| "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.
Chapter 2, Part 2:
Cueing works as follows: Contrastive stress in speech is used to underline or call special attention to a sentence or phrase. Intonation and other forms of paralanguage and kinesics -- including voice pitch and gestures-are especially effective in calling attention to and giving nuances about certain aspects of a particular message. In news broadcasting, especially, sound, video editing and other visual effects, such as rapid editing techniques, can be used to break up the monologic uniformity of the written word. Cueing, therefore, 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
...so that the audience knows exactly when to expect news, weather, sports,
entertainment, reviews, features, and editorial commentary. ...All of this is interrupted,
of course, by an increasing number of commercial "messages" from the people who
pay the bills.
Cueing, which could also be described as a kind of code, is not always apparent because of its tendency to be taken for granted by audiences and broadcasters.
The American news broadcast format is ritualized by giving an illusion of "one-on-one" interaction between the anchors and the audiences. The story must move forward with every sentence which titillates audiences to pay attention and share in the "excitement," and the "importance" of the action. News anchors are transformed into "television personalities" through the conscious manipulation of lexis by presenting texts which will be made to sound informal and colloquial-a style which is merely modeled on real speech with the appropriate amount of "slang, idioms, clichés, proverbs and catch-words" which "are all used to cue the illusion of oral mode; learned or official words are avoided...unless they are to be derided." First names, "diminutives and nicknames are all used to connote the informality and intimacy of face-to-face discourse." Writers of broadcast news will use contractions of auxiliaries and negatives, such as "he'll," "don't," etc.-as well as elisions; short or incomplete sentences-"Why not?" Personal pronouns will be used for indicating persons. "Today, now, then," etc. are used to indicate time. Deixis, meaning "pointing," "here, there, this and that," are used to indicate place. "Deixis," says Fowler, "provides important cues" in television which add to the feeling of "being there," while modal expressions are used to signify judgments as to truth, likelihood, desirability, obligations and grant permission. They are used to suggest "the presence of an individual subjectivity behind the ... text, who is qualified with the knowledge required to pass judgment ... or assign responsibility. The frequent use of modal expressions has the effect of enhancing subjectivity and giving the television audience the "illusion of a 'person' with a voice and opinions." If, however, one wishes to "give an impression of objectivity," the use of modal expressions would be minimized.
Thus, when writing for broadcast news the written language is modified to resemble
speech by purposely using more fragmented sentences which mimic real speech. Television
writers and producers strive to impersonate a real conversational style in order to give
us, the television audience, the impression that we are actually witnessing a particular
event. Whether the style is a casual, one-on-one chat, or a mundane recitation of facts,
or an emotional appeal, various refinements can be used, including story arrangement, the
interspersing of sensational remarks along with music, pace and banter, to emphasize or
de-emphasize a certain emotion, feeling or point of view. Tone of voice and volume of
presentation, as well as music, and even the arrangement of individual news stories go far
to influence the way audiences interpret news messages. Hyperbole, music and a fast pace,
which create a feeling of sensation can confer a certain status to a particular news story
which, in fact, might be trivial. At the same time,
everyday repetition of important but routine occurrences might cast a veneer of boredom
over truly significant events. Especially in competitive news markets, controversy makes
news, and the way material is arranged accounts for much of its apparent controversy.
Cueing in textbooks
In the United States, where commercial television dominates the format of news broadcasts, textbooks used in college-level writing courses for the broadcast media are produced with the needs of commercial television in mind. The complete acceptance of the commercial formula is amazingly implicit. The formula presented consists of a technique in writing which harmonizes news reports with previous and upcoming commercial breaks. This formula can be seen illustrated in Newsom and Wollert's textbook called Media Writing: News for the Mass Media, where the student is presented with a list of definitions of "news."
According to the authors, for a story to be newsworthy, it must consist of "disasters, accidents, epidemics" Television and radio broadcasts, to be considered "news," must contain "...Good Samaritan stories...crime...a drought...human interest stories, stories with drama, stories about things that are ironic or even bizarre, stories that are humorous or entertaining...a snowstorm in a neighboring city." "News," therefore, "is conflict...the more prominent the person, the more likely his or her activities will qualify as news...news is surprising." (Newsom's and Wollert's definition of "newsworthiness" is, no doubt, closer to that of Mickiewicz.)
In the same textbook, an explanation of "the broadcast style" takes up a considerable amount of space. Potential broadcast news writers are advised to "keep it conversational...keep it simple" and "keep it short." "Our everyday speech usually consists of short, simple sentences, not complex and compound ones. That's the way to write broadcast news as well...use contractions, keep it informal...don't use stuffy, stilted words...make it personal..."
In writing for broadcast news, the textbook also emphasizes the lack of time available for news:
...broadcast news has strict time limits...and even a 24-hour-a-day all-news radio or
TV operation has constraints on it. In all-news operations, for example, each hour is
broken into segments, most of which feature weather, sports, commentaries and special
reports. The actual, breaking news portion of that hour may take up as little as 10-15
minutes of time...Even the half-hour TV newscast must yield about eight to 10 minutes to
commercials, four minutes to sports, three minutes to weather; that leaves only about 15
or so minutes for news. ...a 30-second radio news story runs about seven to eight lines of
typewritten copy. That's not many words to tell the top news stories of the hour, each
hour-but a 30-second story is a long one by radio standards.
Writing News for Broadcast is another textbook which was published by the Columbia University Press and written by John M. Patterson, a professor at the influential Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, and Edward Bliss, Jr., who has been described by Fred W. Friendly as being "one of electronic journalism's foremost teachers..." Fred Friendly himself wrote the foreword for the book and emphasized that Bliss and Patterson respected fairness in broadcasting and that they "knew the benchmarks which indicate where reporting ends and preaching begins."
Writing News for Broadcast gives detailed examples of broadcast writing. For example, "whenever possible, use verbs in the active voice. This is one of the basic principles in writing news," which makes it sound more conversational. In other words, the news should be "told": "In 'telling' the news, go easy on adjectives. ... Never write... [or be] pretentious-it can't possibly be conversational." "...Prepositions break phrases into more manageable pieces which the ear-the mind, really-more readily accepts." Thus, it is "easier on the ear" to say "the process of registering cars" than to say "the car-registering process..." Concerning that as a relative pronoun: "In speech, that is used more often than which. It's more conversational." And using that as a conjunction: "This conjunction often-not always-can be eliminated."
Your newscast "listens" better if you...vary the tenses of your leads. Use the present and perfect tenses ...the most interesting way from the point of view of the listener, who is impressed by the immediacy of what you are reporting.
To express the meaning of the broadcast style of discourse more precisely, the authors,
in a chapter called "Keeping it Short," give us a specific example taken from a
UPI story on Carl Sandburg's death and memorial service:
Galesburg, Ill. (UPI)
Carl Sandburg has returned to the soil he loved.
The ashes of the late poet and author of great magnitude were scattered in the shadow of a huge granite boulder called remembrance rock in a 1½-acre park here. Behind the three-room cottage that was his boyhood home.
Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner presided at a memorial service Sunday, commemorating the private ceremony at dusk Saturday. "They will remain here always in the area he loved very, very much," Kerner told a crowd of 2,500.
As he spoke, trains roared down nearby tracks, reminding those paying homage of his
days riding the rails, gathering material to weave his prose and poetry.
The authors explain that there is a "torrent of specific detail," with difficult phrases, such as "author of great magnitude." To "boil" the Sandburg story down to one which could be read on television in 25 seconds requires skill which "presents the writer with a real problem." There is obviously very little time for background information, such as mentioning Sandburg's book, Rememberance Rock. There is also very little time to concentrate on what happened Saturday. "What happened Saturday is yesterday's news" and listeners who want more detail can read the newspapers. "...too often for comfort-you will write a story and discover it runs too long. You must cut. ...It means killing words, phrases, perhaps whole sentences which you believed, when you wrote them, were absolutely essential."
The revised, broadcast version, of the Sandburg wire story reads:
The ashes of Carl Sandburg have been returned to the soil of his hometown-Galesburg,
Illinois. At a memorial service today, Governor Kerner said, "They will remain here
always, in the area he loved very, very much." As the governor spoke, trains could be
heard passing through, reminding the crowd of the days...long ago...when the poet and
Lincoln biographer was poor and rode the rails.
Bliss and Patterson recall a story about Edward R. Murrow, now a legend in American
broadcasting and a journalist who had the courage to attack Joseph McCarthy openly on
network television during the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s. Murrow, it is said, is
the person who set the standards by which today's television journalism is gauged. The
authors quote Charles Collingwood, a veteran television news personality in the United
States, who knew Murrow and who learned from his experience:
I was fascinated by the difference between writing for ...radio and conforming to the
canons of wire service journalism. ...I went around to Murrow's office and pored over his
script files, looking for clues. 'It seems to me,' I said, 'that your formula is to write
short, vivid declarative sentences, using dependent clauses only to vary the pace or for
ornamentation.' Ed looked at me in some surprise and said, 'Oh, is that what I do. I'd
never thought about it.'
The cross-cultural perspective
As we have seen, "broadcast style" bears with it the stylistic expectationsof
a familiar model, one specific to one's own culture. Such expectations of style will
inevitably embody specific elements of a culture's individual historical development.
Consequently, whe one's own e'ethnocentric values are used to measure another culture's
stylistic expectations, as in the case of the Mickiewicz critique of Soviet television,
some crucial gaps in understanding will inevitably appear.
What we have seen on our television screens every day of our lives is what we take for
granted. Hartmut Schroeder has suggested that one cannot explain a particular style
"in relation to only one language level (such as the grammar or vocabulary), but
rather, style results from a symbiosis of speech organization on various levels..."
The same is true of media texts, which are also the result of a symbiosis of a culture's
entire development. "...a text does not have style, but rather, style is something
conferred upon the text; style comes about, first of all, within a frame and through the
communication between author and receiver."
There are, in fact, different levels of language organization which can define the meaning of style when discussing television discourse. The text level involves different strategies of argumentation, self-representation and persuasion. On the lexical level there are slogans and "buzzwords." On the syntactic level we have seen how language can be used to signal and summon a particular mood, or place us into a particular setting, such as is done in cueing.
The reception of a particular style, however, is the deciding factor, for in any communication between cultures, the sender of a message, one which is produced in a culturally acceptable style of discourse, may run into serious problems in having the style accepted by the culturally uninitiated. Such problems result from different expectations and mis-understandings of behavior patterns in particular circumstances. In other words, much of what may be regarded in the United States as correct, interesting, and intelligent discourse, such as Edward R. Murrow's much revered formula for television news, "to write short, vivid declarative sentences, using dependent clauses only to vary the pace or for ornamentation" could be decoded differently by those living within the confines of another culture-or not even decoded at all.
The social and historical origins of television discourse, in any culture, are indeed complex. Attempts, however, can be made to integrate diverse disciplines, concepts and traditions in order to expose the taken-for-grantedness of language and the ways in which it is used. Wodak expresses the problem quite clearly. "Social phenomena," she says, "are too complex to be dealt with adequately in only one field." The scholar must investigate "...language behaviour in natural speech situations of social relevance..." while analyzing "... data from natural speech situations." Crucial, she says, in the explaining of "social processes," is the "historical perspective."
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Copyright © 1999 by Brett Dellinger. All rights reserved.