This week in class we looked at the issue of how to decode an encoded ‘reality’. In the process of creating a media text for presentation to an audience the producers of that text, either consciously or otherwise, encode meaning into that text that goes beyond its literal meaning or reading. We looked at five key questions we should ask if we wish to decode that text and find the ‘reality’ behind the encoding it carries with it from the production process and the ideas and outlook of those who created it.
Firstly we should ask ourselves who created the message. Texts are mediated to us in a constructed format and this ‘constructedness’, along with choices made by those creating the text, will determine to a large degree how the ‘reality’ that is being conveyed actually reaches us. The construction might, for example, be determined by a particular narrative and the element of ‘choice’ might centre upon which of a number of photographs to use or which specific words to use. This construction and these choices, made by a small number of individuals, mean that reality as understood by these individuals tends to become ‘normal’ or ‘real’ to a much larger coterie within society. This ‘reality’ then becomes unquestioned and taken for granted.
McQuaid argues that news is not objective or impartial but is a socially manufactured product. Journalistic gatekeepers, and sometimes even media proprietors, decide what is important and newsworthy and beaurocratic routines within media organisations also contribute to a particular scheduling and shaping of news. Spenser-Thomas (2008) notes the concept of ‘news values’ among editors to judge whether it will attract a significant audience and this will be determined, among other factors, by the nature of the news outlet in question.
Galtung and Ruge (1966) catalogued a list of ‘news value’. These included an easy to grasp ‘unambiguity’, reference to elite persons or nations, personalisation of news stories, a narrative, which might include heroes and villains, and negativity, which might be regarded as more exciting.
The second of the five questions we should ask ourself is: ‘What creative techniques were used to attract attention?’. This is concerned largely with format and the way a message is constructed, including the creative elements used, such as wording, music, camera angle and colour. These factors constitute the ‘creative language’ of the presented text.
The next question we should ask ourselves is how others might understand the presented message differently to how we understand it. We all bring a different set of life experiences to any piece of presented text and our understanding and perception of that text will be determined by multifarious factors including our cultural context, religious or political beliefs and what we expect from the presenting mediator – a conservative might regard a report on Fox news in a completely different way to how a liberal or somebody with a left-wing view of the world might view the same report.
We should also ask ourselves what values, lifestyles and points of view are represented or omitted from a mediated message. I think we might also question if some point of view is being misrepresented in a presented text – characature or misrepresentation can be even more damaging than omission and are often the precursor to totalitarianism. Messages, both subtle and unsubtle, about who and what is important are carried within presented media texts and are a subtext that can be even more influential than the literal meaning of the text itself. Again, choice of images and words plays an important role in defining this subtext or preferred reading.
Lastly, we should ask ourselves why a particular message is being sent out. We should try to see beyond the immediately apparent informational or entertainment value of a particular text and ask ourselves if the producers of that text have a reason to encode a message beyond what is apparent. The majority of the world’s media organisations were established as money-making enterprises and both profit motive and ideology may play a part in determining the nature of what they produce. Likewise, state-controlled or regulated media may reflect an ideology that concurs largely with those in power or gives a disproportionate platform to government supporters, while excluding proponents of an alternative ideology.
As an example of a particular viewpoint being conveyed, largely through omission of recorded material, we looked at a video of a news report on CBS Television station WBBM in Chicago. The report in question used a recorded vox pop of a four-year old black child saying he wanted to have a gun. This was in the context of criminal gun violence, but the station omitted the end of the recorded piece in which the child said he wanted to become a policeman. This was seen as reinforcing a stereotype of ghettoised black criminality and also raised serious questions about parental approval of the interview. The ‘shock’ value of a four-year-old wanting to have a gun in violent circumstances may have been more of a factor in deciding to omit his aspiration to become a policeman, rather than any overt racism, but the end result was a piece of journalism that might be regarded reinforcing a stereotype rather than portraying reality in an honest manner.
The video in question: