurring of the distinction between producer and consumer, mainstream national news media and public service television channels in the UK remain the primary source of news for the majority (Gillespie et al. 2007). Furthermore, the evening newscast (especially in the US and UK) still exerts significant presence in the mainstream television schedules, and contributes the reassuring familiarity of a constant view of catastrophic and disturbing events. One can go further and state that the globalization of news formats has tended to assert a dominant and recognizable frame through which the world is routinely represented to us on television. For some, this is significantly a matter of presentational style, or what Caldwell (1995) identifies as television’s self-aware display of exhibitionism, part of its “televisuality.” For instance, on-screen brevity and movement have become the predominant framing devices as television news has become a concatenation of the tabloid front page headline and byline, and a busy computer desktop.
Despite the emergence of televisuality as a defining feature of the newscast at the turn of the century, the significance of broadcast talk in our more intensely visual news culture should not be underestimated. For instance, a key dynamic in the construction of news is found in its “rhetorical structure,” notably, “a patterned way in which language comes to be used; once used, referred to; and when referred to, remembered and drawn upon as part of what ‘everyone knows’ ” (Schudson 1990, 118). It is unsurprising then that studies of media discourses have made claims as to the discourses’ “circulation” or to their being a “circuit” (Miller et al. 1997), their self-referentiality or “metacommunication” (Esser et al. 2001), and their heavy reliance upon repetition and archival use.
Among this fluidity and connectivity, the separation of texts from audiences in the study of the media is widely recognized as highly problematic, as Allan (2004), for instance, recognizes in his rejection of the model of a “media/society dichotomy.” Instead, television discourse is partly contingent on the context of its production, which may also exist simultaneously with the context of its broadcast. The temporal and spatial context and content of talk, i.e., its “embeddedness,” are more than ever defining characteristics of mediated discourse in the new media ecology.
So the transformations in the media and news landscapes require transformations in the theoretical and empirical approaches. Unfortunately, in the same way that the nightly newscast is associated with a mythical living-room era of collective reception and its “effects,” television news is associated with a golden age of content analysis. In the UK, for example, some of the pioneering content analysis was undertaken by the Glasgow University Media Group in the 1970s, notably investigating evidence of the ideological bias of broadcasters in covering industrial and economic affairs, as published in the group’s acclaimed Bad news (1976). Of course the Glasgow University Media Unit, as it is today, has moved on, and their latest work examines TV news and public understanding of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
However, the principle upon which a great deal of content analysis over the years has been based is that of an ideal “systematic” analysis, notably applied to a comprehensive and somehow exclusive corpus of news programs or data. With only three UK television channels in the UK in the mid-1970s, one can see the relative appeal and validity of this task at that time. However, there is a long tail to this legacy that appears surprisingly in vogue in US communication studies, for example. Indeed, conventional content analysis approaches tend to focus upon what words or images are present in media and how these cluster together, and then to attempt to produce “systematic” analyses and comparisons, and to make inferences from this positive data. Instead, the claims generated by such systematic analyses appear increasingly out of touch with the new media ecology characterized by mediated conditions of connectivity, saturation, and immediacy (Hoskins & O’Loughlin 2007, forthcoming).
Some commentators go further in defining the temporal, spatial, and discursive relations of news with its environment. Cottle (2006), in relation to conflict, for instance, claims that news is “mediatized,” with the media constitutive of events so that the events cannot be considered to exist without their media dimension. And Hoskins and O’Loughlin (2007), drawing upon Goffman (1972), argue that ontologically speaking there is an interaction order composed both of what appears in news media and of what happens beyond the media text – “out there” in the world. What happens on-screen is inseparable from off-screen events, but more and more it is the case that off-screen events become inseparable from media representations of those events.
At the same time, there is an increasingly interdisciplinary body of work that takes media discourse (broadcast talk, image, sound) as central in developing a critical understanding of the construction of news, the shaping of its agendas, and its local, national, and global influences. These developments have been driven by (socio)linguistics (e.g., Fairclough 1995; Clayman and Heritage 2002), ethnomethodology (e.g., Jalbert 1999), and the significant growth in media and cultural studies and in the academic study of journalism (e.g., Zelizer 2004; Allan 2005). It is clear that the study of the newscast and emerging news cultures requires a collaborative and multidisciplinary approach to begin to become adequate to the dynamics of our new media ecology. One such innovation is the integrated multidisciplinary media analysis (IMMA) approach, which I have hinted at here and which is outlined in Gillespie et al. (2007).
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