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 "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..."


This chapter also appeared in Mediapolis: Aspects of Texts, Hypertexts und Multimedial Communication under the title: "Concision in American Commercial Broadcasts." 

For more information: See Sam Inkinen, the editor, in Research in Text Theory Untersuchungen zur Texttheorie, a series edited by JŠnos PetŲfi.


Chapter 7: [Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]

Television News Frames
continued from previous page

Finnish interpretations: "American propaganda"

Finland, like many other western countries, profited from its trade relations with Iraq. Iraqi oil had, through the years, financed a number of lucrative contracts with Finnish exporting companies, while the state airline even established a route to Bagdad for purposes of ferrying Finnish workers and other skilled personnel to construction sites in Iraq. The air route was subsequently closed after the Iraq-Iran war, but, like Germany, Finland's economic and political relations demanded a measure of caution in expressing its official view of the Persian Gulf War.

The word "propaganda," when used in describing CNN in Finland, has come up on a number of occasions, but mostly in regards to the reporting of the Gulf War. Olli Kivinen, an editor of the leading Finnish daily newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, has been critical of CNN's coverage of the Gulf War. Kivinen bases his observations, which were aired on CNN's "International Hour," on the measure of CNN's objectivity. Basically, his argument is that CNN and the United States government are in a conspiracy to distort the news and produce propaganda for the American point of view. The impression one gets from this pattern of criticism is that the United States government is seen as a virtual monolith, able to force its media to promote American ideas, American foreign policy, and American culture. This way of thinking probably has its roots in the fact that YLE does indeed reflect the official foreign policy of the Finnish government. Also, Kivinen concludes that CNN's news coverage is "extremely shallow" and only serves to improve the appeal of serious newspapers, such as his own, which, he claims, can "provide the in-depth analysis which people really want." According to Kivinen:


    The [American] media has...always rallied around the flag in a way which really astonishes Europeans... These decisions have been made in the higher echelons of the company [and] ...the [American] media has accepted this very tight censorship...quite obviously it is a political censorship which is aimed at furthering the aims of the [Bush] administration by making the war look like a nice picnic on the sand.


Finland's YLE, when reporting wars, can and often does include scenes of dead and mangled bodies. It is rather obvious, to Finns, that such scenes are taboo on the American commercial media. In this context, Kivinen brings up the role of entertainment in CNN's coverage of the war:


    ...CNN has quite clearly used the footage that they have and their whole coverage as entertainment. It is a family show, with no bodies, no blood...


In April of 1991, the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Tampere held a special seminar to enable Finnish scholars to discuss the role of journalism in the Persian Gulf War. Ari Merilšinen described how the war was reported on one of Turku's local commercial radio stations, January 17, 1991, at the beginning of the American air attack. Smaller commercial stations in Finland, says Merilšinen, discovered that CNN, when it came to immediate information about the war, served their purposes better than the wire services.

CNN was available as a topnotch professional service. It served during the Persian Gulf War in the same way as an international news service would. As a wire service medium it functioned even faster and better than radio reports would with reporters on the spot who told that Saudi Arabia was still at peace, and the same thing in Israel, Turkey and New York. The first thing in the morning, every listener wanted to hear that and only that, at which time the threat of war was spreading and became real. Still, nighttime radio anchors gave additional information by reporting George Bush's recorded speech straight from the television (CNN has yet to send the bill).


    With these little pieces of information every Finnish local radio station, which was in possession of a satellite dish, had the possibility of succeeding greatly in the first morning news report. ...The predicament of the Iraqis and the destruction remained invisible...

Finnish expectations: "Something very formal-not a show"

One of the participants in this study, after viewing CNN's news reports about the Persian Gulf War, rather appropriately defined the Finnish perspective when it comes to broadcast television news: "Finns expect something very formal-not a show."
The expectation of "something very formal" reveals the lacuna between Finnish and American expectations in news reporting. It is the commercial style of discourse which causes CNN's news reports to seem corrupted, misrepresenting the "real" news, the straight forward, "typographical" format, which Finns are so used to seeing on YLE. Although there were no commercials presented in this particular segment, the concept of advertising seemed, to our Finnish audience, to saturate CNN's broadcasts in a way which distorted the accustomed "truth" associated with YLE news reports.

For example, let us return to Schudson's observation, mentioned in Chapter 6 of this study, in which he stated that the principle fundamentals of commercial news media are that they function as "brokers" for their own news. "Self-advertising," as Schudson calls it, appeals to CNN's potential sponsors. If, in the commercial environment, "...everything, including advertising, could and should be news, " it is only logical that "everything, including news, could and should be advertising...

CNN International's report on the Gulf War (see the transcript above) was viewed by an audience of eighty Finnish students. After the initial viewing, intensive, individual interviews were carried out. Participants were encouraged to draw independent conclusions about CNN and its reporting of the Persian Gulf War, and although they were prompted for details on various aspects of CNN's reports, interviewees were not led to give any answers in particular. Each interview lasted for at least ten minutes, and often for as long as 20 minutes. Most participants were in their mid-20s. Before viewing the audience was asked to compare CNN's reporting to YLE and to disregard other news programs, such as the Finnish Kymmenen Uutiset (the Finnish commercial evening news) or the BBC. Frank and sincere answers were requested and first impressions were important, in particular when it came to such matters as wardrobe, makeup, hairstyles, facial expressions, gestures, the use of music, lighting, camera and editing. It was requested that special attention be paid to vocabulary and "tone of voice" on CNN-"How would it compare if it were in Finnish"?-participants were asked?

Most of those taking part in this study had heard of CNN from television commentaries or from reports in Finnish newspapers. With the exception of short news clips shown on YLE, however, few had seen an actual CNN broadcast. None of the participants considered themselves regular CNN viewers and, although CNN is generally known to be an American all-news network, few had actually ever seen it. The only other points of contact among our Finnish audience with the American commercial news style were through American sitcoms on Finnish commercial television during primetime or listening to local commercial radio stations.

CNN's reputation among the Turku students was tainted by recent stories in the press about CNN's "biased" reporting. In the interviews, many of those questioned were able to point out immediately that CNN is an American television network which presents the "official American point of view." Some believed that CNN was supported by the US Government. Several hours of CNN's Persian Gulf War broadcasts had been shown for free on Turku's cable television during the war in January of 1991 and many of those in our audience had seen at least one broadcast. This limited exposure, combined with critical Finnish media reviews during the war, contributed to the belief that CNN was indeed "biased" and "sensational." It would seem that CNN's reputation was blemished from the outset. On the other hand, it is also interesting to note how much influence CNN had had on all of the media in Finland during the Persian Gulf War. CNN was, in effect, the first and main source of breaking news for most television and radio reports and newspaper articles in Finland. Newspaper reporters, for example, could stay at home and watch the war on their TV sets, while composing their articles for the next day's edition.

In spite of the expectations initially expressed among those in our audience that CNN is American state supported, and for that reason "biased," it is important to point out that most of those who viewed CNN's reporting from the Gulf were impressed with CNN's ability to put on a "very good show." In fact many particpants began our interviews with those very words. CNN's style was also considered "modern," and YLE, correspondingly, "old fashioned." (Some stated, however, that older Finns would not approve of CNN's pace, and that younger people would probably welcome its rhythm, while better educated Finns would probably reject it.) Others stated the belief that the commercial television media in general, especially Music Television (MTV) and music videos, "conditioned" younger people to prefer CNN's style.

The fast pace, the lack of time to consider each story separately and the "unexpected" news stories which were presented-or rather, "non-news," as some put it-were mentioned by almost everyone as being factors which contributed to CNN's being "different." Most, in fact, considered the experts' opinions practically irrelevant to the news story that was being reported. The sustained inclusion by CNN of graphics and other elaborate visuals, such as computer-generated fades, drew considerable notice and CNN's on-the-spot reporting gave the impression of being "visually interesting" and "omnipresent." Most agreed that CNN offers more pictures with a more personal, emotional message and style than YLE. Also, YLE usually presents its anchors as "talking heads" or a voice-over, while CNN's voice-overs are more often than not read by an on-the-spot reporter.

Again, as in earlier studies, many actually believed that CNN's anchors were ad-libbing straight into the camera and not actually reading their lines. And, again, as before, some mentioned that at times YLE anchors will even use words which are not generally understood (in contrast to CNN). Also, the language used on YLE's evening news report is "more formal." It was generally agreed that CNN's anchors seemed to be actually "talking directly to the audience." Others, however, doubted the sincerity of the friendly looks and stated that the anchors seemed almost "mechanical." Many, on the other hand, stated that the anchors were "very convincing," "knowledgeable," and "persuasive."

One of the anchors, Carolyn Crier, was compared-not without derision-with a certain Finnish fashion promoter because of her exquisite costume, makeup and "Dallas-like" personality. The female anchors' general make-up and hairdos were mentioned by most of those interviewed and most agreed that it reminded them of either a commercial, a beauty contest, or the television soap opera "Dallas." While Finns are certainly no less fashion conscious than Americans, when it comes to television news anchors, I was told, women are not taken seriously when they wear heavy make-up and dress up too much. One male student commented: "Finns like their news read by common people; not the sharply-dressed types."
There were also comments expressing dislike of the "aggressive" music used by CNN when reporting Gulf War news. This music, some said, made them feel like they were "watching a music video." YLE's music, on the other hand, has been composed for the purpose of enhancing YLE's image while CNN choose to use "popular" music. CNN's rapid pace and rhythm are always factors which attract immediate notice among Finns. Some stated that such a fast rhythm made it impossible to pay attention, while others liked the speed and found it pleasant and agreed that they could find depth, if they wanted it, by reading the morning newspaper, which "all of them did anyway." Everybody agreed that the lack of on-camera interviewing in the field added to the feeling of "being there." YLE, I was told, always has someone standing by asking questions on-camera and thereby detracting from the real news.
Most assumed that, because CNN is American, it represents the "official American point of view"-especially when it comes to reports about the gulf war. Some were surprised at the anchors' open expressions of patriotism and by the "experts" who were just as openly pro-American. The general opinion among those interviewed was that an open display of patriotism, such as was seen on CNN, could never occur on the YLE news since it would be too controversial and, even, appear to be contrived. A number of students mentioned that, on the whole, CNN is "less conservative" than YLE. This is interpreted to mean that CNN's style is more "modern" than YLE's style and, although it is more "modern," CNN very often "misses the point" when it comes to reporting the news. Instead of reporting "real" news, CNN reports disasters. Also, the "background" to the news is almost completely missing.
Some stories and interviews were considered to be "melodramatic." A YLE news report would be more factual and, I was told, "neutral" in reporting the Persian Gulf War. In summing up, the general impression of CNN's style of presentation was positive, while the great majority of those who were interviewed in this study were of the opinion that YLE is "more realistic" and "more credible" than CNN. CNN would have more difficulty than YLE in "being totally objective" about world events because, according to the opinion of most, CNN is generally considered to be "loyal to the American point of view." On the other hand, more than half of those interviewed stated that they very much enjoyed watching CNN, that it was "relaxing" or "exciting" or "refreshing," and that they could agree with the statement that "CNN represents good, entertaining and professionally made commercial television news." Although if what CNN is reporting is "news," then a number of students felt that the American concept of news must be different from the Finnish. Those who were positive towards CNN and found it entertaining also stated that they were not afraid of its "point of view" because they felt that they were able to "decide for themselves" and they were interested in "hearing different points of view," including the American.

Footnotes

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Chapter 8: [Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]

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Brett Dellinger lives in Finland.


Copyright © 1999 by Brett Dellinger. All rights reserved.

 Chapter 8's Go to chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6a | 6b 7a | 7b | 8 | 8b
Footnotes Discussion  Conclusion Bibliography