The Message Is In The Medium

by Wilson Lee

Media this and media that. It’s all I ever seem to hear. Media are blamed for everything from the decline of morality to the rise of violence. Media have become society’s scapegoat for whatever ails us. But media are not singularly definable and media are not a monolithic entity. At times I’ve been accused of being part of the paparazzi, a CIA stooge, an exploitative motherfucker, a merchant of sleaze, a purveyor of lies, a right-wing co-conspirator and on and on. At other times I’ve been thanked for supporting the democratic process, exposing bureaucratic inefficiency, being fearless, a socialist, and anti-authoritarian and on and on.

The media and those who appear in and on the media have become the Rorschach test for social critics and every crank with a bone to pick with someone or some institutional entity. That’s not to say that media are beyond criticism. In fact, I believe criticism is an integral part of the entangled web of checks and balances that hold the media accountable to both its own professional ethics and general social standards. However, there’s nothing more useless and frustrating than misguided and misinformed criticisms. Such rantings are reactively dismissed rather than initiating a productive dialogue. The zine I do, minute:thirty, is my small contribution to fostering a conversation around media generally and television news specifically.

The zine is titled minute:thirty because that’s the length of most news stories on most nightly newscasts. And it’s that minute:thirty on a murder, fire, city council vote, or court trial that people see and react to. But that minute:thirty is the end product of a complicated process. And each level of that process of news production influences the final minute:thirty. Everything from the ownership structure of the news station or network, to the amount of resources dedicated to a story, the mood the reporter is in that day, the kinds of visuals that the story affords, and so on. By revealing the process through which news is manufactured, I’m hoping to demystify the news. So much of our sense of our world comes from television news, yet there’s a profound gap in understanding between what’s watched at six o’clock and how that final product gets to the tube. Minute:thirty is trying to close that media literacy gap.

One of my first assignments was to cover the death of a high school student killed in an auto shop class. When I got to the scene I was angrily told to get off school property by an incensed teacher who asked if I had learned anything from Princess Diana’s death. Students were screaming obscenities at me and throwing rocks at our truck. I had a crisis of conscience. The students demanded to know what I was doing there. It was an accident, they said. They told me to mind my own business, nobody else needs to know what happened. They said I should just back off and let the school investigate. Their understandable anger at what had happened was misplaced. I was there, as a representative of the media, to ask the questions that needed to be asked. How do you know it was an accident? I asked. How do you know the supply teacher was qualified to teach the class? Did that teacher follow proper safety procedures? What makes you think the school authorities will conduct a proper investigation? Do the parents of the other students have a right to know what happened?

Those questions and answers only explain the justifications for covering a particular story, but the way a story is covered also affects the final minute:thirty. One of the biggest influence is, of course, time pressure. That pressure is created by two principal sources: the deadline and the competition. I started working at CityTV a year and a half ago, when they were just getting ready to launch CityTV’s new twenty-four hour local news station, cablepulse24. Between the regular newscasts at noon, six and eleven, cp24 made deadline pressures constant and persistent. So, instead of having the entire afternoon to work a crime scene or sit in a courtroom all day, cp24 demanded constant updates that at times required reporters to leave a scene early or step out of a courtroom, for example. Cp24 upped the ante across the board. Other stations, especially CTV with it’s own twenty-four hour station News1, followed suit.

Television news, like every other mass manufactured product, is also formulaic. Certain stories require particular elements: fatal accidents demand a photograph of the victim. Tragedies require a teary clip from a friend or relative. Fires require visible flames. Homicides require the shot of the victim being carried out on a stretcher. Court trials require shots of the crown and defence lawyer walking. Major arrests demand a shot of the accused in handcuffs being walked. And so on and so on. These conventions obviously shape the final minute:thirty that goes to air, but for the viewing public there’s a sense of detachment between those images that are broadcast on the news and the efforts that are required to obtain them. For example, the machinations reporters have to go through to get the photograph of the dead kid is considered by virtually every reporter to be the shittiest part of the job. It involves knocking on the door of the parents’ home when they are in their most vulnerable state. It requires the reporter to suspend their sense of sympathy and compassion and to ingratiate themselves with the family.

But why is that photograph or image of the body being taken away so important? Because television is a visual medium and pictures and images are the language of television. Television also communicates principally on an emotive level. The juxtaposition of say, a high school year book photo or the picture of the deceased snapped at the last family picnic, with a voice-over intoning the details of a macabre incident is emotionally straining. And it’s that tension that infuses a story with a level of meaning that is profoundly captivating and that can’t be captured by any other medium. Anger, sadness, anguish, pain, fury, elation….these are the emotions that drive the televisual narrative. In a minute:thirty it’s emotive impressions that tell the story rather than cold facts and figures. Last summer I was covering the death of a police officer in Cambridge, Ontario. He had drowned after trying to recover the body of a young boy who had also drowned. When I arrived at the scene the mood was grim. Fellow police officers from the Waterloo police department were standing around grief stricken. I spoke to one officer who said he had worked with the officer only the day before and described how supportive the officer was. And as he spoke, the tears began welling up in his eyes and he abruptly broke down and stammered that he just couldn’t say anymore. And he didn’t need to, there were literally no words to describe the pain he felt. That moment communicated so much more than any words he could have uttered. That’s the power and lure of television.

But that power of television can also lead to maudlin and exploitative moments. One of the first fatal fires I covered involved the death of a young boy. When I was at the scene, the father and mother came to see the charred remains of the house. The fire started on the front porch where the young toddler was playing with matches and sparklers. The rug caught fire and the child’s older siblings tried to put the fire out, but couldn’t. I tentatively approached the father and he agreed to speak to me on camera. The father had few words to say, but the pain in his face as he muttered, ‘it would have been so different if only I had been here,’ again said much more than mere words could have. But I felt like such an asshole. In such a situation there are only trite questions and the profoundness of the loss is immeasurable.

So how do news media justify thrusting microphones in the faces of such grieving people as the police officers in Cambridge and the father who just lost a son in a fire? Is there a redeeming social value to such intrusions? I believe there is. Television news can be conceived of in many ways: checks on abuses of power; social advocates, consumer watchdogs, entertainment, and as an integral part of the democratic system. But there’s one conception that is as important as all those, yet not often considered. And that is as a social control function. The narrative of television news is in many ways the narrative of social norms, mores and morality. The amount of coverage that was dedicated to the death of the police officer, for example, communicates a powerful message of the social value that’s placed on the life of a police officer. Similarly, the story of the fire and the death of the boy communicates a stern message to parents to not lose sight of their children and let them play with matches. Television news, in many ways, serves as a social control function. Crime, court, and other stories with underlying moral codes serve to reaffirm our social priorities and mores. Kill a cop and you’ll face the full extent of the community’s wrath. Neglect your kid and he’ll die in a fire. Rape a woman and you’ll do hard time. The narratives are complicated, but the messages are simple and brutish. There are multiple levels and layers of meaning imbedded in every minute:thirty. What I’m trying to do is peel back those layers to reveal the messages hidden in the medium.

Wilson Lee is a reporter with Toronto-based CityTV and also puts out minute:thirty, a zine about his experiences making the TV news.

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