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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 János Petöfi.

Chapter 7: [Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]

Television News Frames

How is television able to make the world beyond our own senses "look natural"? Do we, the audience, decide what we watch on television or do the media set our agendas and expectations by reporting and emphasizing certain issues while ignoring and belittling others? These questions are raised and examined by Todd Gitlin in his inquiry into the news media's role in reporting student protest against the war in Vietnam. In that study, Gitlin concludes that the media do indeed "define...public images," and that they achieve this through a journalistic mechanism known as "framing." The mechanism of framing is another means by which the media simulate reality. This "reality" is assembled by producing

    ... persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual. [Italics Gitlin's.]

To take an example, Gitlin points our attention to the student anti-Vietnam War movement of the early 1960s in the United States. The news media at first ignored the extensive and well-organized protest by students on campuses around the United States. However, only five years after the protests began, the media "discovered" it. "But," Gitlin asks, "which movement" did the media actually discover? When it came to reporting the reality of those massive protests against an unpopular war with a country few Americans had even heard of, the American television news networks "emphasized certain themes and scanted others." As Gitlin so comprehensively points out, "deprecatory themes began to emerge, then to recur and reverberate." The American media were exercising their privilege to arrange, select and interpret images which would go towards depicting the reality of an unpopular war and its reception by the American people for American television audiences.

This is not to say, however, that the mechanism of framing, as it is used in the production of news in the media, is always an attempt at controlling what audiences see and hear. News frames are everyday tools, used by journalists out of necessity. Necessity dictates that within any event "there is an infinity of noticeable details." No news story can be reported in its entirety, which means that inevitably some editing involving some process of selection, emphasis, and representation must be employed by any journalist when presenting news events to audiences. News frames are, as Gitlin emphasizes, "composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters." In other words, journalists must frame reality "in order to negotiate it," and it is therefore essential for the critical observer of media to ask certain crucial questions, such as

    What is the frame here? Why this frame and not another? What patterns are shared by the frames clamped over this event and the frames clamped over that one, by frames in different media in different places at different moments? And how does the news-reporting institution regulate these regularities?

The journalistic necessity of framing, however, can be used, under certain circumstances, for interpreting and depicting stories in the media according to the ideological criteria of a particular class or group. As Gramsci has already pointed out, especially when a crisis in society occurs, certain "incurable structural contradictions" reveal themselves, causing the "political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure" to make "every effort to cure them..." It is during these times that "the forces of opposition organise" and develop "a series of ideological, religious, philosophical, political, and juridical polemics..." And it is at this "conjuncture" in history that those who are able to influence and control the media's ideological hegemony are "pushed to the extremity of its self-contradiction, and snaps..." At this point one may witness how the dominant media frames shift abruptly so that society's elites "(including owners and executives of media corporations) are more likely to intervene directly in journalistic routine, attempting to keep journalism within harness."

The Vietnam War, and particularly the climate produced in the United States by the widespread protest against that war, is one example of a historical "conjuncture" in which an abrupt shift took place in media reporting. It was a shift away from journalistic routine and it served to control free journalistic expression. More recently, other examples of an abrupt shift away from free journalistic expression have occurred, and one such example is the western media's reporting of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

The "framing devices" employed by television news to portray the protest against the war in Vietnam, as described by Gitlin, although essential for media criticism, do not fully explain the role of the audience. Audiences develop certain expectations from television news, expectations which vary from culture to culture, and these expectations also have a definite effect on how reality is presented by broadcasters on the screen. A critical analysis of the discourse of news frames must, therefore, also consider the concept of framing, but not just as a tool or mechanism used by journalists, but as an element of discourse exchange and expectation.

Analyzing frames as discourse

Eco defines the meaning of a frame by drawing on current research in artificial intelligence. The "notion of a frame," says Eco, can be illustrated by using the following statements as an example:

"John was sleeping when he was suddenly awakened. Somebody was tearing up the pillow."

A computer, relying on "dictionary-like information," when confronted with the above sentence, according to Eco's analysis, "would be able to understand what /to sleep/ and /pillow/ mean, but would be unable to establish what the relation is between John and the pillow (and which pillow?)." If, however, the addressee "is endowed with an enlarged encyclopedic competence which encompasses also a set of frames, or scripts...," it is possible to conclude that "human beings usually sleep in bedrooms and that bedrooms are furnished with beds, beds with pillows, and so on."

As Eco has indicated, by combining two or more scripts, or frames, the addressee (whether computer or human) is able to grasp that "the pillow just mentioned can only be the one John was resting his head on." In this way Eco is showing how audiences decode messages by means of resorting to a stock of accumulated competence, perhaps even a series of familiar scenarios which are on store as encyclopedic data derived from cultural experience, to fill in the missing links of information, in this case the relation between John and his pillow.

By this reasoning, therefore, as Van Dijk has already pointed out, one can conclude that there is more than just one message communicated through the text and structure of a television news broadcast. By means of analogy, one might compare the journalistic mechanism involved in the presentation of the news to television audiences with that of a computer server using hypertext links to other documents on distant servers. Although the contents of a certain text can be "read" and comprehended on the surface, one is also able to take advantage of "links" to other documents, scripts and entire programs of stored data, lying and waiting below the surface of extraneous communication. What we actually see and hear in a news broadcast is therefore only the "tip of the iceberg," that is, only the shell of an elaborate stock of stored, encyclopedic competence, upon which one can draw, consciously or unconsciously, and which belongs to and is often shared by the sender, the receiver and much or all of society at large.

Included in this stored, encyclopedia of competence is the ritualization and formalization of presentation styles. These are also processes controlled by established schema or scripts which are likewise able to impart meaning to a broadcast. Although "news" is supposed to consist of yet untold facts, audiences turn on their televisions expecting something which conforms with their particular concept of "news." In this sense, Deborah Tannen's apt description of a frame as "the power of expectation," turns the concept of a media frame into "self-fulfilling prophecy," and "anticipation." According to Tannen,

    In order to function in the world, people cannot treat each new person, object or event as unique and separate. The only way we can make sense of the world is to see the connections between things, and between present things we have experienced before or heard about.

In the study of language, Tannen adds, the term "frame" has been a concept employed in anthropological and sociological analysis, as well as "the structuralist notion of syntagmatic frames." Researchers, however, have used various terms to denote the meaning of "frame," including "schema," "categorization," "pattern," "setting," and "structures of expectation." Also, in the field of computer simulation and social behavior, including the study of ideology, the term "script" has been used.

"What unifies all these branches of research," says Tannen, is that "expectations make it possible to perceive and interpret objects and events in the world." In addition, she notes, expectations "shape those perceptions to the model of the world provided by them. Thus, structures of expectation make interpretation possible, but in the process they also reflect back on perception of the world to justify that interpretation."

Tannen's statement that "structures of expectation...reflect back on perception of the world to justify...interpretation" is echoed by Ruth Wodak who considers media frames as "ideology." According to Wodak, the "general concept" of "ideology" often has a "negative connotation," but ideologies, like "structures of expectation," "create and propagate a secondary reality which one either has to believe in (in totalitarian systems) or may believe in (democratic systems)." The term "ideology," therefore, can also be used synonymously with "myth." Myths abound in television broadcasting. When myths are repeated, a "new reality" is created.

    This new reality appears to be logically consistent and self-contained; and it is manifest in its very own language. The indicators are to be found on all the linguistic levels: in the lexicon, in the syntax, on the text and discourse level and even in the phonology...

In a democracy, says Wodak, there is a "political opinion-forming" process at work. Television audiences "choose" between "experts" with "implicit ideas concerning political life" and, in fact, everything in the "realm of the politically conceivable." Myth, or ideology, is constantly being created by television and presented to audiences as "reality." Framing in the media is one of the main vehicles by which myths enter the realm of public discourse.

"Instantly recognizable 'concepts' with a presold market"

Although framing is essential to television news production, it has the effect of producing "symbolic content messages" which communicate meanings to audiences. Frames, as coded messages, are also "rhetorical gestures" which are consciously or unconsciously considered newsworthy by television news producers and their audiences. Frames also, because of their technical nature, can be repeated and used for different stories, especially those frames which strike the right chord and successfully fulfill their designed promotional purpose.

As has been illustrated, there are many reasons for framing the news and ideological reasons are certainly not the most important. There are purely commercial reasons, as well as technical reasons. Newspaper articles, for example, are usually written in such a way that the reader can browse at will from story to story. An article in The New York Times is written in the form of a pyramid, with the main thesis at the beginning, which is then developed into a more complex form by the end of the story. In the United States newspapers either monopolize their markets entirely, or they speak to small, specialized audiences-people who represent specific markets for targeted advertising. In the newspaper business, direct competition with other newspapers within one market area is rare. American commercial television, on the other hand, incorporates into its news broadcasts certain frames which are formulas designed exclusively for the needs of commercial television. Television, as a communications, information-giving medium, is not as mature as newspaper journalism, and its present state of development is where the press was in the days of Citizen Kane, when there was still competition between newspapers in the biggest markets. The big American networks, as well as their affiliated local stations, are competing against each other, not to mention the newer cable networks and cable stations which subdivide the market into even smaller segments. The consequence is that each news broadcast is actually delivering to its sponsors smaller and smaller audience fragments of the total television-viewing population. The solution to this aggregate drop in market share is to devise frames which are better able to compete. Competitive frames have more action, more entertainment, more one-on-one intimacy, more news in the public interest for the purpose of attracting more viewers.

Commercial television, therefore, is forced to devise frameworks for story-telling which will successfully deliver a qualitative audience in sufficient numbers to the sponsor's commercial-television must "carry the audience along." For these reasons, as Gitlin has so accurately pointed out, the news story takes the form of a circle. The thesis is developed throughout the story, but the reporter always returns to do the "wrap up" at the end.

In commercial television news broadcasting, especially in the United States, competition is the driving force behind the structuring of news frameworks. If one commercial news program or network devises a commercially or politically successful frame for a story, competitors are obliged to pick up the frame and continue with the story. To reinterpret an existing frame would be running the risk of contradicting media-established "truth," while frames tend to filter back to re-establish and re-define reality.

A good example of a commercially successful frame is the story of Tonya Harding, the Olympic ice skating champion who allegedly conspired to attack her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Never mind that no concrete evidence of her guilt was found before the frame was devised. Still, CBS had a commercial interest in playing up the story because, as was admitted afterwards by television executives, the frame of an evil ice skater attacking her good rival attracted audiences to the upcoming Olympic games, which, co-incidentally, were being covered exclusively by CBS. Advertisers, naturally, "rejoiced" at the unexpectedly large audiences which were attracted by the spectacle. Competitors, such as CNN and NBC, not wishing to kill their advertisers' goose that laid the golden egg, continued to develop the frame. As the Tonya Harding frame appreciated in value, in the same way any other commodity would acquire value after advertising, CBS could then consider raising its price for advertising space during the upcoming summer Olympic games.

There is a wide diversity of possible television news frames which can be devised by television news, which David Altheide calls "instantly recognizable 'concepts' with a presold market."

What's less obvious is the genre's habit, exacerbated by haste, of reducing a complex story to the simplest, most viewer-friendly terms...Still, get ready for a lot more. In high-visibility disasters like Waco, the networks see a way to survival: instantly recognizable "concepts" with a presold market...We've reached the point," says ABC's Parkin, "where TV movies and news shows are competing for the very same stories."

The journalist, working for commercial broadcast media, must have the goal of presenting the television story in such a way that audiences can be created, then held long enough for sponsors to proclaim the advantages of their products. With this necessity in mind, one can more easily grasp the reasons for a story structure which is segmented in such a way that audiences are "teased" along to the next commercial break by means of journalistic devices deliberately aimed at building up anticipation by means of hyperbole, epideictic language, attractive images and sounds.

Hyperbole, which is often found in commercials, brings us to another dissimilarity between the news as it is presented in newspapers and that which appears in commercial television news broadcasts. This dissimilarity concerns the rhetorical arguments as they are presented to audiences. Primeau, in his analysis of American television's rhetorical style, reveals persuasion as a specific rhetorical, but very subtle tool for influencing audiences. He compares the rhetoric of American television with the classical rhetorical category of persuasion, known as the "epideictic," which reveals itself most vividly in the use of ceremony. As opposed to other forms of persuasion, such as that used in a court of law, for example, in which the evidence and a logical argument are submitted for judgment according to the rules of logic, epideictic persuasion, according to Primeau, seeks to convince through the use of various types of ceremony, or exaggerated praise or blame. Repetition and the repetition of formulas abounds in epideictic persuasive techniques, as do spectacle, display and ritual. Examples of all of these characteristics of epideictic persuasion are represented in most American commercial broadcasts, including news. Epideictic persuasion is recognizable, very predictable, and can be easily accepted by audiences as an implicit element of commercial television. Furthermore, precisely because it is accepted and taken for granted as a "normal" part of television broadcasting, especially in the United States, it is often ignored by both audiences and critics alike.

Primeau has also observed that epideictic persuasion is used in such a way that logical arguments are discarded by broadcasters. In their stead, spectacle, repetition and ritual have become the rule. Gitlin offers an excellent example of spectacle in American television, where repetition and ritual in commercial news employ populist frames which consistently pit "the wisdom of the people" and the "little guy" against big government or crime or foreign enemies.


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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  7 | 8 | 8b
Footnotes Discussion  Conclusion Bibliography