Program 2: TV Reality? TV tells us about the world by turning reality into stories. In six segments, TV Reality? asks: Whose stories and whose realities do we see on TV? How are they made? And why do we believe them? This guide includes discussion questions and activities for the segment titles which appear in bold. ●
And Now The News
Tonight’s Top Story
The News Doctors
The News Doctors In Nashville
The Media Chef Meets Cops
Imagining Ourselves, Imagining Others
Teacher’s Guide written by Barbara Bliss Osborn; edited by Norman Cowie and Cara Mertes.
Signal to Noise: Life with Television Program 1: Watching TV Watching Us Program 2: TV Reality? Program 3: Remote Control What is Signal to Noise? Signal to Noise is a three-part television series that premiered on public television during the summer of 1996. The series takes a critical look at the power, business, and allure of television, asking how TV affects people’s sense of themselves and their ideas about the world, as well as exploring the unrealized potential of the medium. The series showcases the work of video artists and independent producers who were commissioned to produce short segments for the series, and introduces a variety of cultural critics not usually seen or heard from on television. ●
The first program, Watching TV Watching Us, shows how the TV industry sees viewers, and how viewers sustain the television industry where profits exceed $34 billion a year.
The second show, TV Reality?, analyzes how reality is constructed through TV news and entertainment programs.
The third, Remote Control, looks at the promise and danger of the future of television: What will television look like in the Information Age? Will it enhance democratic values or undermine them? Signal to Noise: Life with Television was produced by Mixed Media Projects for the Independent Television Service (ITVS),with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For more information on educational distribution of Signal to Noise, with accompanying study guide and resource guide, contact GPN or Mixed Media Projects, 212-529-3928, [email protected]
©1996 Mixed Media Projects, Inc. All rights reserved.
GPN also offers these enlightening media literacy packages:
Beyond Blame: Challenging Violence in the Media Beyond the Front Page Creating Critical TV Viewers The Power of Newsprint: Creative Concepts in Newspaper Advertising Tuning in to Media
For more information on these programs, contact: GPN P. O. Box 80669 Lincoln NE 68501-0669 1-800-228-4630 Fax: 1-800-306-2330 E-mail: [email protected]
TABLE OF CONTENTS Program #2: TV Reality? To the Teacher ............................................................................................................................................ 2 Cultural Critics and Media Professionals ................................................................................................... 3 Overview & Discussion .............................................................................................................................. 4 Plan Facts& Figures ................................................................................................................................... 5
SEGMENTS IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE ON VIDEOCASSETTE Note: Segments with bold titles have related Teacher’s Guide Activities ●
And Now The News. This segment is a video collective by black and Latino producers from the Bronx, New York, in which Felix, the media literacy chef, examines how local news is shaped and formatted. (Produced by Not Channel Zero.) .......................... Not covered in Teachers Guide
Tonight’s Top Story. A revealing look at the pressures of television news production and reporting, this segment follows KCOP/Los Angeles TV reporter, Deborah Snell, as she constructs a typical news story. (Produced by Michael Cho.)........................................................ 6
The News Doctors. An incisive, behind-the-scenes segment on the world’s biggest local news consulting firm, Frank Magid Associates, whose job is to increase ratings for stations in competitive markets. (Produced by Louis Alvarez and Andy Kolker.) ......................................... 9
The Media Chef Meets Video News Releases. Felix, the media chef, reveals a local news cost-cutting secret: the use of pre-produced video news releases generated by corporations as part of their PR campaigns. (Produced by Not Channel Zero.) ........................................................... 10
The News Doctors in Nashville. The Nashville market’s perennial ratings loser, WKRP, gets a media makeover from Frank Magid Associates. (Produced by Louis Alvarez and Andy Kolker.) .......................................................................... 10
The Media Chef Meets Cops. What are the consequences when infotainment shows like Cops seem as real as the news? A humorous look at some televisual strategies used by “reality” shows to reproduce reality. (Produced by Not Channel Zero.) ............................................................... 13
Imagining Ourselves, Imagining Others. An independent producer, who was once a “merchant of images,” searches for new and better ways to produce the news by changing the relationship between victims and the journalists who cover them. (Produced by Ilan Z’iv.) .......................... 16
Interview with the Producer ............................................................................................................... 18 Resource List ...................................................................................................................................... 20
PHOTO BY FARROL MERTES
To The Teacher: Many of us know that Americans watch between four and six hours of television a day, that TV watching is what we do most (next to sleeping), and that billions of advertising dollars are spent trying to get us to watch television in the first place. What we don’t understand is how TV affects people in their everyday lives and that, while TV’s current hybrid of commercialism and fantasy can be compelling, television’s potential is far greater than we as a society have realized. – Producer/writer/director Cara Mertes Cara Mertes.
The Signal to Noise Teacher’s Guide Written by Barbara Bliss Osborn Edited by Norman Cowie and Cara Mertes This teacher’s guide was created to help you make the most of the many television-related issues raised by Signal to Noise. When used in conjunction with the series’ videotapes, this guide should help students develop a more critical understanding of television. Although designed for students in grades 9-12, many of the materials could be adapted for middle school students. It should also be noted that the resource guide, available from GPN, is useful for both teachers and other interested adults. For classroom use, each program of the series can be used in whole or in part. The teacher’s guide supports either the screening and discussion of each hour-long program, or the screening and discussion of separate segments within each program. To facilitate the former, a broad set of discussion questions are included at the beginning of each section of the teacher’s guide. For the latter, each program has been broken down into several segments within the teacher’s guide. This permits more in-depth exploration of the ideas raised in the program. (The first page of the guide for each program includes a list of the individual segments in the program. Segments for which teacher’s guide materials have been prepared appear in bold type.) Each of these segments includes objectives, cueing instructions, a suggested way to introduce the segment, a focus for students to keep in mind while viewing, a brief review of the ideas discussed in the video segment, discussion questions, and related activities. These related activities help to reinforce and deepen students’ understanding of the material covered in the series and in classroom discussions. Before presenting the series to your students, please view the entire program yourself. You may find that some segments are more appropriate for your students than others.
Program #2 Interviewees:
CULTURAL CRITICS AND MEDIA PROFESSIONALS Ben Bagdikian is an author, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and media critic. His 1983 book, The Media Monopoly, is now in its fourth edition. Before retiring, he was Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.
Walter Cronkite. Over his 60-year career in journalism, 45 of those affiliated with network news leader CBS, Cronkite covered virtually every major news event. As anchor of CBS’s evening newcast, Cronkite became the model of the authoritative newsman.
Susan Douglas is a Professor of Media Studies, and the media critic
Walter Cronkite, icon of television journalism.
for The Progressive. She has authored Where The Girls Are: Growing Up Female With The Mass Media, and Inventing American Broadcasting: 1899-1922, as well as numerous articles for The Village Voice, The Nation and In These Times.
Linda Ellerbee is an award-winning television producer, best-selling author (And So It Goes), syndicated columnist, and one of the most sought-after speakers in the country. She is currently host and producer of Nick News.
Heiman Gray is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He participated in Color Adjustment, the award-winning documentary on the history of African-American representations in television.
Stuart Hall is Professor of Sociology at the Open University, London. The author of Reproducing Ideologies and The Hard Road to Renewal, Hall has coedited numerous volumes including Politics and Ideology, and written extensively on cultural politics.
Sut Jhally has authored numerous books and articles on the media, and has produced videotapes concerning advertising, television violence, and representations of race and gender. Jhally is Professor of Communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Executive Director of the Media Education Foundation.
PROGRAM #2 TV REALITY? OVERVIEW & DISCUSSION PLAN If you will be presenting Program #2: TV Reality? in its entirety, you may want to use the following questions, quotes, and statistics to focus discussion after viewing. *
In the program, Linda Ellerbee says, “Nothing in the world lies quite so easily as a camera.” Do cameras lie? How? Susan Douglas calls the news a funhouse mirror. Why? How close to the truth is TV news? What techniques are used to make TV news more entertaining? What’s “news” and who decides? Should the news be seen primarily as a business operation or as a public service? How is the news currently seen by TV station administration? Why is news important in a democracy? Why is it that the more television we watch, the more dangerous we think the world is? Linda Ellerbee says: “The two strongest messages we’re sending through television are that popularity is everything and that, if it doesn’t make money, it’s not worth anything.” Is she right? Do you know whether you have ever seen a video news release (VNR)? How could you tell whether you have seen a VNR or not? How real are “reality” shows? Ilan Z’iv’s attitude about his work changed after the 1992 Ethiopian famine. The famine became the subject of documentaries, movies of the week, even TV commercials. What’s wrong with images of a famine being used in a TV commercial? Is it simply bad taste? Linda Ellerbee believes that people want news that makes them think. Do you agree?
FACTS & FIGURES ●
Most Americans get most of their news from television.
Americans are watching less TV news. ●
65 percent of surveyed Americans watch local news, down from 72 percent the previous year.
42 percent watch a network evening newscast, down 33 percent in three years.
The greatest drop in TV news viewership is among people under 30.
By contrast, 50 percent of Americans read newspapers.
Crime, disaster, and war make up 42 percent of the local TV news.
Crime coverage makes up the bulk of that 42 percent, accounting for 30.2 percent of all news time on local TV news.
According to the same study, commercials make up 30.7 percent of local news broadcasts.
During The Gulf War, the more that people watched TV, the less they knew about the war.
During the first three months of 1996, candidate sound bites reached an all-time record for brevity. Sound bites averaged 7 seconds.
.Sources: The Pew Center for The People and The Press, 1996; Rocky, Mountain Media Watch, 1995; University, of Massachusetts-Amherst, 1991; Center for Media & Public Affairs, 1996
Segment #1: “Tonight’s Top Story” Duration: 19:00 (from top of program) 13:00 (as a stand-alone segment)
To critically examine how reality is presented in the news, and the process by which real events are turned into dramatic stories.
To introduce the idea that media images are “constructed.”
To critique the prevalence of crime and violence in the news.
Cueing instructions: Cue at the beginning of the tape or at title card, “Tonight’s Top Story.” Stop at the end of the segment.
PHOTO BY MARK LIPSON
If you will be presenting the videotape from the beginning, explain that this program is about the ways in which television turns events into TV stories, whether in news or entertainment shows. Program #2: TV Reality? primarily examines the way local news is constructed. Explain to students that “Tonight’s Top Story” follows a day in the life of a Los Angeles TV reporter.
Michael Cho, producer of “Tonight’s Top Story.”
Ask students to think about how real or unreal the news is as they watch. What distortions of reality do they see in the making of a news story?
What did we see & hear? (Ideas Review) 1. Debra Snell, a Los Angeles TV reporter, covered a home invasion robbery. She spent one day gathering material, scripting and editing. She was given I minute and 17 seconds to tell her story. 2. The narrator notes that, while the names and faces change, TV news stories about crime repeat the same basic elements: the who, what, where, when, and how of the crime; and interviews with cops, neighbors, and victims. 3. A scholar (George Gerbner), cited in the narration, has found evidence to suggest that the more television that people watch, the more dangerous they think the world is. Crimes rates are down, but people still believe crime is rising.
Segment #1: “Tonight’s Top Story”
Discussion Questions 1. On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being real and 10 being unreal), how real would you rate the news? In what ways is TV news real? In what ways is TV news made to seem real’? In what ways is it unreal? Why do we believe the news? Why is the reality of TV news so different from your reality? Whose stories get told on the news? Why do those stories get told and not others? How does the selection of stories, images, and sound bites affect the “reality” of news? 2. What is “news” What is the purpose of news? Who decides what’s “news”? What criteria do editors and producers use to decide what’s news? Do people always agree about what is and isn’t “news?” 3. In newsrooms across the United States, producers and reporters often work by the rule: If It Bleeds, It Leads. What does that statement mean? Can the news place too much emphasis on crime? Why do you think TV news directors emphasize coverage of crime and disaster? 4. What techniques did the producer of Tonight’s Top Story use to “enhance” reality? How do you interpret his use of special effects?
Mimi-Lesson on Cameras and Truth: In this program, news reporter Linda Ellerbee says: “Nothing in the world lies quite so easily as a camera. The minute you point it at something, you’ve pointed it way from something else.” Ask students: Do cameras lie? When and how do they lie? You may want to ask students to cut a roughly 2 3 inch rectangle from a piece of paper and look it as if it were a camera viewfinder. How could rame the objects in the classroom in a way that the truth” or that “lies”?
inch x through they “tells
Segment #1: “Tonight’s Top Story”
Related Activities 1. Record a local TV newscast. Before watching it with students, ask them to identify the important issues facing their city. Then watch the newscast. Ask one student (who has a watch with a second hand) to time each news story. Tell the rest of the students to evaluate: ●
How much emphasis the newscast places on crime
What issues besides crime are covered
Whether the important issues facing their city are covered
After watching approximately 15 minutes of the broadcast, have students discuss their observations. 2. Have students choose a “top story” that has been covered in the press and on television. After viewing a local newscast, ask students to compare the information they got from the TV news with the information they get from a major daily newspaper. How were the stories different, from an emotional standpoint? 3. Have students compare mainstream to alternative or neighborhood papers. Do the papers cover the same stories? Why do different media outlets cover different stories? Which outlet do you think includes the most “important” news? 4. Give students a list of 10 hypothetical news stories. Ask them to decide which five stories they would include in a newscast. Discuss their decisions. 5. “Tonight’s Top Story” uses certain techniques to “enhance” reality. Signal to Noise’s interview segments also “enhance” reality. How’? 6. If you viewed “And Now the News,” have students watch a TV show opening with the sound turned off. Then watch with the sound on, and discuss the effects of sound on viewers. If you have access to editing equipment, students can experiment by placing different music under TV show openings. How does music change “the feel” of the show? 7. Ask a local TV reporter or TV critic to talk to your class about the job and about TV news.
Segment #2a: “The News Doctors” (a two-part segment that includes “The News Doctors” and “The News Doctors in Nashville”) Duration: 9:30 (from top of program); 8:00 (as a stand-alone segment) PHOTO BY DAN BIGELOW
To examine local news and the research that forms its foundation.
To see the nuts and bolts of how sets are made, anchors trained, and the look of a show is created.
To understand how the quest for profit drives and shapes the news.
Louis Alvarez and Andy Lolker, producers of “The News Doctors.”
Cueing Instructions: Cue at end of the previous segment or at the title card, “The News Doctors.” (See additional cueing instructions under Segment #2b.) Introduce this segment by explaining that this is the first half of a video that explores how the world’s largest TV research firm helps TV stations attract audiences.
What did we see & hear? (Ideas Review) Before continuing with Segment #2b, you may want to reiterate the following ideas: 1. Frank Magid & Associates is the world’s largest news consulting firm. They do research about what TV viewers like and don’t like, and then sell their research to broadcasters who want to increase their market share and advertising revenue. 2. Local news was once seen as a public service provided by broadcasters in exchange for the use of public airwaves. In recent years, local news has become a big profit center for broadcasters. Advertisers like to advertise on local news because viewers pay more attention to the news than they do other kinds of programming. 3. Magid offers advice to station management about storytelling, set design, anchor appeal, and on-air graphics.
Mini Lesson: Conduct a mini-lesson on video news releases. Have students watch The Media Chef meets Video News Releases and the interview bites which follow. Ask them to think about why news directors use VNRs and why they are problematic. Should VNRs be banned from news programs? Should laws require that VNRs be identified when used?
Segment #2b: “The News Doctors in Nashville” Duration: 12:00 (from the end of “The News Doctors”); 7:00 (as a stand-alone segment)
To explore how market affects the reconceptualization of newscasts.
To question how market research and the drive for ratings shape newcasts.
To examine the effects of restructuring on a newsroom staff.
To evaluate the role of news in society.
Cueing Instructions: Cue at the title card, “The News Doctors in Nashville.” (This will require fast-forwarding through “Media Chef Meets Video News Releases” and brief interviews (4-5 min.). Introduce the second part of the video by explaining that students will see a case study of a TV station in Nashville, Tennessee. WKRN hired Magid & Associates to help boost its ratings. The subsequent changes made at the station sparked controversy among the staff.
What did we see & hear? (Ideas Review) 1. Charles Munro, a staff person at the research firm of Frank Magid & Associates, advised the WKRN newscast to boost its ratings by attracting women babyboomers and, thereby, attracting more advertising dollars. 2. The new plan for WKRN involved trying to appeal to 35-year-old women by providing “hard hitting but compassionate stories on health, finances, and crime,” and including a description of solutions as well as problems.
Segment #2: “The News Doctors” & “The News Doctors in Nashville”
Discussion Questions 1. What concerns did the WKRN staffers have about the changes at their station? In what ways might WKRN’s business decisions upstage good journalism? What is the purpose of good TV journalism? 2. In your opinion, what is the news’ most important job? Should news deliver the important events of the day, or deliver the largest, most desirable target markets to advertisers? Can news do both? Magid vice President Eric Braun says, “Without profit, there is no free press.” Is this a true statement? Can a free press exist without profit? What should the relationship be, between a free press and profit?
Related Activities PHOTO BY FARROL MERTES
1. Watch “And Now the News.” Then, as an assignment or in class, watch a local newscast. Ask students to write an essay about how much of the newscast is devoted to entertainment, and how much of it has real news value. Have students define how they distinguished between “entertainment” and “news.” Then ask students to break the program down into news stories and commercials. Are the news segments newsworthy? Who are the ads targeting? 2. Explore additional criticisms of TV news. a) Television news is driven by images. TV is much more likely to cover an event that will produce strong dramatic pictures, than an event that Author, journalist, will produce boring pictures. and media critic, Ben Bagdikian.
Ask students to brainstorm two lists. The first list should include types of stories that make good pictures (police chases, surveillance video of crimes, etc.). The second list should include types of stories that do not make good pictures (meetings, press conferences, etc.) b) Critics argue that the news “sets the agenda,” i.e., if issues are not reported, then people don’t consider them important; and if issues get a lot of news coverage, the public assumes those issues are important. What issues are “on the agenda- today? What issues were “on the agenda” a year or two ago, but have fallen off? Why do issues fall “off the agenda”? Have the problems associated with those issues been solved?
3. Ask students to divide into teams and design a half-hour news show that would be of interest to them. Explain that a commercial half-hour broadcast runs 22 minutes, so they should keep track of how many minutes they want to spend on each story. You may want to use a worksheet that looks like this:
Story #1 Story #2 Story #3 Story #4 Story #5 Story #6 Story #7 Story #8 Story #9 Story #10
After students have completed the assignment, ask them to compare their newscast with the newscasts they viewed in class. What’s different’? How often do they see people like themselves, and issues of concern to young people, on actual newscasts’? 4. Have students research the history of broadcast news. How has TV news changed in the last 50 years? 5. Journalist Linda Ellerbee describes the news as “the rent” broadcasters have to pay for the right to use the public airwaves. Organize a student debate around the question: Is the public getting fair market value for its property?
Segment #3 “The Media Chef Meets Cops” Duration: 5: 10 (from end of “The News Doctors in Nashville”)
To explore and challenge the conventions of news and reality programs.
To consider alternatives to those conventions.
To demonstrate the apparent similarity between much news and entertainment programming.
Cueing Instructions: Cue at the end of “The News Doctors in Nashville.” Stop tape at the beginning of the next segment “Imagining Ourselves. Imagining Others.”
What Did You See & Hear? (Ideas Review) PHOTO BY DAN BIGELOW
1. Reality shows are programs like Cops, America’s Most Wanted, and Unsolved Mysteries that use reality as a basis for entertainment programming. It’s often difficult for viewers to know what’s real and what’s not real on reality shows. Many shows combine actual (real) footage with dramatic reenactments. Shaky hand-held camera work makes reenactments “feel” real, oftentimes more real than actual news. Real events that took many days or hours are compressed into a story that lasts only a few minutes. As a result, many details are eliminated, and the dramatic effect is heightened. 2. For the sake of creating unambiguous and compelling drama, reality hows assume that the people who are apprehended are guilty.
Linda Ellerbee, producer, author, columist, and speaker.
3. At the end of the segment, Nick News host Linda Ellerbee and scholar Herman Gray suggest that audiences want news and reality programming that is more intelligent and more complex.
Segment #3: “The Media Chef Meets Cops”
Discussion Questions 1. Because of their production techniques, reality shows often seem more real than the news. In fact, some people think reality shows are news. Are reality shows a fair substitute for news? Why/why not? 2. The program argues that news, reality and police dramas present a pro-law-enforcement, pro-police message. Think about the news, reality, and police shows you have seen. Do they communicate a pro-police message? Are law enforcement officers always portrayed as “doing the right thing?” In your opinion, should the way police are portrayed on television be changed? What are your experiences with the police? Are they like the ones in the “reality shows”? Describe the profile of a typical “victim” in these shows? Describe a typical “perpetrator”? How do these profiles lend themselves to stereotyping? 3.
Ask students to close their eyes and imagine a criminal. What image comes into their minds? Discuss student responses. ●
You may wish to point out that: Most people who commit crimes are Anglo. Fewer than I percent of African-Americans are criminals.
TV news covers street crime more often than white collar crime. Some studies suggest that, as a result, AfricanAmericans are represented as criminals more often than Anglo-Americans are. Ask students if they can think of other stereotypes fostered by TV news.
The media usually cover crime as an isolated event: a carjacking in Los Angeles, a mugging in New York City, or a shooting in Chicago. However, crime can be presented in a larger context that takes into account economic status, education, the availability of guns, substance abuse, and other forces.
The first approach is far more common on TV news. Why do you think this is the case? Which approach do you think serves the public better? Why? 5.
Many shows purport to be “real” (reality shows, news, talk shows, news magazines, tabloid TV). What techniques do these shows use that compromise their faithfulness to the truth?
Discuss the fact that Signal to Noise is constructed, just like the programs and methods it critiques. In the interviews, what techniques did the producer use to convince viewers to believe the experts’?
Segment #3: “The Media Chef Meets Cops”
Related Activities 1. Record a reality show and select a 5- to 15-minute excerpt to show students. Ask them to keep track of which portions of the program they think are “real,” and which portions they believe have been staged. Discuss their conclusions. 2. Ask students to analyze several newspaper stories about crime. Are the events told as isolated incidents or are they placed in a social, judicial, political, and economic context that illuminates larger trends and potential causes of the crime? If the news story is told as an isolated incident, think about the events that may have led up to the event. How might such a context alter your thoughts and feelings about the story? 3. If you have access to production equipment, have students produce a “reality show” about some aspect of their own lives. In order to produce their show, are students willing to re-stage events? Do they “enhance” or manipulate reality for dramatic effect? How much “enhancement” are they willing to engage in before their own reality show becomes more fake than real?
PHOTO BY FARROL MERTES
You may want to contrast your students’ “reality show” with MTV’s The Real World in which location lighting, casting, and scoring are all carefullv controlled.
Cultural critic, Herman Gray, provides sociological insight into television news.
Segment #4: “Imagining Ourselves, Imagining Others” Duration: 7:00 (as a stand-alone segment)
To question power relations between the person with the camera and the person whose story is being retold on TV.
To challenge the way international news is reported by western news services.
To examine alternatives to the dominant approach of reporting international events.
Cueing Instructions: Cue from the title card “Imagining Ourselves, Imagining Others,” at the end of the previous segment, to the end of the show. Introduce this segment by telling students that this video was produced by an Israeli documentary filmmaker. As a young film school graduate, he traveled around the world shooting earthquakes, war, and famines. Eventually, he became convinced that his work, rather than making the world more sensitive to human tragedies, turned people’s troubles into “a show.” He searched for examples of filmmaking that did not do that-that did not rely on pitiable, powerless, silent victims, and a distanced, authoritative reporter. Z’iv includes two examples: a French program on Bosnia, and a British TV series. What did we see & hear? (Ideas Review) 1. The producer, Ilan Z’iv, called himself “a merchant of images.” He began to question his own profession after the Ethiopian famine became the subject of TV commercials and movies of the week. 2. Sarajevo: A Street Under Siege was produced by French television, and was a diary of the lives of the people on one street in Sarajevo. 3. Video Nation was produced by Britain’s BBC. The series gave cameras to 50 people from different age groups, back
Segment #4: -Imagining Ourselves, Imagining Others”
Discussion Questions 1. Producer Ilan Z’iv says that the power relationship between the subject and the filmmaker must change. In most documentaries and news reports, the filmmaker or reporter makes the decisions about what footage is shot, who is interviewed, what questions are asked, what information is included, and what information is left out. ●
How did the images of silent, starving Africans make you feel? Contrast those feelings with what you felt as you watched the Sarajevans cutting the tree.
How might your response to the starving woman at the end of the tape be different if she were allowed to speak? Try to imagine what she might say.
2. How does the news segment on Sarajevo differ from what TV viewers usually see on the news? 3. How does the The BBC2 example, Video Nation, differ from most documentary programming you see? 4. Is Z’iv’s accusation correct that many people who are the subject of news stories do not get to speak for themselves? Who usually gets to speak on the news? Why is it an important issue? Does this criticism also apply to local and national news? Are there people in your community who are not given a chance to speak for themselves?
Related Activities 1. In class, or as a homework assignment, watch a national newscast. See if you can identify stories in which the people affected by a news story do not speak for themselves. Imagine how their contribution would have changed the news story as well as your response to it. 2. Divide students into two groups. Ask half of the students to watch a network newscast each night for one week. Ask the other students to buy the newspaper every day for a week. Have them briefly describe each international story that receives coverage, and approximately how much time or column inches each story received. At the end of the week, have students discuss: Which countries received coverage? Why do some countries receive more coverage than others? What types of events were covered? How much time/column inches did the media devote to the stories? How does newspaper news compare with television news? 3. If you have access to video equipment, produce “double portraits.” In one portrait, ask the subject to make a video about him/herself. In the second portrait, have “reporters” from the class make a video about the subject. Compare the information and tone of the two video portraits.
Find Out More About Signal to Noise ProducerlDirector Cara Mertes talks about the series
Why did you make Signal to Noise? One of the original goals of the series was to create a forum for independently-produced film and video that would appeal to a general audience. This led us to the idea of making television about televisionsomething which is rarely done in the U.S. — and using media literacy to provide a critical framework. Critiques and commentary about media are very difficult to produce, and almost never appear on TV, so we felt it was an important contribution as an educational tool. What do you think of television? Did your own attitudes affect the series? I am someone who believes that television functions in a useful, enjoyable way for many people, and that it is, at the same time, a medium that has been terribly misused in America. In the series, we always come back to the viewer, and television’s impact on our daily lives. We allow for both the pleasure people get out of television, and the frustration they feel at its shortcomings. The potential for television is tremendous; the misuse of television is just as striking. PHOTO BY CAROL ROSEGG
How did you think about your audience? We wanted the series to respect its viewers. People actually know a lot about how TV works, though they may not know how to articulate it. We also wanted to appeal to a general audience with varying degrees of sophistication about the topic, particularly younger viewers. You said you used media literacy as a framework. What is media literacy? Media literacy has been broadly defined as “the ability to access, Series producer/director, analyze, evaluate, and produce media in a variety of forms.” We used it Cara Mertes. to map out the topics and the formal elements of the programs. How did you think about dividing the hours? We wanted the first hour to juxtapose how television sees us as commodities, with how we see television as a source of enjoyment and information. We wanted to ask where these two interests intersect in American commercial TV In the second hour, we looked at the nuts and bolts of how an image is constructed. What are the forces that shape the information we get? The task of the third hour was to trace a history that points to possible futures. What can we learn from past experiences with developing communications technologies? Will public or private interests dominate? Is there a way to serve both interests? These issues are not often discussed, and we felt it was important to show that we have been dealing with the same questions for over 70 years.
The series includes many works made by independent producers. What is an independent producer, and how are they different from the people who make commercial TV series? Independent producers tend to choose subjects they care about. Broadly defined, they work non-commercially, and generally retain editorial control over the media they produce. In other words, they are not hired by a company to say what the company wants, whether that company is NBC, Nike, or the local furniture store that wants a commercial done. Many producers are interested in documentary journalism; others work in more of an arts tradition. Where did the series title come from? Signal to Noise is an engineering term that refers to the ratio of signal, or information, to that of noise, or interference. If the interference level is too high, the signal is obscured. Why do you think it is important to have a diversity of voices and styles on television? Television prizes uniformity-if not in style, then in substance. It wants to walk the middle ground of society and, at the same time, claims to represent the full experience of living today. We live in a country that is enormously diverse and, as a country, we must deal with that. Diversity must be reflected in all aspects of television, our main source of information. In the final hour of Signal to Noise, you seem concerned that the public interest be protected in the television of the future. What can people do to help protect the public interest? In America, the public interest has traditionally been protected by government. This principle has recently been under attack, and is virtually disappearing from many different arenas. Businesses are increasingly being asked to deal with areas that were formerly entrusted to the public or addressed by government. This creates a difficult situation, because the public interest is often at odds with profitable interests and, often, the public interest loses out to private concerns. People can become more active by learning about the issues, and letting their elected representatives know how they feel. They can get involved in community activities, and they can join one of the many groups involved with promoting quality television, public interest legislation, and media literacy. If people walk away from this series with just one idea, what would you want it to be? Television, and all media, cannot simply be dismissed; the media and their effects must be taken seriously as having an impact on how we think about ourselves and the world. You can’t just “turn it off,” because someone else is watching even if you aren’t, and their views, opinions and beliefs are being informed by what they see on TV. Because it is so important, and so fundamental to the way we live our lives, we all need to be able to develop ways of seeing television critically.
SIGNAL TO NOISE: Life with Television
RESOURCE GUIDE To Read, To See, and To Do Compiled by Norman Cowie, Alison Fields, and Cara Mertes. Assistance provided by Dawn Vandervloed. Special thanks to the organizations and individuals contacted for their input.
“Signal to Noise: Life with Television is a three-part television series presented on PBS in 1996. The programs invite viewers to ask questions about the role television plays in their lives. This guide encourages viewers to follow up those questions with some of the resources that we encountered while making the series. We hope this material can help change the way that television is seen, imagined and produced. The guide is divided into three sections: To Read, To See, and To Do. This is by no means a comprehensive listing of available resources; it is an overview of books, videos, organizations, on-line sites, and print materials that can get you started on your own inquiries.” -Cara Mertes, Executive Producer/Director The complete Resource Guide will be made available to purchasers of Signal to Noise upon request via e-mail at [email protected]
Following is a small sampling of resources from that compilation: BOOKS Media Education Creating Critical TV Viewers (J. Singer and D. Singer, Pacific Mountain Network, 1994). A comprehensive 10-lesson kit with video component for grades 5-11. GPN, P.O. Box 80669, Lincoln, NE 68501-0669, Steve Lenzen, 1-800-228-4630. Questioning the Media: A Critical Introduction (ed. By John Downing, Ali Mohammadi and Anabelle SrebernyMohammadi, Sage, 1995). A useful, introductory media studies college text. Available from the Center for Media Literacy, 4727 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 403, Los Angeles, CA 90010, (T) 213-931-4177/800-226-9494, (F) 213-9314474. E-mail: [email protected]
Advertising All-Consuming Images (Stuart Ewen, Harper Collins, 1989). An in-depth discussion of the impact of advertising on consumers. Harper Collins, Box 588, Dunmore, PA 18512, (T) 800-331-3761. News Inventing Reality: The Politics of News Media (Michael Parenti, St. Martin’s Press, 1993). A lively investigation of corporate media. Available from the Center for Media Literacy, 4727 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 403, Los Angeles, CA 90010, (T) 213-931-4177/800-226-9494, (F) 213-931-4474.
VIDEOTAPES Beyond Blame: Challenging Violence in the Media. The three-unit series examines the effects of media violence and how to mitigate them, and offers strategies for making informed media choices. GPN, P.O. Box 80669, Lincoln, NE 68501-0669, Steve Lenzen, 1-800-228-4630. Media Literacy: The New Basic (Mary Melee, 60 min., 1996). From the makers of On Television, children, teachers, and leaders in the movement demonstrate the tenets of media literacy. Off-air clips illuminate and punctuate the commentaries. For more information, contact California Newsreel, 149 Ninth Street, #420, San Francisco, CA 94103. (T) 415-621-6196, (F) 415-621-6522. Production Notes: Fast Food for Thought (Jason Simon, 28 min., 1986). A compilation of realtime commercials, followed by slow-motion versions with voice-overs of the production notes written by each advertising agency. A classic ad deconstruction tape for educators. Available from Video Data Bank, 112 S. Michigan, Suite 312, Chicago, IL 60603. (T) 213-345-3550, (F) 312-541-8073. INTERNET Just Think http://www.justthink.org/ An organization which aims to get kids to think critically about the media. Media Literacy On-Line Project http://interact.uoregon.edu/N4ediaLit/Homepage Gary Ferrington’s hyperlink-friendly site for the University of Oregon is a “must visit” for all media lit web surfers. It has links to just about every other media lit shop on-line. New Mexico Media Literacy Project On-Line http://www.aa.edu Home of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project with regularly posted news, information, and free materials for teachers, students, and parents. ORGANIZATIONS Cable in the Classroom 1900 N. Beauregard Street, Suite 108, Alexandria, VA 22311, (T) 703-845-1400, (F) 703-845-1409. A nonprofit cable industry initiative, providing free cable service and non-commercial programming to schools. Publishers of Cable in the Classroom. Center for Media Literacy, e-mail: [email protected]
4727 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 403, Los Angeles, CA 90010, (T) 213-931-4177/800-226-9494, (F) 213-931-4474. The Center’s mission is “to help children and adults prepare for living and learning in a global media culture by translating media literacy research and theory into practical information, training and educational tools for teachers and youth leaders, parents and caregivers of children.” Strategies for Media Literacy, e-mail: medi [email protected]
sirius.com P.O. Box 460910, San Francisco, CA 941460910, (T) 415-621-2911, (F) 415-621-5156. Founded by Kathleen Tyner, Strategies for Media Literacy promotes media education in the U.S. The group develops and publishes materials, identifies resources, conducts workshops, and acts as a center of support and contact for teachers of media.
P.O. Box 80669 Lincoln, Nebraska 68501-0669 Call toll-free: 1-800-228-4630 Fax toll-free: 1-800-306-2330 E-mail: [email protected]
A service agency of the KUON-TV/Nebraska ETV Network University of Nebraska-Lincoln