"Finnish Views of CNN Television
News" by Brett Dellinger
"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.
Television News Frames
The media frame: an informational commodity unit
Framing in broadcast news media, therefore, is derived from the broadcast news writer's need to edit out, emphasize certain themes and simplify others. News editors, directors, journalists and virtually everyone involved in creating the news are confronted with this necessity. Framing is a common occurrence and stories are framed by journalists for various reasons. The news media, whether operating electronically or in hard copy, whether commercial or public service, must endow their medium with a certain structure, one which serves many aims, including technical, economic, political and ideological. The receivers of news, the audiences, also accept implicitly-and also expect implicitly-that a certain formalized frame will be used as "news" and therefore that certain stereotypes will be repeated consistently by the news media.
Television journalists, because of the time restrictions imposed on commercial and non-commercial media, do not have the time to present each and every story uniquely and in detail, nor, with deadlines to meet and relentless competition on the other channels, is there time to check to see if every fact is indeed true. Television news stories, therefore, are framed, meaning that their contents are modified to fit a certain established standard-a mold, one could say. The mold is made up of socially and professionally determined or market guided stereotypes. If this practice were not the rule, every unique news story could not possibly find a niche in the existing structure of news reporting provided by the medium and genre.
Textbooks about writing for broadcast news demonstrate quite clearly how journalists are taught to put news stories into certain implicitly accepted, and for the commercial media, marketable molds. Journalists learn the technique of shaping practically any story so that it displays certain characteristics which make that story surprisingly similar to other news stories surrounded by the same frame. Whether "breaking news" on television, a newspaper feature story, or "soft" news on NBC's Dateline, each story is written so that it fits a certain script or schema, which has proved to be acceptable to audiences, sponsors and broadcasters.
While Gitlin presents some of the concepts of news frames as they appear in the media, Newsom and Wollert present framing as a skill to be learned by students of journalism. In their textbook, Media Writing: News for the Mass Media, the authors mention both the marketplace and audiences. They inform students of broadcast journalism that "the marketplace for feature stories is unlimited" because news stories, especially "soft" news, can be "grouped into broad categories" which have a "clearly defined central theme." The audience is not left out of their analysis, for it is they who are offered "some form of reward...," such as a "structured dynamic conclusion," for having followed the story to the end.
The structured conclusion, or "reward" for the audience, is not only the key
for understanding the dynamics of the commercial television news story, but it also helps
to clarify the other essential component of the construction of news frame. As a guide in
structuring "rewards" for audiences, the authors list categories of feature
stories. The fact, however, that the stories are to be created for a commercial
information medium seems to be an implicitly accepted fact by the textbook authors. The
examples presented below are paraphrased, while direct quotes are included from Newsom's
and Wollert's manual. (Italics are mine and indicate how the news writer gives structure
to the frame.):
The news feature: The most common kind of story; developed around a
"timely event," "something with immediacy," and is "more
personal" with "human interest," using direct quotes, description and
emotion. "At the core, though, it is news."
The personality sketch: A story which focuses on individual accomplishment,
attitudes and outstanding characteristics; a profile which often depends on
The informative feature: Such stories deal with the bizarre, or the little
known. "While the emphasis is on informing or educating the
audience," the stories are popular and often "packaged" with a main
The historical feature: This story is often inspired by the holidays or
national events. "The writer's prime concern should be to make the
historical chronicle relevant to a contemporary public."
The personal experience: A news story which recounts the accomplishments of
an individual or group. "The disabled Vietnam veteran," for example, "who
rolls across the state in wheelchair..." or the "student who spells
prestidigitator correctly and wins the county spelling bee..." are examples.
The descriptive feature: A story dealing with "tourist spots,
recreational areas," and provides "specific facts...."
The how-to: Stories which include flower arranging, using home computers,
etc. "The secret to a successful how-to feature is in its reward for the
audience. A project or a suggestion that's too complicated, too expensive or too
time-consuming is likely to lose the audience."
The enterprise: These are stories that "don't fit any specific category."
"You look at a fairly common situation but ask 'Why?' and a story
News stories, therefore, as Newsom and Wollert categorically show, are constructed to belong to certain story frames which are pre-fashioned and pre-defined by the professional news writer. Without being explicit, Newsom and Wollert are teaching readers how to "package" public information into merchandisable commodity units of discourse.
As Peter Braham explains, such stories become "slotted into a framework which
is reassuringly familiar to both journalist and reader." "Reporting," says
Braham, is not simply a matter of collecting facts."
Facts do not exist on their own but are located within wide-ranging sets of
assumptions, and which facts are thought to be relevant to a story depends on which sets
of assumptions are held. These sets of assumptions are referred to as "news
What the news writer assumes about the story and the criteria which make the story
fit into a particular category will determine the frame for the story. For example, the
fact that for commercial television a story must be "packaged" to sell is one
consideration. There are many, however, such as: How should a particular story be told?
How will this frame be treated by competing commercial media? How does management want the
story framed? How do politicians treat this story? Framing news stories, therefore, is an
essential tool that all journalists must use to function as professionals.
In other words, what they are doing, as they must, is to present the news which is
unfamiliar by virtue of just having happened-in as familiar and easily digestible a
fashion as possible.
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Brett Dellinger lives in Finland.
Copyright © 1999 by Brett Dellinger. All rights reserved.