| "Finnish Views of CNN Television News"
by Brett Dellinger
"Because of the structures of the various discourses within this broadcast genre, structures which were imposed by the pressures of its encompassing commercial objectives and design, it has an inherent inability to communicate information in the same way as the written word."
"CNN's format is a proven competitive broadcasting commodity while other formats, and discourse styles, are not competitive and will have more difficulty attracting audience attention in a predominantly commercial environment."
"Cueing ... as an artificial contrivance becomes a complex phenomenon, one which, after time, can develop into a formalized and familiar cultural experience whose frame becomes ritualized."
"The American public got what many critics and "conspiracy theorists" did not entirely expect: Instead of the "jackboot" and fascist-style propaganda, American television viewers got an endless stream of entertainment..."
"Stuart Hall ... sees the operation of the media within western capitalist societies as "all inclusive." The media shape our tastes and our desires--as well as our expectations. There is 'a shaping of the whole ideological environment ... a way of representing the order of things ... with ... natural or divine inevitability ....'"
To Finns, it seems, American television news is read "with a gleeful smile and interspersed with laughter, punctuated by frowning--as if ... emotions were totally disconnected from the text. American audiences ... expect "happy talk" and banter during a news broadcast. Finns, on the other hand, associate such behavior with clowns..."
For more information: See Sam Inkinen, the editor, in Research in Text Theory Untersuchungen zur Texttheorie, a series edited by János Petöfi.
Beyond content analysis
Content analysis does not always reveal information which can be proportionately compared cross-culturally. Through content analysis alone, the critic can be left to arrive at erroneous conclusions. The problems arise when the complex background behind another culture's expectations of broadcast style in television news broadcasts are disregarded. There are other messages communicated through the text and structure of a newscast which do indeed create meaning, and there is ritualization and formalization of the manner in which television news stories are presented. Ritualization and formalization require a mutual understanding between the receiver and sender of messages. Content analysis does not reveal whether or not a news broadcast fulfills adequately an audience's expectations. One culture's version of a news cast usually follows a formalized schema established over a period of years and decades of broadcasting practice. Satellite technology, of course, enables the critic to reveal these ritualized schemata more easily.
Ellen Mickiewicz' book, Split Signals, is a study of television news broadcasting as it existed in the former Soviet Union. Her impressions of Soviet television, however, reflect her instinctive anticipation of American commercial television's style. When Soviet television deviated from the ritualized commercial formula established in the United States, Mickiewicz mistakenly attributed this deviation to the influence of "communist propaganda."
Split Signals ascribes many of the perceivable differences in Soviet television to its political role as a disseminater of communist propaganda. However, many characteristic traits of Soviet television news can be found in one form or another in Western European public service broadcasting, including the BBC and Finnish television. For example, Mickiewicz describes Soviet anchors as "impassive" and "faceless," and depicts them as professionals who do not regard personality and emotional attachment to the audience as a necessity. Mickiewicz could be describing YLE television news-only instead of considering their television anchors "faceless" and "impassive," Finns think of them as more "authentic," "factual" and "business-like."
Mickiewicz describes the performance given by Soviet news anchors as "straight reading," as if the anchor is "reading the news from a paper on the desk." It is also a "conservative presentation of the news reader..." with a "rigid and inflexible order" made up of "governmental pronouncements..." Anchors on Soviet television "read from papers in front of them," and "talking heads," are the rule, whereas, on American television, the lone anchor who would choose to read from a sheet of paper would be encouraging audiences to change channels. Likewise, similar to American commercial news broadcasts, Soviet television makes use of voice-overs. However, both Soviet television and YLE voice-overs are usually read by the studio anchor and not a field reporter.
There are many other observations made by Mickiewicz about former Soviet television news which closely parallel YLE. The fact that both broadcasters were state controlled, and as Mickiewicz emphasizes: "highly centralized," plays an important role in her analysis. Media professionals belonged to a "single union" (as in Finland). The size of the audience (in the Soviet Union) was "staggering...over 80 percent of the adult population." Soviet television's main news program, Vremya, was broadcast "simultaneously on all television channels." (YLE-and other Western European broadcasters have had the same practice.) Soviet news programs chose "a small number of stories from the daily news, and the commentator elaborated on them, providing analysis, judgments, and additional filmed footage." Stories on Vremya "have lasted over an hour and a half." (On YLE, following the news, audiences also get a more detailed review with commentary.)
Government business and many other items considered news worthy on both Finnish and Soviet television would not receive as much attention on American television. According to Mickiewicz, 8 percent of news time on Soviet television was devoted to "government policy," as opposed to only 1 percent on American television. 14 percent was devoted to official visits, as opposed to only 2 percent on American television. 18 percent of Soviet news time had to do with the economy, as opposed to only 1 percent of American news program time. Crime and disasters received only 2 percent of Soviet television news' time, and even then, observes Mickiewicz, "stories about crime are presented by the anchors alone more than two-thirds of the time." Crime on American television is given more than 15 percent of network time and even more time by local stations.
Concerning the actual format, Soviet news, Mickiewicz notes, had a "rigid and inflexible order" in which "governmental pronouncements" came first, "then economic stories, then international stories, and only then science and arts stories..." These observations by Mickiewicz also reflect the template used on Finnish television news. Stories about the fine arts, for example, are always featured "at the end of the nightly news show" on Soviet television, while "ordinary people" are given much less time than on American television. ABC, for example, devotes almost a third of its broadcasts to interviewing "ordinary people." "People in the arts" are mentioned on ABC only 1.4 percent of the time.
Mickiewicz also considered quality and production standards inferior. Editing, for example, was too loose. "Standards for editing Vremya are often rather different," Mickiewicz claims. Transition from one story to the next can even include "some two or three seconds of silence... This editing would not be considered tight enough by American standards," which "more artfully" arranges its transitions. Whether standards are actually higher in the United States or not, there is still a striking similarity between the style of Soviet television news broadcasts and YLE News. This observation especially holds true when comparing the Soviet and the Finnish models with their American counterparts.
Mickiewicz' study seems to be most critical of Soviet television because it is a product of a "centralized," "state-controlled... communist system." It seems that the content of Soviet television news is being mistakenly confused with the style. Without being able to take into account that many of her observations are indeed characteristic of most European public service television broadcasters, the reader is left to believe that many of these characteristics have something to do with Soviet doctrine. As a consequence, she falsely assumes that many stories are considered "inappropriate" for ideological reasons. There is no denying that, in many instances, she would be correct, but the reader is still led to believe that Soviet television's style of presentation is a direct result of communist ideology, which has supposedly specified that "media is education." It was not until the "waning of the Chernenko leadership," the author writes, that the Soviet media began covering "disasters, accidents, crime, or other events tinged with sensationalism... celebrity doings... fluff... horoscopes... negative events... the underside of life." Such stories are of interest to Finnish audiences, as well. But in Finland they are not considered "news." Finns, like many Europeans, do not expect to see such stories in their news casts.
After ten months of watching Soviet television, Mickiewicz comes to the conclusion that
the very meaning of "news worthiness" appears to be something quite different on
Perhaps the most distinctive element of the Soviet media system is the understanding of what is newsworthy. That understanding is not something that the television studio or the newspaper defines for itself; it has already been set by overarching doctrine and Party policy. The denial of plural (competing, equally valid) approaches is derived from the notion that the ruling doctrine is based on science.
Newsworthiness could be and often is defined by the state, but it does not necessarily have to be tied to a particular state doctrine. Mickiewicz' analysis, while striving to make the point that "plural (competing, equally valid) approaches" are best served by American-style commercial media, overlooks other non-commercial alternatives. The picture drawn by Mickiewicz also assumes mistrust on the part of Soviet audiences, especially when one is told that the understanding of news worthiness is something "set by overarching doctrine and party policy." Widespread audience mistrust of television's messages, however, could just as well be found among American viewers who experience a plethora of "plural...approaches" every day. Finnish viewers, in contrast, consider their state-supported television news anchors "the most trusted people in Finland."
Mickiewicz' approach, while critical of Soviet television, is equally ideological in its glaring lack of criticism of American commercial television. Pluralist values, while worthy in themselves, are accepted as a given property of American commercial television. It is Mickiewicz' ethnocentric approach, based on uncritical assumptions, which demand an examination of her own cultural and ideological environment.
For our study, therefore, it is useful to recognize the shortcomings of content analysis as a tool which, if used in isolation, can lead to unwarranted assumptions about such things as "state control" and the meaning of "news worthiness" without really exploring a culture's expectations of television news. Competition definitely does play a role in broadcasting, but not always because of "competing, equally valid" viewpoints, as pluralists will have us believe. Advertising, or the lack of it, is given limited consideration by Mickiewicz, but only in as far as it seems to be missing from Soviet television, or if present, she observes, it is "not for the creation of needs, but rather to supplement policy...and steer patterns of buying in order to compensate for snags in the distribution system."
Howard Frederick gives what he calls "the most widely accepted definition of content analysis," quoted from Berelson:
Content analysis is the research technique for the objective, systematic, and quantitative description of the manifest content of communication.
CNN vs. the Networks: Is More News Better News?
Another media study which used an analysis based on content alone was made in 1983 by the Media Institute, a "nonprofit, tax-exempt research foundation supported by a wide range of foundations, corporations, associations, and individuals." The Institute published a 42-page pamphlet entitled CNN vs. the Networks: Is More News Better News? The study, designed and conducted by Cynthia Brumfield, the Director of Research at the Institute, was the first detailed content analysis of CNN which also compared the new 24-hour news network with the other American commercial television networks (PBS was not mentioned in the study, nor were any other domestic or foreign sources of television news). The study, in order to be comparative, limited its research to the so-called "hard news" found on CNN and the other big networks, CBS, ABC and NBC. The other object of the study was to investigate CNN news' "balance, depth, sensationalism, and news priority."
The study took a survey of CNN's personnel as well and compared them with what they called the "media elite," defined as those other journalists who worked at the big, established networks. Included were 240 journalists "at the most influential media outlets" and CNN. "Like the media elite," journalists at CNN were also well educated, but, in contrast to their "elite" colleagues, they "more strongly agreed with free-market attitudes." Whereas the "elite" favor "a more humane society, placing ideas ahead of money," "CNN personnel more strongly favored goals such as a stable economy...and the fight against crime." All in all, the study showed, CNN journalists "generally displayed social values that were markedly more conservative than their media-elite counterparts-values that were in fact very much in tune with...corporate executives."
As far as comparisons of actual content, the study found that the networks relied on
government sources for their news at least 24 percent of the time.
An over reliance on government sources...has been an all-too-frequent characteristic of broadcast coverage. [Our]...researches assumed that coverage relying on a mix of sources...is more balanced... CNN relied more heavily...on...economists and business/industry representatives.
The report concluded that business and economic news coverage on CNN is superior to the
networks. CNN was also judged to be "less sensational" than the networks and
succeeded in those areas in which newscast length was not a factor.
And herein lies an important lesson for the networks: "not enough time" is no
longer an excuse for unbalanced and sensational coverage; nor will more time automatically
improve the quality of coverage.
This analysis assumes that one factor which makes CNN superior to the "media elite" is that "CNN relied more heavily...on...economists and business/industry representatives, and not on government sources. The problems of "sensationalism" in news reports and the idea of "balanced" coverage are items which are presented as given, with absolutely no cross-cultural references for comparison.
Content analysis in the investigation of television news broadcasts, as demonstrated by
the Mickiewicz and Media Institute studies, can be an effective means for discussing data.
However, there are many other messages communicated through the text and structure of a
newscast as well. Additional factors in the text create meaning, such as discourse style,
paralinguistic factors, kinesics, editing, as well as the practice of framing stories to
fit a certain mold and the setting of the appropriate mood and register. Another message
component which should not be underestimated is that of ritualization and formalization.
Content analysis overlooks the fact that a typical news story follows a formalized frame,
one which may have been established decades earlier. After years of news broadcasting
within the confines of one single culture, the telling of the news story has a tendency to
become formalized to the point that it takes on implicit meaning to audiences. As news
storytelling becomes formalized, its style begins to appear "natural" and
becomes concealed to native audiences. Satellite technology, however, now presents
researchers with a new opportunity to transform the old, ritualized and implicit styles of
discourse into visible phenomena through the use of various cross-cultural tools.
Modifying broadcast news
Much of what may be regarded by Americans as correct, interesting, and intelligent public discourse, such as that analyzed in the Mickiewicz and Media Institute studies, may be decoded differently-or not even decoded at all-by those who live in other cultures. The American news broadcast format is ritualized by giving an illusion of "one-on-one" interaction between the anchors and the audiences. Thus, when American journalists write broadcast news reports, the written language is modified to resemble speech by purposely using more fragmented sentences which mimic real speech. However, when one culture's conventions are used to evaluate another culture's discourse, some crucial gaps in understanding will inevitably arise.
As early as 1964 Halliday explored the phenomenon of register in speech, when he observed that speech and writing have different attributes in that they "chop up the flow of language into units of information in quite separate ways." In written language information units are consistently associated with traditional grammatical units, such as the clause. If a written text were read aloud, the intonation curves, therefore, would be compatible with those information units. Oral language, on the other hand, "is fragmented into shorter sections of information by shorter intonation curves which are more independent of conventional syntax." By adjusting register, therefore, a writer with the proper tools could effectively communicate meaning. For example, writers for television have certain strategies which communicate to audiences that they are tuned to a sports broadcast and not a church service.
Writers for broadcast news, especially in the United States where commercial
broadcasting dominates, have stratagems for creating speech registers which modify scripts
so as to model dialog. With additional help and guidance from a good news director,
a talented anchor with a TelePrompTer, good technical assistance, a videotape editor and
proper music, a writer, by means of a written script, can symbolically refer the viewing
audience to specific ideas, emotions or even cultural stereotypes to convey meaning. In Language
in the News, Fowler provides a list of characteristic indicators which are used by
broadcast news writers to simulate dialog in news texts and thus lend more to the illusion
that we, the passive audience, are in fact active participants in the process of the
"breaking news story," as seen "live" on the screen at home. He calls
this simulation of real speech in written texts "cueing."
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Copyright © 1999 by Brett Dellinger. All rights reserved.