The emergence of television news programs in the late 1940s in the US marked a major historical development in the history of journalism. Combining the broadcast auditory flow of radio with the moving images of the movie newsreels shown in the cinema, television news was able to provide the public with a new experience in journalism. In the context of American commercial broadcasting, television journalism – more than any previous form of news – was shaped by the economic demands of entertainment and advertising, not least on account of the compelling visual dimension. The American model of television news was quickly exported, and has become the global norm for how it is done. The visual elements are a part of the taken-for-granted professional routines, yet continue to evolve as the genre develops, and they remain of important analytic concern.
It is the visual dimension that gives television news its unique attributes. In traditional broadcasting, television, like radio, has strict time schedules. Only in very extreme cases can more time be allotted. The public cannot alter the tempo of the program or the sequence of the stories. Unlike radio, television news has moving pictures, which alters the mode of cognitive attention, adding the visual to the aural. Moreover, television news provides a different experiential flow; not only are the images supreme in conveying visual phenomena, the visual elements in themselves generally enhance the affective involvement of the viewer, not least in regard to engagement with people seen on the screen.
Certainly with the advent of video recording, and more recently of digital formats – as well as channels with 24-hour news transmission – some of the temporal and scheduling constraints of viewing have been loosened. While new technologies have in some ways altered the production processes (e.g., reporters today can transmit their materials immediately to the studio via their digital equipment), the visual dimension retains its decisive role in the production of television news, and exercises certain imperatives that continue to define the genre. Television news has to be “good television” as well as “good journalism,” and on occasion tensions arise between the use of visuals and journalistic values. Stories that may be of journalistic importance may not always readily lend themselves to suitable visuals (e.g., much political negotiation can be of little visual interest), and conversely, dramatic visual footage may be available but may lack a good informative story (e.g., breathtaking images of war may be weak in terms of information).
Documentary Realism And Objectivity
The principles guiding the use – and evaluation – of visuals in television news derive from the documentary tradition, which in simple terms means that the professional goal is to accurately represent reality (Corner 1995). The visual dimension soon became entangled in the ongoing discussions about “objectivity.” “News” does not exist in nature and can never be a simple “reflection” of reality; it always involves the work routines of news organizations (Tuchman 1978). Thus, there are always two basic sets of journalistic decisions to be made: what to inform the public about (i.e., selection), and how should it be done, in terms of the manner in which a story should be angled or framed (i.e., presentation). The professional goal of appearing to be “objective,” coupled with the cultural expectation that news does not reflect any subjective point of view, led early on to the development of sets of conventions of camera use that have come to be associated with the visual aesthetics of realism.
The key element of realism is to convey an impression of “natural observation”: the camera strives to function as the surrogate eye of the viewer, and thereby becomes in a sense “invisible,” deflecting awareness from the constructed character of news. The visual is thus experienced as merely rendering the world as it is, in a documentary manner, untouched by human intervention. To say that news is constructed is not to suggest that it is “faked” or deliberately misleading. Rather, it merely asserts that all news, as an organizational product, is predicated on human intervention and decisions.
It remains to be seen whether or not this notion of visual objectivity will be eroded as some segments of the viewing audiences become more aware of how television generally gets done. Popular conceptions about “real” versus fictive have become somewhat more sophisticated in the wake of versions of reality TV, as well as via the growing involvement in amateur and home digital media productions of all kinds. Audiences seem quite aware of – and sensitive to – the “rules” of various television genres of factual programming (Hill 2007), yet the visuals remain compelling in television news as well as in other media genres (see, for example, Messaris 1995).
At one level, all journalism is engaged in a kind of “translation service”: it must take that which is new and convey it in terms which are recognizable and meaningful. This tension is of course a continuous challenge, in that certain events or developments cannot be truly understood with reference to the familiar. Much of journalism consists of reiterations of the world as it is: familiar kinds of stories with recurring elements. The highly conventionalized use of language and, in broadcast news, modes of speech, also enhances the impression of the everyday, the “normal.” With television news, the repertoire of the visuals is also quite standardized, consisting of many generic ingredients in the camerawork. The codes that define the genre are quite unmistakable. For journalists as well as audiences, this camerawork is not merely the “containers” that carry information; the particular use of specific shots is part of a well-developed “language” that can convey meaning in an effective manner.
Thus, the typical title sequences that introduce a TV news program usually make use of graphics signifying “the world,” for example abstract illustrations of the globe and collages of images from “all around the world.” Together with the accompanying fanfare music, the aura of pomp, and the brisk professional efficiency conveyed by the news anchor(s) and reporters in the studio (based on their dress, body language, facial expressions, etc.), this sequence tells us the program should command attention (Bignell 2002). It not only “brings” us the world and “covers” it, but also by implication positions itself in an implied all-knowing Olympian manner. After this introduction, the traditional news program usually makes use of a standard set of visuals, usually comprising: the news anchor(s) in the studio, addressing the viewer; studio interviews/discussion with guests; live sequences with reporters on location; pre-recorded materials (with either a reporter visible at the scene, or with just a voice-over). Still images, such as graphs, charts, and photos, are also used.
Within this basic visual framework, there are more specific signifying practices that serve to transmit meaning. For example, the semiotics of location include an inventory of familiar images of political power (e.g., shots of a presidential emblem or the Houses of Parliament), familiar icons of major cities, the chaotic violence in the streets of the Middle East, starving refugees in a camp in Africa. Also surrogate “proxy images” are used for events and actions where genuine documentary pictures are unavailable (Griffin 1992). There are also tacit rules, or codes, which tell us things about the news organization, such as its hierarchy: there is a “chain of command” that filters the information. Thus, a guest interviewed in the studio never looks into the camera, but instead always at the reporter. Only the reporter has the prerogative to address the viewers directly. Similarly, a reporter on location will usually address the studio anchor, if one is present, rather than the viewer.
Further, the visual codes for depicting people are significant. For instance, different kinds of shots structure social distance. Thus, “normal” and “respectful” distance is suggested by a medium close-up, simulating proximity in social situations; a long-shot of many people suggests their relative lack of significance in terms of social power and individuality; while an extreme close-up signifies intimacy or psychological intensity.
The basic genre of TV news is still very recognizable, but it is of course ever evolving. Viewing videotapes of news programs from, say, three decades ago would make some of these developments quite visible. One would notice, for instance, the increase in tempo and sensationalist news values, even in the traditionally more staid network evening news programs in the US. With the increased tempo come more visual cuts and shorter sound bites. Moreover, with CNN and other 24-hour news services we have witnessed more material with live shots – focused editing is not always as evident as in the traditional news programs with tight schedules.
Beyond cueing the viewers’ understanding, the visuals also serve a powerful legitimizing function (Griffin 1992). Given that the images afford an almost indisputable experience of reality, of truth, in their visual facticity, the implication is that “seeing is believing.” Moving images also imply immediacy, in the sense of being instantaneous – thereby further underscoring the authority of the news organization – but also in the sense of being direct, untouched by personal subjectivity. The difficulty here is of course that the visual “truth” may not always be able to say much about the social, political, economic, cultural, or other factors that have shaped a phenomenon captured by the camera. In seeing images we all too easily assume that we understand the realities they represent.
From a learning point of view, the visual dimension has at times been criticized for being ambiguous, allowing many different meanings to emerge. But research (see Graber 2001) suggests that this is really not the case. The verbal dimension helps anchor the visual and facilitate comprehension. Also, given that the visual repertoire within a given national culture is a limited and rather stereotypical one, it is governed by well-established codes. The “preferred” meaning intended by the news organization is usually not ambiguous. Further, the communication of information in TV news watching depends not just on the contents and form of that which is represented in the images, but also on the stimulation of schemas – i.e., the activation of relevant archives of memory and meaning in the viewer. Visuals thus have the potential to aid learning by triggering recall. Discussions continue, however, in regard to how best to coordinate visuals with voice-overs of spoken text. The larger issue of the ideological interpretation of news is another question, however, and is greatly dependent on the predispositions of different groups in the audience.
The theme of affect and emotional involvement in images is at times raised in regard to the informational function of news. The Enlightenment legacy of rational thought is seen in some quarters as threatened by the visual dimension of news – a dimension that is on the increase in media culture generally. The questions are raised whether democracy can survive the growing journalistic use of images, and whether the visuals automatically imply a “dumbing down” of the public. Can television news seriously address its viewers as citizens, or do they inexorably become positioned as spectators and consumers? Such debates continue, with sustained intensity.
- Barker, D. (2000). Television production as communication. In H. Newcomb (ed.), Television: the critical view, 6th edn. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 179–196.
- Bignell, J. (2002). Media semiotics, 2nd edn. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- Corner, J. (1995). Television form and public address. London: Hodder Arnold.
- Graber, D. (2001). Processing politics: Learning from television in the Internet age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Griffen, M. (1992). Looking at TV News. In Communication, 13(2), 121–141.
- Hill, A. (2007). Restyling factual TV. London: Routledge.
- Messaris, P. (1995). Visual persuasion: The role of images in advertising. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Tuchman, G. (1978). Making news. New York: Free Press.