For our final continuous assessment assignment we were split up into groups and were required to produce a news report that was constructed so that it conveyed our own preferred meaning on an issue that is relevant within contemporary Irish society. Our group, consisting of Niamh McHugh, Aoife Heffron and myself, chose as our topic of interest the issue of increased female motor insurance premiums as a result of a European Court of Human Rights judgement on gender equality. We adopted a preferred meaning that many women believe they have achieved equality with men and are questioning the need for more and more equality legislation which is starting to impact negatively upon them.
Overall I was very pleased with our news report and felt it was well received, as was the work of the various other groups who presented. Apart from a few small technical issues with the production, I felt we had successfully incorporated quite an amount of the theory we had encountered in our module throughout the semester. I was particularly satisfied with the way we were able to incorporate semiotics into our analysis as we decided how to incorporate our preferred meaning into the production. I had been somewhat sceptical of the value of semiotics up until this semester but, in trying to create a news report in which we essentially worked backwards from the way we semiotically analysed a print advertisement in class, I feel we successfully constructed a syntagm and two contrasting paradigms that served our purpose of promoting our preferred meaning. Our two interviewees as representatives for those paradigms successfully portrayed a far greater cross-section of women as we wanted them to be perceived, although our second interviewee came across, I feel, as an isolated figure, which is what we had intended.
Of the other presentations, I feel the production quality of the news report on Giovanni Trappatoni stood out, as did the use of music in the production by PNR (Paula, Niamh, Richie). Overall the quality of the productions was very high and the above two I have mentioned just happen to come to mind.
Here is a link to our blog with a video of our news broadcast just a couple of posts from the top:
“News stories are a summary, a synthesis; they convey an illusory sense of omniscience, as if we see some segment of events in their totality, with all parts brought together, so we can perceive the total pattern, including its meaning” (Ken Sanes). Journalist and proprietor of transparencynow.com, Ken Sanes, is speaking here about how news stories are a summary, a series of segments brought together to produce a total pattern in which we can perceive meaning. We could also say that a news story is a narrative and the producers of news use similar narrative tools and devices to tell a story as do storytellers of all sorts throughout the world, as they have done throughout history.
Those narrative tools may differ depending upon the medium through which the news story is being told. Imagery in a newspaper may play its part in a narrative through captioning and placement at a certain point in the printed story whereas the same image in a television news broadcast might be accompanied by a voiceover putting it into context or giving it a completely different meaning to what it might have if presented in a different way. The presence of sound in television news presents different opportunities and problems for producers of news compared with printed news.
However, at the end of the day, most news organisations, whether print or broadcast, are chasing audience numbers or sales and news becomes perhaps as much about entertainment as it is about informing the public. Much and all as we might disdain the ‘infotainment’ many perceive to be present in commercial news broadcasts, any broadcaster, commercial or public service, that tries to present news in a non-dramatised format will, I believe, have difficulties holding on to their audiences. This is not to say that news must become a personality-driven soap opera but it is rather to accept that news is in its very nature a representation of real life in a temporally and spacially compressed narrative and for that narrative to work it must be done well. It could, in fact, be argued that to merely present a series of facts without a connecting narrative would make news journalism more of a mechanical exercise and less a human activity. Perhaps acceptance that news can only be conveyed narratively, with all the inevitable bias that this implies, is a good first step to producing honest news. A variety of honest, if inevitably biased, news is probably preferable to a single, bland, also inevitably biased, representation of what is happening around us in the world today, dishonestly posing as non-subjective fact.
As we approach the end of our module the issue of private versus public broadcasting becomes our focus of attention. In particular we will be looking at potential economic and ideological determining factors when it comes to broadcasting in public and private media institutions.
This issue is very topical in today’s news as Independent News and Media (INM) has reached agreement with a consortium of banks who are willing to write off €138m of debt in a deal that will see them gaining an equity stake in the company of between 11% and 16% in a rights issue before the end of the year. Given the prominent role of INM’s controlling shareholder, Denis O’Brien, in this and other media companies in Ireland, and the contentious role of banks in our recent and current financial difficulties as a state, there are likely to be questions asked about how the media in Ireland will fulfill its role of reporting on banking in Ireland.
Cases such as this one bring to our attention the possible influence of media owners on the nature and content of what is being broadcast and raises questions about whether that content serves the ideological, personal or corporate interests of these owners. Hegemonic theorists in particular will see audiences buying into a cultural paradigm that reflects the interests of powerful capitalist entities who have large equity stakes in media companies. Liberal pluralist theorists will be more inclined to focus on audience autonomy as a primary determining factor as investors in media companies chase a profitable return on their investment rather than pursuing an agenda of controlling media content for their own manipulative ends.
In televisual broadcasting in Ireland RTE as a public service broadcaster is to some degree in competition with TV3 as a private broadcaster. Unlike the BBC in Britain, that is not expected to raise revenue through advertising, RTE must supplement its license fee income with an advertising revenue stream. In this way it competes with TV3 not just on the basis of audience numbers but also commercially for income from advertisers, who have a choice of who to advertise with. So RTE are expected to provide coverage of events under their public service broadcasting remit that might not be commercially successful, and for this they receive license fee income, but they also must operate on a commercially successful basis in competition with TV3 through advertising revenue. TV3 might point to license fee revenue as an unfair advantage that RTE has but the latter would probably counter that this revenue is at its disposal to allow it to fulfill its public service obligations.
These obligations are typical of public service broadcasters throughout the Western world and were summed up by BBC Director General John Reith when the British state broadcaster was launched: to ‘Educate, Inform and Entertain’. American public service broadcaster PBS also adopted this mission statement. In contrast, private broadcasters are primarily concerned with making a profit, although they must do so within the constraints of broadcasting legislation and guidelines, which may include codes of conduct regarding language and violence or, in the case of TV3 here in Ireland, a requirement to broadcast at least 30% of indigenously-produced material.
Since the mid-to-late 1990s more and more private commercial television stations have been granted licenses throughout Europe. Here and in Britain TV3 (1998), Channel 5 – Uk (1997), Film 4 (1998) and E4 – UK (2001) are among those that have come on air and are competing with public service broadcasters. This has raised concerns about the viability of public service broadcasting as more and more stations compete for audience numbers and advertising revenue. The lucrative nature of advertising can be gauged from the £5.80 per thousand viewers ITV charges for a 30 second commercial during an episode of Coronation Street, amounting to £59,044 when their 10.18 million viewers per episode are taken into account. Each episode of the soap costs £50,000-£60,000 to make and, with several 30 second advertisements per episode, one can see how profitable television advertising can be.
There are a number of concerns surrounding the growth in private television broadcasting and how it might impact upon public service broadcasting and society in general. Firstly, there is a loss of informational television, with a greater emphasis upon entertainment rather than news, current affairs and factual programming. Secondly, there is a threat to the local economy as more content is sourced from outside the area where broadcasters are situated. Some would also claim that there is a decrease in quality of programming, although there is an element of subjectivity involved in defining what constitutes quality and public service productions are not necessarily of a higher quality than private ones. Another concern is that public service broadcasting loses funding as it has to compete with private broadcasters for advertising revenue.
Christina Holtz-Bacha and Pippa Norris, in a 2001 report focused on EU states entitled “To Entertain, Inform, and Educate”: Still the Role of Public Television, argued that “in most countries preference for public television goes hand-in- hand with greater knowledge of EU political matters”. They also assume differences between private and public sectors regarding the nature of news broadcasts, with the private sector tending more towards ‘infotainment’. They do, however, point out that there has been little systematic statistical evidence to back up this assumption. They also consider whether people are supplementing their television watching time with commercial television, rather than watching less public television, and speculate that if this is the case the democratic implications of increased commercialisation may not be so much a cause for concern.
So there is a question mark over whether there is a great difference between public and private sector broadcasting, particularly in the EU where government regulations appear to be stronger than in the United States. There appears to be no going back to the days before the 1980s, when commercial broadcasting began to compete with public broadcasters. It is more likely to be in the hands of legislators and regulators to ensure that a mixed private/public broadcasting model serves the interests of democracy.
As an example of media bias in a news broadcast I have chosen an RTE report on the United States presidential election broadcast on July 11th 2012 (link at end of post). The campaigning for the presidential election is getting under way and RTE’s Washington correspondent Richard Downes is reporting on the battle between incumbent Democrat Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney for the hearts, minds and votes of the American people.
Newsreader Una O’Hagan, with a background image of Barack Obama in front of Mitt Romney, sets the tone for the report by stating that Barack Obama’s re-election campaign is ‘turning up the heat’ on Republican rival Mitt Romney over taxes and the economy. She also states that ‘Mr Romney went on the offensive’, criticising the President for failing to bring unemployment down. So, while Barack Obama ‘turns up the heat’ on Mitt Romney, almost as if he is preparing to cook a captive lobster, Romney goes ‘on the offensive’, an action indicative of aggression rather than the controlled sophistication of the presidential incumbent. Obama is reported as ‘turning up the heat’ over taxes and the economy, while Romney is reported as having criticised the President for failing to bring unemployment down. Obviously far more issues than these were raised by both sides so it is worth examining why these issues in particular were chosen.
The issue of tax, and in particular tax policy towards the wealthy, would probably have been a weak point in Mitt Romney’s campaign, but RTE played a clip showing Barack Obama talking about allowing tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest 2% of Americans, which included himself, giving no counter-argument from the Republican side to justify Romney’s position on taxation. I think Romney’s position on taxation was somewhat more nuanced than a simple ‘don’t tax the rich’ caricature portrayed by Obama supporters, but RTE chose footage of Obama speaking on the subject that simplified the issue to suit a sympathetic portrayal of Obama and his policies.
The other issue that Obama was reported as ‘turning up the heat’ on Romney on was the economy. Normally the current state of the economy is an issue that an incumbent president has to defend or gain credit for. If I remember correctly, the United States economy was still in quite poor condition when this news report was broadcast and it may have been a Democratic tactic to try to put attention on Romney’s economic policies, but I would expect a national broadcaster with a duty to report in an unbiased fashion to point this out rather than merely referring to Romney criticising the President for failing to bring unemployment down. I’m sure Mitt Romney criticised the President for far more than this alone, and while RTE can’t be expected to list all his grievances against Barack Obama, there is a sense that in setting out the counter-criticisms on both sides in the debate the balance has been tipped in Obama’s favour again.
We are then brought to a scene of President Obama ‘pressing the flesh’ in an ice-cream parlour in Cedar Rapids in Iowa. All of those present, apart from the President, are white and we are told that he is ‘pounding home’ his message on taxation, and are taken to footage of him speaking on taxation at a totally different location with a cheering crowd. We are then told that for every two steps Obama takes Mitt Romney is two steps behind, which portrays the President as leading the way and his challenger either following him or trying to catch up, a reassertion of the image behind Una O’Hagan as she introduced the report. Romney is shown addressing a gathering of African Americans and being very unenthusiastically received. His views on Barack Obama are totally caricatured by Richard Downes who says his message ‘has been pretty straight-forward: Barack Obama is an extreme socialist president who wants bigger government and higher taxes’. There is also an unflattering camera shot of Mitt Romney sitting down with a graffiti-covered wall in the background and the person sitting beside him is largely cut out by the framing of the shot, leaving Romney looking like a solitary figure. So we have Barack Obama meeting a white audience in an ice-cream parlour and a quick cut to another location where he is applauded for his tax policies. We have Mitt Romney being poorly received by an African American audience. There is no attempt to show Mitt Romney being well received and there obviously were places where he was very well received. The polls during the election campaign and the final results don’t bear out the proposition that the Barack Obama was overwhelmingly more popular than Mitt Romney, however much RTE might like this to have been the case.
The report moves on with Richard Downes reporting on the battle between the two sides on television and the internet. Again the selection of material shown by RTE reflects badly on Romney and favourably on Obama. We get footage of Obama with someone singin ‘I’m so in love with you’ played over it and we get anti-Romney material linking him to fraud and ‘corporate greed run amok’. Downes then finishes up by telling us the campaign is ‘almost in full swing’.
Personally I feel RTE’s reporting of the United States presidential election was characterised by the sort of arrogance that is typical of many working within our national broadcaster when they believe they know what is best and think their role is to tell us what they know, rather than fulfilling their public service broadcasting obligations. The report examined in this blog post is typical of that arrogance. 160 euro is a lot of money to pay for the privilege of watching right-on know-it-alls in RTE deciding who should be the next American president and it is particularly galling to know that they are using that licence fee to richly reward themselves as they go about enlightening those of us who apparently can’t think for ourselves.
Media of varying types form a significant part of the everyday cultural life of modern industrial societies and as traditional sources of moral and cultural authority begin to wane these media-based entities become more influential in our cultural, political and material lives. As the power of religious institutions weakens, the power and influence of media institutions and their products strengthens. The daily routine of people’s lives, once marked by pause for prayer and religious observance, is for many now regulated by the television schedule of their favourite soaps or celebrity gossip programmes. Likewise many look to the behaviour of on-screen persona as a measure of how lives should or should not be lived, depending on whether they choose to be in admiration or in shock.
However, it is not just culturally that media institutions hold great influence. In the areas of economics and politics a concentration of resources can lead to a concentration of influence. A typical Hollywood movie can cost $50m to produce and, while some low-budget productions have gone on to win critical acclaim and box-office success, the dominant themes of cinema in the Western world and beyond are being produced mainly by large corporations with the resources to produce commercially successful films.
There is no certainty that a large investment in a movie will result in a profitable return so it can be argued that the simplest way of maximising profit is by extending control of the market. This argument posits a tendency towards concentration of ownership, usually through either horizontal or vertical integration. The latter involves one company taking over another company that operates at a different stage in the production cycle while the former takes place when a company, usually larger than its competitor, takes over that competitor. Media conglomerates such as News Corp Holding can thus emerge, owning interests in multiple areas of media production and distribution, from newspapers to television broadcasting to film. Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp likewise owns multiple media entities covering various different sectors in Ireland and beyond.
However, concentration of economic power into the hands of fewer individuals does not necessarily result in a concomitant ideological influence as far as the political system is concerned. Some newspapers in Rupert Murdoch’s News International group have been openly partisan when it comes to electoral politics in Britain, on different occasions urging their readers to vote for one political party or another. It is questionable whether or not this had any great effect in terms of how people actually voted and it could be said that this open display of political preference is far less pernicious than an effort to influence the political landscape by means of a more hidden agenda. At least with Rupert Murdoch you know who he is and what he stands for. Some of the supposedly more liberal media establishments like to pose as defenders of diversity and plurality while becoming increasingly monocultural in their coverage of a wide range of issues, particularly those ‘social’ issues by which liberals measure their own supposed sophistication against a caricatured conservative nemesis.
Marxist analysts and others might point to the support given by wealthy media corporations to the Conservative Party in Britain or the Republican Party in the United States and a tendency among the media companies they own to promote business interests. However, in Britain the Labour Party is heavily funded by the trade union movement and has also received editorial support from News Corp. The newspaper industry in the United States would, I believe, be shown by any objective analysis to be far more pro-Democrat than pro-Republican, at least as far as the present presidential incumbent is concerned. In any functioning democracy there are also many regulatory mechanisms and bodies that ultimately derive from the will of the people, or at least those people that could be bothered pulling themselves away from their television sets to go and vote. This imperfect system of democratic regulation, coupled with the need for media companies to take into account people’s needs and desires in order to make a profit, is, it could be argued, far superior to any system Marxists have offered as an alternative.
Following the break for Easter we are now looking at two contrasting views of the media and how it mediates information about what is happening both locally and internationally. Firstly there is a Marxist analysis, which focuses on ownership of media and the accompanying power to portray events in a way that is beneficial to the interests of media proprietors. Many Marxists would see this portrayal as forming part of a hegemonic relationship between the owners of media corporations and the consuming public in which the latter passively consent to the ideas being put to them as individuals not wishing to step outside the norms of what is culturally acceptable in a culture that is defined by the capitalist mode of production. Contrasted with this class-based, historically determinist view of media ownership, production and distribution is a liberal pluralist model that sees the media as made up of many different elements that merely reflect the many different views within society, although a sophisticated liberal pluralist analysis would acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between media producers and their audience.
Politics as an arena of struggle for power and how that struggle is represented in the media comes particularly into focus in this phase of our studies. Industrial disputes as a highly visible manifestation of societal conflict, although not as highly politicised as in previous decades, are also worth examining in terms of how they are reported in mainstream and other media. Marxists in particular would see the reporting of industrial disputes by media owned by wealthy capitalists as biased against workers and favourable to management or employers. Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG) has carried out research on industrial disputes in Britain, in particular the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, and claims to have found a bias against the striking miners. This is not to say that GUMG is a Marxist group, but their findings would certainly confirm the views of Marxists regarding media coverage of industrial disputes. Others, including Alistair Hetherington, have looked at media coverage of events such as the Miners’ Strike and have not found the bias alleged by Marxists and other critics.
In terms of party politics, in Britain at least, support for either Conservative or Labour contenders for office, has been blatant and obvious at times. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper famously had a front page headline asking the last person to leave Britain to turn out the lights as a clear sign of their disapproval of Neil Kinnock and his Labour Party as a prospective Prime Minister and party of government respectively. Another Murdoch tabloid, the Daily Mirror, published a front page headline urging a vote for Labour at a subsequent election. This may reflect a desire on the part of the owner of these newspapers to influence the outcome of an election or it may be a matter of choosing a likely winner and gaining influence before they are actually elected. Either way the practice poses serious questions for any democratic society and how power is exercised therein.
However the implicit or explicit criticism of Marxists regarding the power wielded by capitalist owners of media is not some sort of value-free, empirical analysis by disengaged academics. Marxists view themselves as articulating the interests of the ‘working class’ in a perceived struggle between that class and a powerful capitalist class. Many Marxists, whether employed in academia or not, don’t just analyse power relations but seek power and influence for themselves and others they see as being in the vanguard of a workers’ struggle against capital. When they have come to power, from the former Soviet Union to China to Cambodia, their regimes have often been marked by mass murder and slave labour. They have also almost invariably placed far greater control on the media than is in place in non-Marxist societies.
Although we have never had a Marxist government here in Ireland we do have the experience of a small group of Marxists gaining a huge amount of influence within the national broadcaster, RTE, at a time when the country was convulsed by conflict and the reporting of that conflict was done in a way that reflected the highly partisan views of that small clique of ideologues. Although I wouldn’t be a great admirer of Vincent Browne’s style of broadcast journalism, he has written incisively and damningly of how the views of members or supporters of the former Workers’ Party came to hold disproportionate influence in the current affairs department of the national broadcaster at a time when factual reporting would probably have served us better than ideologically-driven anti-nationalist bias http://politico.ie/politics/4442-eoghan-harris-and-the-workers-party.html . We will never know whether the protracted conflict in the North might have been brought to an earlier conclusion in the absence of Section 31 censorship or Marxist propagandists at RTE but the truth is usually a better healer that distortion and marginalisation.