Beyond content analysis
Content analysis does not always reveal information which can be proportionately compared cross-culturally. Through content analysis alone, the critic can be left to arrive at erroneous conclusions. The problems arise when the complex background behind another culture's expectations of broadcast style in television news broadcasts are disregarded. There are other messages communicated through the text and structure of a newscast which do indeed create meaning, and there is ritualization and formalization of the manner in which television news stories are presented. Ritualization and formalization require a mutual understanding between the receiver and sender of messages. Content analysis does not reveal whether or not a news broadcast fulfills adequately an audience's expectations. One culture's version of a news cast usually follows a formalized schema established over a period of years and decades of broadcasting practice. Satellite technology, of course, enables the critic to reveal these ritualized schemata more easily.
Ellen Mickiewicz' book, Split Signals, is a study of television news broadcasting as it existed in the former Soviet Union. Her impressions of Soviet television, however, reflect her instinctive anticipation of American commercial television's style. When Soviet television deviated from the ritualized commercial formula established in the United States, Mickiewicz mistakenly attributed this deviation to the influence of "communist propaganda."
Split Signals ascribes many of the perceivable differences in Soviet television to its political role as a disseminater of communist propaganda. However, many characteristic traits of Soviet television news can be found in one form or another in Western European public service broadcasting, including the BBC and Finnish television. For example, Mickiewicz describes Soviet anchors as "impassive" and "faceless," and depicts them as professionals who do not regard personality and emotional attachment to the audience as a necessity. Mickiewicz could be describing YLE television news-only instead of considering their television anchors "faceless" and "impassive," Finns think of them as more "authentic," "factual" and "business-like."
Mickiewicz describes the performance given by Soviet news anchors as "straight reading," as if the anchor is "reading the news from a paper on the desk." It is also a "conservative presentation of the news reader..." with a "rigid and inflexible order" made up of "governmental pronouncements..." Anchors on Soviet television "read from papers in front of them," and "talking heads," are the rule, whereas, on American television, the lone anchor who would choose to read from a sheet of paper would be encouraging audiences to change channels. Likewise, similar to American commercial news broadcasts, Soviet television makes use of voice-overs. However, both Soviet television and YLE voice-overs are usually read by the studio anchor and not a field reporter.
There are many other observations made by Mickiewicz about former Soviet television news which closely parallel YLE. The fact that both broadcasters were state controlled, and as Mickiewicz emphasizes: "highly centralized," plays an important role in her analysis. Media professionals belonged to a "single union" (as in Finland). The size of the audience (in the Soviet Union) was "staggering...over 80 percent of the adult population." Soviet television's main news program, Vremya, was broadcast "simultaneously on all television channels." (YLE-and other Western European broadcasters have had the same practice.) Soviet news programs chose "a small number of stories from the daily news, and the commentator elaborated on them, providing analysis, judgments, and additional filmed footage." Stories on Vremya "have lasted over an hour and a half." (On YLE, following the news, audiences also get a more detailed review with commentary.)
Government business and many other items considered news worthy on both Finnish and Soviet television would not receive as much attention on American television. According to Mickiewicz, 8 percent of news time on Soviet television was devoted to "government policy," as opposed to only 1 percent on American television. 14 percent was devoted to official visits, as opposed to only 2 percent on American television. 18 percent of Soviet news time had to do with the economy, as opposed to only 1 percent of American news program time. Crime and disasters received only 2 percent of Soviet television news' time, and even then, observes Mickiewicz, "stories about crime are presented by the anchors alone more than two-thirds of the time." Crime on American television is given more than 15 percent of network time and even more time by local stations.
Concerning the actual format, Soviet news, Mickiewicz notes, had a "rigid and inflexible order" in which "governmental pronouncements" came first, "then economic stories, then international stories, and only then science and arts stories..." These observations by Mickiewicz also reflect the template used on Finnish television news. Stories about the fine arts, for example, are always featured "at the end of the nightly news show" on Soviet television, while "ordinary people" are given much less time than on American television. ABC, for example, devotes almost a third of its broadcasts to interviewing "ordinary people." "People in the arts" are mentioned on ABC only 1.4 percent of the time.
Mickiewicz also considered quality and production standards inferior. Editing, for example, was too loose. "Standards for editing Vremya are often rather different," Mickiewicz claims. Transition from one story to the next can even include "some two or three seconds of silence... This editing would not be considered tight enough by American standards," which "more artfully" arranges its transitions. Whether standards are actually higher in the United States or not, there is still a striking similarity between the style of Soviet television news broadcasts and YLE News. This observation especially holds true when comparing the Soviet and the Finnish models with their American counterparts.
Mickiewicz' study seems to be most critical of Soviet television because it is a product of a "centralized," "state-controlled... communist system." It seems that the content of Soviet television news is being mistakenly confused with the style. Without being able to take into account that many of her observations are indeed characteristic of most European public service television broadcasters, the reader is left to believe that many of these characteristics have something to do with Soviet doctrine. As a consequence, she falsely assumes that many stories are considered "inappropriate" for ideological reasons. There is no denying that, in many instances, she would be correct, but the reader is still led to believe that Soviet television's style of presentation is a direct result of communist ideology, which has supposedly specified that "media is education." It was not until the "waning of the Chernenko leadership," the author writes, that the Soviet media began covering "disasters, accidents, crime, or other events tinged with sensationalism... celebrity doings... fluff... horoscopes... negative events... the underside of life." Such stories are of interest to Finnish audiences, as well. But in Finland they are not considered "news." Finns, like many Europeans, do not expect to see such stories in their news casts.
After ten months of watching Soviet television, Mickiewicz comes to the conclusion that
the very meaning of "news worthiness" appears to be something quite different on
Perhaps the most distinctive element of the Soviet media system is the understanding of what is newsworthy. That understanding is not something that the television studio or the newspaper defines for itself; it has already been set by overarching doctrine and Party policy. The denial of plural (competing, equally valid) approaches is derived from the notion that the ruling doctrine is based on science.
Newsworthiness could be and often is defined by the state, but it does not necessarily have to be tied to a particular state doctrine. Mickiewicz' analysis, while striving to make the point that "plural (competing, equally valid) approaches" are best served by American-style commercial media, overlooks other non-commercial alternatives. The picture drawn by Mickiewicz also assumes mistrust on the part of Soviet audiences, especially when one is told that the understanding of news worthiness is something "set by overarching doctrine and party policy." Widespread audience mistrust of television's messages, however, could just as well be found among American viewers who experience a plethora of "plural...approaches" every day. Finnish viewers, in contrast, consider their state-supported television news anchors "the most trusted people in Finland."
Mickiewicz' approach, while critical of Soviet television, is equally ideological in its glaring lack of criticism of American commercial television. Pluralist values, while worthy in themselves, are accepted as a given property of American commercial television. It is Mickiewicz' ethnocentric approach, based on uncritical assumptions, which demand an examination of her own cultural and ideological environment.
For our study, therefore, it is useful to recognize the shortcomings of content analysis as a tool which, if used in isolation, can lead to unwarranted assumptions about such things as "state control" and the meaning of "news worthiness" without really exploring a culture's expectations of television news. Competition definitely does play a role in broadcasting, but not always because of "competing, equally valid" viewpoints, as pluralists will have us believe. Advertising, or the lack of it, is given limited consideration by Mickiewicz, but only in as far as it seems to be missing from Soviet television, or if present, she observes, it is "not for the creation of needs, but rather to supplement policy...and steer patterns of buying in order to compensate for snags in the distribution system."
Howard Frederick gives what he calls "the most widely accepted definition of content analysis," quoted from Berelson:
Content analysis is the research technique for the objective, systematic, and quantitative description of the manifest content of communication.
CNN vs. the Networks: Is More News Better News?
Another media study which used an analysis based on content alone was made in 1983 by the Media Institute, a "nonprofit, tax-exempt research foundation supported by a wide range of foundations, corporations, associations, and individuals." The Institute published a 42-page pamphlet entitled CNN vs. the Networks: Is More News Better News? The study, designed and conducted by Cynthia Brumfield, the Director of Research at the Institute, was the first detailed content analysis of CNN which also compared the new 24-hour news network with the other American commercial television networks (PBS was not mentioned in the study, nor were any other domestic or foreign sources of television news). The study, in order to be comparative, limited its research to the so-called "hard news" found on CNN and the other big networks, CBS, ABC and NBC. The other object of the study was to investigate CNN news' "balance, depth, sensationalism, and news priority."
The study took a survey of CNN's personnel as well and compared them with what they called the "media elite," defined as those other journalists who worked at the big, established networks. Included were 240 journalists "at the most influential media outlets" and CNN. "Like the media elite," journalists at CNN were also well educated, but, in contrast to their "elite" colleagues, they "more strongly agreed with free-market attitudes." Whereas the "elite" favor "a more humane society, placing ideas ahead of money," "CNN personnel more strongly favored goals such as a stable economy...and the fight against crime." All in all, the study showed, CNN journalists "generally displayed social values that were markedly more conservative than their media-elite counterparts-values that were in fact very much in tune with...corporate executives."
As far as comparisons of actual content, the study found that the networks relied on
government sources for their news at least 24 percent of the time.
An over reliance on government sources...has been an all-too-frequent characteristic of broadcast coverage. [Our]...researches assumed that coverage relying on a mix of sources...is more balanced... CNN relied more heavily...on...economists and business/industry representatives.
The report concluded that business and economic news coverage on CNN is superior to the
networks. CNN was also judged to be "less sensational" than the networks and
succeeded in those areas in which newscast length was not a factor.
And herein lies an important lesson for the networks: "not enough time" is no
longer an excuse for unbalanced and sensational coverage; nor will more time automatically
improve the quality of coverage.
This analysis assumes that one factor which makes CNN superior to the "media elite" is that "CNN relied more heavily...on...economists and business/industry representatives, and not on government sources. The problems of "sensationalism" in news reports and the idea of "balanced" coverage are items which are presented as given, with absolutely no cross-cultural references for comparison.
Content analysis in the investigation of television news broadcasts, as demonstrated by
the Mickiewicz and Media Institute studies, can be an effective means for discussing data.
However, there are many other messages communicated through the text and structure of a
newscast as well. Additional factors in the text create meaning, such as discourse style,
paralinguistic factors, kinesics, editing, as well as the practice of framing stories to
fit a certain mold and the setting of the appropriate mood and register. Another message
component which should not be underestimated is that of ritualization and formalization.
Content analysis overlooks the fact that a typical news story follows a formalized frame,
one which may have been established decades earlier. After years of news broadcasting
within the confines of one single culture, the telling of the news story has a tendency to
become formalized to the point that it takes on implicit meaning to audiences. As news
storytelling becomes formalized, its style begins to appear "natural" and
becomes concealed to native audiences. Satellite technology, however, now presents
researchers with a new opportunity to transform the old, ritualized and implicit styles of
discourse into visible phenomena through the use of various cross-cultural tools.
Modifying broadcast news
Much of what may be regarded by Americans as correct, interesting, and intelligent public discourse, such as that analyzed in the Mickiewicz and Media Institute studies, may be decoded differently-or not even decoded at all-by those who live in other cultures. The American news broadcast format is ritualized by giving an illusion of "one-on-one" interaction between the anchors and the audiences. Thus, when American journalists write broadcast news reports, the written language is modified to resemble speech by purposely using more fragmented sentences which mimic real speech. However, when one culture's conventions are used to evaluate another culture's discourse, some crucial gaps in understanding will inevitably arise.
As early as 1964 Halliday explored the phenomenon of register in speech, when he observed that speech and writing have different attributes in that they "chop up the flow of language into units of information in quite separate ways." In written language information units are consistently associated with traditional grammatical units, such as the clause. If a written text were read aloud, the intonation curves, therefore, would be compatible with those information units. Oral language, on the other hand, "is fragmented into shorter sections of information by shorter intonation curves which are more independent of conventional syntax." By adjusting register, therefore, a writer with the proper tools could effectively communicate meaning. For example, writers for television have certain strategies which communicate to audiences that they are tuned to a sports broadcast and not a church service.
Writers for broadcast news, especially in the United States where commercial
broadcasting dominates, have stratagems for creating speech registers which modify scripts
so as to model dialog. With additional help and guidance from a good news director,
a talented anchor with a TelePrompTer, good technical assistance, a videotape editor and
proper music, a writer, by means of a written script, can symbolically refer the viewing
audience to specific ideas, emotions or even cultural stereotypes to convey meaning. In Language
in the News, Fowler provides a list of characteristic indicators which are used by
broadcast news writers to simulate dialog in news texts and thus lend more to the illusion
that we, the passive audience, are in fact active participants in the process of the
"breaking news story," as seen "live" on the screen at home. He calls
this simulation of real speech in written texts "cueing."
Cueing works as follows: Contrastive stress in speech is used to underline or call special attention to a sentence or phrase. Intonation and other forms of paralanguage and kinesics -- including voice pitch and gestures-are especially effective in calling attention to and giving nuances about certain aspects of a particular message. In news broadcasting, especially, sound, video editing and other visual effects, such as rapid editing techniques, can be used to break up the monologic uniformity of the written word. Cueing, therefore, 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
...so that the audience knows exactly when to expect news, weather, sports,
entertainment, reviews, features, and editorial commentary. ...All of this is interrupted,
of course, by an increasing number of commercial "messages" from the people who
pay the bills.
Cueing, which could also be described as a kind of code, is not always apparent because of its tendency to be taken for granted by audiences and broadcasters.
The American news broadcast format is ritualized by giving an illusion of "one-on-one" interaction between the anchors and the audiences. The story must move forward with every sentence which titillates audiences to pay attention and share in the "excitement," and the "importance" of the action. News anchors are transformed into "television personalities" through the conscious manipulation of lexis by presenting texts which will be made to sound informal and colloquial-a style which is merely modeled on real speech with the appropriate amount of "slang, idioms, clichés, proverbs and catch-words" which "are all used to cue the illusion of oral mode; learned or official words are avoided...unless they are to be derided." First names, "diminutives and nicknames are all used to connote the informality and intimacy of face-to-face discourse." Writers of broadcast news will use contractions of auxiliaries and negatives, such as "he'll," "don't," etc.-as well as elisions; short or incomplete sentences-"Why not?" Personal pronouns will be used for indicating persons. "Today, now, then," etc. are used to indicate time. Deixis, meaning "pointing," "here, there, this and that," are used to indicate place. "Deixis," says Fowler, "provides important cues" in television which add to the feeling of "being there," while modal expressions are used to signify judgments as to truth, likelihood, desirability, obligations and grant permission. They are used to suggest "the presence of an individual subjectivity behind the ... text, who is qualified with the knowledge required to pass judgment ... or assign responsibility. The frequent use of modal expressions has the effect of enhancing subjectivity and giving the television audience the "illusion of a 'person' with a voice and opinions." If, however, one wishes to "give an impression of objectivity," the use of modal expressions would be minimized.
Thus, when writing for broadcast news the written language is modified to resemble
speech by purposely using more fragmented sentences which mimic real speech. Television
writers and producers strive to impersonate a real conversational style in order to give
us, the television audience, the impression that we are actually witnessing a particular
event. Whether the style is a casual, one-on-one chat, or a mundane recitation of facts,
or an emotional appeal, various refinements can be used, including story arrangement, the
interspersing of sensational remarks along with music, pace and banter, to emphasize or
de-emphasize a certain emotion, feeling or point of view. Tone of voice and volume of
presentation, as well as music, and even the arrangement of individual news stories go far
to influence the way audiences interpret news messages. Hyperbole, music and a fast pace,
which create a feeling of sensation can confer a certain status to a particular news story
which, in fact, might be trivial. At the same time,
everyday repetition of important but routine occurrences might cast a veneer of boredom
over truly significant events. Especially in competitive news markets, controversy makes
news, and the way material is arranged accounts for much of its apparent controversy.
Cueing in textbooks
In the United States, where commercial television dominates the format of news broadcasts, textbooks used in college-level writing courses for the broadcast media are produced with the needs of commercial television in mind. The complete acceptance of the commercial formula is amazingly implicit. The formula presented consists of a technique in writing which harmonizes news reports with previous and upcoming commercial breaks. This formula can be seen illustrated in Newsom and Wollert's textbook called Media Writing: News for the Mass Media, where the student is presented with a list of definitions of "news."
According to the authors, for a story to be newsworthy, it must consist of "disasters, accidents, epidemics" Television and radio broadcasts, to be considered "news," must contain "...Good Samaritan stories...crime...a drought...human interest stories, stories with drama, stories about things that are ironic or even bizarre, stories that are humorous or entertaining...a snowstorm in a neighboring city." "News," therefore, "is conflict...the more prominent the person, the more likely his or her activities will qualify as news...news is surprising." (Newsom's and Wollert's definition of "newsworthiness" is, no doubt, closer to that of Mickiewicz.)
In the same textbook, an explanation of "the broadcast style" takes up a considerable amount of space. Potential broadcast news writers are advised to "keep it conversational...keep it simple" and "keep it short." "Our everyday speech usually consists of short, simple sentences, not complex and compound ones. That's the way to write broadcast news as well...use contractions, keep it informal...don't use stuffy, stilted words...make it personal..."
In writing for broadcast news, the textbook also emphasizes the lack of time available for news:
...broadcast news has strict time limits...and even a 24-hour-a-day all-news radio or
TV operation has constraints on it. In all-news operations, for example, each hour is
broken into segments, most of which feature weather, sports, commentaries and special
reports. The actual, breaking news portion of that hour may take up as little as 10-15
minutes of time...Even the half-hour TV newscast must yield about eight to 10 minutes to
commercials, four minutes to sports, three minutes to weather; that leaves only about 15
or so minutes for news. ...a 30-second radio news story runs about seven to eight lines of
typewritten copy. That's not many words to tell the top news stories of the hour, each
hour-but a 30-second story is a long one by radio standards.
Writing News for Broadcast is another textbook which was published by the Columbia University Press and written by John M. Patterson, a professor at the influential Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, and Edward Bliss, Jr., who has been described by Fred W. Friendly as being "one of electronic journalism's foremost teachers..." Fred Friendly himself wrote the foreword for the book and emphasized that Bliss and Patterson respected fairness in broadcasting and that they "knew the benchmarks which indicate where reporting ends and preaching begins."
Writing News for Broadcast gives detailed examples of broadcast writing. For example, "whenever possible, use verbs in the active voice. This is one of the basic principles in writing news," which makes it sound more conversational. In other words, the news should be "told": "In 'telling' the news, go easy on adjectives. ... Never write... [or be] pretentious-it can't possibly be conversational." "...Prepositions break phrases into more manageable pieces which the ear-the mind, really-more readily accepts." Thus, it is "easier on the ear" to say "the process of registering cars" than to say "the car-registering process..." Concerning that as a relative pronoun: "In speech, that is used more often than which. It's more conversational." And using that as a conjunction: "This conjunction often-not always-can be eliminated."
Your newscast "listens" better if you...vary the tenses of your leads. Use the present and perfect tenses ...the most interesting way from the point of view of the listener, who is impressed by the immediacy of what you are reporting.
To express the meaning of the broadcast style of discourse more precisely, the authors,
in a chapter called "Keeping it Short," give us a specific example taken from a
UPI story on Carl Sandburg's death and memorial service:
Galesburg, Ill. (UPI)
Carl Sandburg has returned to the soil he loved.
The ashes of the late poet and author of great magnitude were scattered in the shadow of a huge granite boulder called remembrance rock in a 1½-acre park here. Behind the three-room cottage that was his boyhood home.
Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner presided at a memorial service Sunday, commemorating the private ceremony at dusk Saturday. "They will remain here always in the area he loved very, very much," Kerner told a crowd of 2,500.
As he spoke, trains roared down nearby tracks, reminding those paying homage of his
days riding the rails, gathering material to weave his prose and poetry.
The authors explain that there is a "torrent of specific detail," with difficult phrases, such as "author of great magnitude." To "boil" the Sandburg story down to one which could be read on television in 25 seconds requires skill which "presents the writer with a real problem." There is obviously very little time for background information, such as mentioning Sandburg's book, Rememberance Rock. There is also very little time to concentrate on what happened Saturday. "What happened Saturday is yesterday's news" and listeners who want more detail can read the newspapers. "...too often for comfort-you will write a story and discover it runs too long. You must cut. ...It means killing words, phrases, perhaps whole sentences which you believed, when you wrote them, were absolutely essential."
The revised, broadcast version, of the Sandburg wire story reads:
The ashes of Carl Sandburg have been returned to the soil of his hometown-Galesburg,
Illinois. At a memorial service today, Governor Kerner said, "They will remain here
always, in the area he loved very, very much." As the governor spoke, trains could be
heard passing through, reminding the crowd of the days...long ago...when the poet and
Lincoln biographer was poor and rode the rails.
Bliss and Patterson recall a story about Edward R. Murrow, now a legend in American
broadcasting and a journalist who had the courage to attack Joseph McCarthy openly on
network television during the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s. Murrow, it is said, is
the person who set the standards by which today's television journalism is gauged. The
authors quote Charles Collingwood, a veteran television news personality in the United
States, who knew Murrow and who learned from his experience:
I was fascinated by the difference between writing for ...radio and conforming to the
canons of wire service journalism. ...I went around to Murrow's office and pored over his
script files, looking for clues. 'It seems to me,' I said, 'that your formula is to write
short, vivid declarative sentences, using dependent clauses only to vary the pace or for
ornamentation.' Ed looked at me in some surprise and said, 'Oh, is that what I do. I'd
never thought about it.'
The cross-cultural perspective
As we have seen, "broadcast style" bears with it the stylistic expectationsof
a familiar model, one specific to one's own culture. Such expectations of style will
inevitably embody specific elements of a culture's individual historical development.
Consequently, whe one's own e'ethnocentric values are used to measure another culture's
stylistic expectations, as in the case of the Mickiewicz critique of Soviet television,
some crucial gaps in understanding will inevitably appear.
What we have seen on our television screens every day of our lives is what we take for
granted. Hartmut Schroeder has suggested that one cannot explain a particular style
"in relation to only one language level (such as the grammar or vocabulary), but
rather, style results from a symbiosis of speech organization on various levels..."
The same is true of media texts, which are also the result of a symbiosis of a culture's
entire development. "...a text does not have style, but rather, style is something
conferred upon the text; style comes about, first of all, within a frame and through the
communication between author and receiver."
There are, in fact, different levels of language organization which can define the meaning of style when discussing television discourse. The text level involves different strategies of argumentation, self-representation and persuasion. On the lexical level there are slogans and "buzzwords." On the syntactic level we have seen how language can be used to signal and summon a particular mood, or place us into a particular setting, such as is done in cueing.
The reception of a particular style, however, is the deciding factor, for in any communication between cultures, the sender of a message, one which is produced in a culturally acceptable style of discourse, may run into serious problems in having the style accepted by the culturally uninitiated. Such problems result from different expectations and mis-understandings of behavior patterns in particular circumstances. In other words, much of what may be regarded in the United States as correct, interesting, and intelligent discourse, such as Edward R. Murrow's much revered formula for television news, "to write short, vivid declarative sentences, using dependent clauses only to vary the pace or for ornamentation" could be decoded differently by those living within the confines of another culture-or not even decoded at all.
The social and historical origins of television discourse, in any culture, are indeed
complex. Attempts, however, can be made to integrate diverse disciplines, concepts and
traditions in order to expose the taken-for-grantedness of language and the ways in which
it is used. Wodak expresses the problem quite clearly. "Social phenomena," she
says, "are too complex to be dealt with adequately in only one field." The
scholar must investigate "...language behaviour in natural speech situations of
social relevance..." while analyzing "... data from natural speech
situations." Crucial, she says, in the explaining of "social processes," is
the "historical perspective."
Finnish Views of CNN Copyright © 1995 by Brett Dellinger
Order the book:
BRETT DELLINGER (1995). Finnish views of CNN television news: A critical cross-cultural analysis of the American commercial discourse style. Linguistics 6. (Väitöskirja). 337 s. 136 Finnish Marks.