Media as Paintings (Discourse)

When a painting is created, its final appearance is affected by more than the talent and purpose of the painter, more than the image depicted. Every element making up the painting affects what it eventually is. What paint did the artist use? Oil, water colours, perhaps something else altogether? How thick was it? Did it contain glitter? Did they use more than one brush? What were the bristles made of, and how long were they? Were the brushes flat, round, or a mixture? What did the artist paint on: canvas, wood, metal, a wall, a rock? What size is the painting, how well was the canvas stretched across the frame, was the rock smoothed, the wall plastered, the wood sanded or not?

These elements that shape a painting as much as the artist holding the brush are to the painting what discourse is to media. It is the environment in which media comes to be, the myriad elements that influence what is eventually broadcast. The questions we can ask to form an understanding of the discourse that shaped a media artefact are, among others:

Who created the message? As I’ve discussed in previous posts, everything influences media, from the fingers hovering over the keyboard or the voice reading the teleprompter, to the editor who decided this story instead of that one should be produced, through link by link to the owner or shareholder exerting silent or not so silent control over the decisions of everyone down the chain, to the advertisers either spending or withholding their money.

Why did they create the message? In the neoliberal system currently dominating at least Western culture, the answer almost always is ultimately to make money. This also almost always means that “to make money” is preceded by “To draw an audience, so as…”.

When was the message created? Current events can play a role in shaping a message. Often, an understanding of the historic placement of an artefact is essential to decode its deeper meaning.

How was the message created? The tools at our disposal, or that we choose to use, can shape the message we deliver.

What are the effects on the audience, or the wider social effects? Especially in such cases as Brexit or the election of Donald Trump as president, media artefacts have a wider and deeper effect in context that should be considered in analysis, especially taking a step back and seeing how an individual artefact fits into a pattern.

That Famous Paxman Interview

Media analysis can be extra interesting for me as an immigrant. I grew up and lived in a world far removed from the one I live in now. Famous names and faces can mean nothing to me. I often have little knowledge of issues, scandals and challenges that are part of the social memory here.

Yet even I had a vague recollection of seeing Jeremy Paxman’s (in?)famous interview with John Howard. Until I watched it again for a Media Discourse and Analysis assignment, I would not have associated those names with the memory. My task this week is to analyse this interview through the lens of what we learned in class. To begin, I watched the clip with a “clean slate” – I looked up nothing about the interview except the date on which it took place. I had no idea who Michael Howard is, what his role was at the time, which may help me to better focus on the techniques used by both interviewer and interviewee in this encounter.

Is the interviewer maintaining a stance of “formal neutrality”? Or can we see some form of bias?

Ideally, mediators (reporters, journalists) should maintain a stance of formal neutrality in an interview. This can be difficult, as your duty as interviewer is also to challenge the interviewee, a purpose often fulfilled by playing devil’s advocate. Of necessity, that can cast the interviewer as someone with an opposing point of view.

While Paxman meets this requirement, it becomes clear as the interview progresses that he “set the scene” with Howard at 1:40 in the clip. Paxman knew that he had a statement which contradicted Howard’s “party line”. Does this mean Paxman went into the interview with a preconceived bias? While he had a clear agenda, set by the acquisition of information which exposed a lie, Paxman’s position qualifies as formally neutral. Howard is trapped, but he is not trapped by Paxman “doing a Bill O’Reilly“, he is trapped by his own conduct.

Paxman also starts by giving Howard an opportunity to disrupt the narrative before confronting him with the statement contradicting what Howard had said to the House of Commons Select Committee. He first asks Howard if he had ever lied in a public statement, and while this was part of the trap being set for the interviewee, it was also an opportunity for Howard to present himself as no more than human. He makes a strong statement that he had never lied – the subsequent unfolding of the interview might have been less damaging if he had said: “None of us are immune from mistakes, but I strive in everything I say to be completely honest.” Next Paxman asks Howard if he wants to change anything from any public statement he has made about the matter on hand. Again, this is part of the trap, as Howard cements himself into a position, and is left no wiggle room. Yet at the same time, in the strictest sense it is a fair opportunity for Howard to lay down some kind of firebreak.

How are the questions being answered by the interviewee (regarding language being used, is it conversational)?

Conversationalisation has to do with the accent and delivery of a media text. In this context the word “text” means audio or video, as we cannot hear the voice of the encoder of the message when we read it. The question therefore refers to the way Howard speaks and the “lingo” he uses. Audiences’ decoding of a message is influenced by the accent and vernacular. Media personalities can deliberately cultivate a certain way of speaking so as to better connect with their audience.

Judging from Howard’s way of speaking it is clear he is either deliberately or inadvertently addressing a more educated audience. Consider his manner and speech in this more recent interview (from 2:04), in which he was addressing a very different audience:

Especially in answers or parts of answers where he likely prepared his response, he leaves out contractions, saying “did not” instead of “didn’t”, for instance. In many cases his grammar is odd and sounds forced, but looks right when written down:

“… the journalist who wrote the story in the Daily Mail, to which you have referred, has confirmed…” (0:20)

“…a decision which I had to take in the light of…” (1:00)

“There can have been few decisions that have been…” (1:56)

“It was a decision that it was necessary for me to take…” (2:04)

Has the interviewee answered the specific question that has been asked?

Howard answers the first two questions unambiguously.

Paxman asks the third at 0:36 – “Would you agree that such stories are cheap and nasty and bring shame on anyone who spreads them?” This time Howard doesn’t answer. Instead he subtly attacks Paxman’s reporting, referring to “an independent report, not mentioned in your introduction”, and implies that reporting on the issue at hand is frivolous.

Paxman asks another question (1:10), which Howard answers unambiguously, but misleadingly.

He then asks two questions which Howard answers unambiguously, before he confronts Howard with evidence of wrongdoing, to which Howard responds by making a number of no doubt true statements which dance around rather than answer the question at hand: had he threatened to instruct Derek Lewis to dismiss John Marriot? Howard again makes statements which are related to the issue but do not answer it. Paxman does not let him get away with it. At 4:12 he condenses the question to: “Did you threaten to overrule him?”

Howard repeats statements which are not an answer to the question, and Paxman famously repeats the simple question twelve times. Howard never answers the question.

What approach is the interviewee using, if any, to avoid providing an answer to a specific question?

Howard uses a few techniques:

  1. He answers a very specific and pedantic interpretation of a question.
  2. He answers, in essence, a different but similar question to the one asked.
  3. He tells the interviewer and the audience what he was and was not allowed to do – something related to the issue but not an answer to the question. In other words, he evades the question.

Is the interviewer allowing this to happen (violation) or are they pushing for an answer to a question?

Following Howard’s pedantic answer (about “bawling out”), Paxman pushes beyond Howard’s base for his denial. He does this in a very polite and civilised manner, so that it is possible to miss his effective “herding” of his interviewee in the direction needed.

Paxman points out that the question “Did you threaten to overrule him?” has not been answered at 5:44, and Howard goes as far as to say the question is something different from what Paxman asked. After this exchange, Paxman moves on to another question. Howard doesn’t answer the last three questions unambiguously, but Paxman allows his non-answers. This is likely because the purpose of the interview had been fulfilled with the famous string of evasions. The final questions seem to be aimed more at the audience than at Howard. His answers are likely irrelevant.

Can we see the use of language within the interview being influenced by the perceived social context of the ‘target audience’?

The interview took place on Newsnight, which is broadcast on weekday nights and specialises in news analysis. The programme’s time slot at the time was 10:30pm, and combined with the subject matter it is clear the target audience was adults with an interest in more than the summary of current events provided by the nightly news. This demographic may even today appreciate presenting language that is more formal and precise. In addition, the mature age group at the time will have grown up through the infancy of television, in which even entertainment programmes’ presentation was stiff and formal.

Howard also uses the passive voice a lot, which can be a deliberate effort to portray himself as a passive victim of circumstances. Instead of himself being the actor in the example from 2:04, for instance (“It was a decision that it was necessary for me to take…”), the decision is the actor, and pushed him into the current situation.

Preferred Meaning

Cultural theorist Stuart Hall suggested that mediated information must be examined through the lens of what he dubbed the Circuit of Culture:

circuit_of_culture

Image Source

The circuit shows how every element influences and is influenced by every other element. Nothing stands alone, nothing escapes the effect of the discourse in which the message is delivered. Let’s examine an article I saw shared on Twitter through the lens of this circuit. You can read it here. I’ll wait (but I also summarise the content below).

Let’s ask ourselves a few questions:

What, more or less, does this article say?

I want to summarise and highlight the following reported facts:

The headline:

Village vigilante who informs on illegally parked cars dubbed a ‘prat’ by furious traders

Take note also of the sidebar in red text on the left, in this snip of how the article is presented:

aside

A summary of the content:

An anonymous vigilante has caused outrage in a village by reporting illegal parking. Many drivers were consequently fined. The mystery vigilante “has been accused” of going around looking for illegally parked cars to report to the traffic warden. Drivers “popping into shops” have been reported by the “informer, making them and traders furious”.

The anger of a trader who wrote a strongly worded letter is described.

It is mentioned more than once that attendants of a pantomime were “reported and given tickets”.

“The issue has become so heated and caused so much outrage in the village, councillors have held talks with parking officers over concerns too many tickets will deter shoppers.”

A Conservative councillor is quoted saying that the matter has caused a lot of upset, that she agrees people should park correctly but that “the biggest thing about Rottingdean is the survival of the High Street. ‘Anything that upsets that is not welcome. Traders are having a hard time and there are a lot of empty shops at the moment.'”

The final paragraph states: “Parking compliance in the village is considered by Brighton and Hove City Council, East Sussex, to be ‘quite good’, with just 162 tickets issued in six months.”

Two images are included, a councillor interviewed about the matter:

vigilante-article_photo

And a photo of an “angry letter” penned and displayed by one of the traders interviewed:

vigilante_article_photo_2

Who created this message?

The Article appeared in The Telegraph, a UK newspaper known to have a politically conservative slant. It is considered a broadsheet rather than a tabloid. We’ll look at the significance of its perceived political association in more detail later.

What makes it newsworthy?

The issue is framed as one that threatens the livelihoods of traders in the village. Since the 2008 financial collapse, economic struggle has been an emotive topic, at the forefront of people’s minds in Britain. The village in question is on the South coast of England, within commuting distance of London. While this area has not felt the impact of the financial crash as much as places farther North, the fear and insecurity brought about by the collapse is widespread.

Moreover, drivers are a a dominant social group in the UK. Most people travel by car, and therefore see the world from the perspective of drivers. The article focuses entirely on the perspective and interests of drivers, framing the story as being about a mean-sprited “prat” causing hardship for motorists.

What creative techniques are used to draw one’s attention?

The use of a borderline profanity uses shock value to grab the attention. There is also a photo of a “strongly worded letter” which a “furious trader” had put up in a window.

How might different people understand this message ‘differently’?

This is where it gets interesting, and where the blunt bias of the reporting becomes obvious. Imagine if you’re a wheelchair user, or a parent who regularly pushes their child in a pram. You may view the issue of illegal parking in a very different light from the frame chosen by the writers of the article in the Telegraph. This Louth Leader article, for instance, takes a very different tack, accusing drivers in the headline of being irresponsible. The article describes the frustration of a wheelchair user who finds drivers parking illegally impair his ability to get around.

The facts are that people broke the law, got reported, and in many cases were fined as a result. We don’t know from the article whether there is a shortage of legal parking spaces in the village, which may have been another way to frame the story. So we could have written the headline as follows:

Anonyous Hero Takes On Scoff-Law Drivers

or

Lack of Parking Leaves Fined Motorists Furious

or

Lack of Parking Threatens Village Traders

The story could have been framed differently, either through the lens of those who would sympathise with the person reporting the violations, or sympathise with motorists but suggest poor infrastructure is to blame (and by implication the councillors or government officials responsible for its development), or sympathise with traders and suggest blame as described above. It could even be shown from the perspective of a quaint village being overrun by illegal parkers. That begs the question:

Why was the article in the Telegraph framed the way it was?

Representation and Identity

The identity of the paper’s readership is politically conservative. This political view corresponds with a neoliberal philosophy, in which focus is on smoothing the way for the wealthy and powerful first and foremost, arguing that their prosperity will benefit all. Conservatism is also linked to support for driving over green transport, and for lack of support or concern for social welfare – those most reliant on walking for transport, and therefore most likely to be adversely affected by illegal parking, are often in a lower socio-economic band, a class for which politically conservative people have little sympathy (pp. 8-11). Drivers are generally considered the more powerful and wealthy, with greener transport options such as walking and cycling sometimes associated with a lower socio-economic status, while car ownership confers (p.7) prestige and status. It should not be surprising then that there is a correlation between liberalism, which is more associated with socialism, and support for cycling and walking. The framing of the article can therefore be seen as catering to the views of the target consumers, and conforming to the current dominant discourse surrounding traffic and transport issues.

The person who reported the parking violations is called a prat (though of course this is presented as a quote from a trader). This term is used or shown five times in the report: in the headline, twice in the written content, in a photo of a hand-written note, and in a prominent, highlighted sidebar. This person is also called a vigilante and an informer – both terms laden with negative associations.

Production

In the course of production, interviews were only conducted with people whose views aligned with that of a frame that may have been chosen before the reporter even arrived to collect data on the matter. No attempt at neutrality or balance is evident.

The article is distributed online, and I have been unable to ascertain if it was also included in a print version of the paper. If so, it is possible space restriction could have played a role in its production.

It also seems the identity of the person who reported the crimes is not known, though the writer of the “strongly worded letter” refers to a gentleman, and elsewhere a business owner is quoted as referring to a man. The person who reported the crimes could therefore likely not have been interviewed for their point of  view, and to explain what motivated their actions. The journalist may not have had the means to travel to the village and gather first hand data – everything in the article could have been gathered by phone, email, and other remote means. This may have restricted their ability to find people with opposing views, or to notice and follow up such problems as insufficient legal parking spaces.

Regulation

This refers not only to government laws, policies, and rules; but also to more subtle “unwritten” rules which dictate “what is considered acceptable and unacceptable within a given cultural context” (quote from class notes distributed by my lecturer). On the face of it, people broke the law, were reported, and were fined, and other people were angry because they believe this enforcement of the law will impact their livelihood. Because the law-breakers were drivers and the law they broke is considered socially acceptable to ignore, the person reporting the crime is painted as the villain. Consider what sentiments would be if the law-breakers were a gang of thieves. If a trader complained about the impact on their business if the thieves were jailed, it is unlikely the resulting story would be framed as the “prat” vigilante daring to report transgressions of the law.

The cultural context and regulation allows for law-breakers to be portrayed as the victims and the person reporting their infractions to be portrayed as the villain.

While the article skirts dangerously on stoking hatred against the person who reported the violations, and an extremely one-sided view is presented, no official laws or regulations are broken.

Consumption

This article is available online, and it is a written news item. As discussed, the readership is thought to be mostly politically conservative, and likely to be drivers who will be able to decode the message through their frame of reference and experience, which will enable them to sympathise with the emotions felt by drivers fined for parking illegally.

However, the internet is a wider thing than just the intended readership of the Telegraph. I laid eyes on the article because it was shared on Twitter by an account dedicated to advocating for the case of pedestrians and cyclists, placing particular emphasis on how they are endangered and marginalised by the behaviour of drivers. They in turn were retweeting someone who shared the link to the article, whose profile picture is of someone cycling, and whose description is “Likes bikes.” Their comment: “Not all heroes wear capes.”

My own bias is no doubt clear in my analysis. As someone who cycles or walks everywhere I go, I often experience first hand the frustration and sometimes danger caused to me as pedestrian by motorists parking illegally. I therefore read the article through that frame of reference. It is not possible to escape our biases, but we must recognise them and actively try to be fair and balanced in both the messages we send, and in our assessment and analysis of the messages we receive.

The Narrow Gate (Newsworthiness)

It is impossible for any of us to know everything. Considering that there are 196 countries in the world, if only a single interesting thing happened in each of them every day, it would be a full time job to keep abreast. We therefore rely on mediators to do that for us, and even then, they specialise in areas, or topics, or narrow their scope down in some way to keep the volume of information they have to process to a manageable level. We call the mediators of our information journalists, or reporters.

Reporters have to decide what, from the ever-flowing river of data, they should lift out and bring to our attention. In other words, they have to decide what is newsworthy. These decisions are never free from bias, no matter how much the reporter tries to stay neutral (and many make no such attempt). What factors do they need to consider as they decide what to report, and what to leave out? In no particular order, the following are among the many issues which affect what goes into our news reports:

  1. The person creating the report. Their personal tastes, political and social beliefs, likes, dislikes, goals, sensitivities, acquaintances and more can affect what they choose to report on.
  2. The people who will consume the report, the target market. What will grab the attention of a farmer in Louth may be of no interest to a nurse in Galway.
  3. The source of revenue. Reporters can seldom afford to offend advertisers, or the owners of their publication.
  4. Available space or time. Stories can be dropped simply because there is not enough space on the page or time in the television slot, or edited to fit what is available.

Such factors form a narrow gate through which potential news stories first have to pass before they can even be brought to my and your attention. Passing through that gate also shapes and changes what we eventually consume. With ‘fake news’ being an issue lately, I believe basic media analysis skill is becoming something we should all have. When you read, hear, or watch something, you should consider the following five questions:

Who created this message?

Try to become cognisant of the possible biases built into various publications, or the personal biases of various reporters. For instance, in Ireland, in a report on media ownership, it was pointed out that the vast majority of media were owned by the state broadcaster and an individual businessman. These two entities between them control almost all of what we see, hear, and read in Ireland. This problem of ownership controlling what can be reported, and how it is reported, was demonstrated by the Denis O’Brien affair in 2015. While these owners don’t personally write what we read, the reporters working for their publications are aware of and affected by their bosses’ preferences.

Publications also have certain standards, orientations, “party lines”, an often recognisable voice. What they report to you is shaped by all these “personality traits” of people or institutions.

How did they shape this to grab my attention?

Or, what creative media techniques did the creators of the message use to grab my attention? Reports are often shaped in such a way as to interest us, putting the most sensational aspects in the most noticable places. Headlines are written to make us want to watch the snippet, or read more, click the link or at least not switch the channel. Yet these headlines can be misleading at best, and downright false at worst. This story in The Sun, for instance, is called out in this tweet for linking singer Lily Allen’s name to a story to sensationalise it, claiming she was not in any way involved.

 

How might someone different from me understand this message?

Our cultural and social background affects how we interpret a message, and what it says to us. Age and congnisance of online culture can also result in different messages meaning different things to different people. While this is most often subtle, Donald Trump demonstrated the difficulty of trying to communicate with a wide audience when he recently referred to Easy D. Young, internet-savvy consumers of his message understood it to mean something hopefully different from what he intended.

Another example of a cultural reference lost on certain social groups is

What values, lifestyles and points of view are either shown in or left out of this message?

Certain lifestyles and points of view are presented in the media as important, through a myriad of subtle signs. Over and above years’ conditioning about who and what is important, this question links with our consideration of who is shaping our messages. We should consider that journalists are (at least in the USA) overwhelmingly white males. We are for the most part presented a picture of reality viewed through the eyes of this social group. This bias has been shown to affect how reports are framed, often with serious societal consequences.

Why is this message being sent to me?

To answer this question, we need to try to pull the curtain back and see what ultimate monster may be operating the levers. News reporting can and very often does have a purpose well beyond merely informing you. Again, this question ties in with who is behind the message. Media owners are people with political and economic points of view and biases. For instance, Rupert Murdoch may have used his spectacular power in British media to help orchestrate Brexit for his own gains.

I personally think basic media analysis skills should be taught in school, as a fundamental part of civic and social education. Without knowledge, we are controllable, and when we can be controlled, we can en masse be used by the wealthy and powerful to direct even thicker streams of wealth and power into their hands.

The Wet Cat (Out-Foxed)

The successful reporter is one who can find a story, even if there is no earthquake or assassination or civil war. If he cannot find a story, then he must make one.

These words perfectly explain the current flood of misleading or even outright fabricated “news” that pours over our senses day in, day out, until it’s a mammoth task to separate reality from fiction. Yet they were written almost sixty years ago. The quote is from historian Daniel Boorstin’s book The Image, first published in 1961. In it, he posited that what we observe can be divided into three categories:

  • Genuine events are things that happened.
  • Media events are things that would probably have happened, but which take on certain peculiarities because of reporting. The main concern in these events is staging a story.
  • Pseudo events are fabricated for reporting, for the cameras. They are totally staged happenings which would not take place if reporting was not a thing.

So for instance, it rained. That is a genuine event. There was a hole in the roof of the house, so the cat got wet. Reporters are filmed talking about the plight of the wet cat, and people flock to help the cat who may not have been interested if the cameras were not rolling (the people, not the cat. The cat, mildly confused by the sudden interest but enjoying the generous offers of towel rubs, is otherwise unaffected by the presence of cameras). That is a media event. Later, a press conference is organised where the mayor announces a war on dogs. While the event happens live, technical or dramatic techniques are used to make it more attractive for the cameras, and of course to control its unfolding. That is a pseudo event.

Pseudo events are manufactured, and nothing is ever manufactured without a purpose. This doesn’t need to be something sinister, but it can be. Worryingly, pseudo events can by their very nature be more attractive to consumers. This means that even reporting of real events is increasingly undergoing something that can be compared to processing of food. It’s tastier, it’s more attractive, so we gobble more and more of it, becoming fatter and sicker from the poor nutrition it provides.

Understanding of the human psyche has become very sophisticated, leading to the discovery that certain emotions can be evoked by framing news in a certain way, so that you hook a consumer and, of course, make more money. If you control news reporting, you can control what people believe about the world, and subsequently you can control who they vote for, and therefore who commands power. Considering this, the ownership of media organisations should be something we all worry about. These owners are the real rulers of the world.