News Form

Every now and then, television will cut away from normal programming to show an event that is deemed to be of public significance or dramatic value, unfolding live on the screen. At times, during these exercises in reality, the television journalists are silent, watching along with the rest of us, rather than expressing what they have to say. At other times, they "frame" the events with spontaneous descriptions, sometimes explaining with great drama and moment what we are watching or what it might mean.

Such televised events are as close as news comes to anything resembling "reality" - unedited, unpackaged, with all the loose ends dangling. Television has the capacity to do a great deal of this but with the partial exception of C-Span, it doesn't and for a good reason - most events in their raw form aren't all that interesting to most people, and can't hold the attention of most audiences. They hold our attention when we live them mostly because they are happening to us and because they are something we have to go through to reach goals we have set or to find out what will happen in the unfolding of events that will affect our lives.

When we turn on the television or open a newspaper, it is precisely to avoid this mundane world of unpackaged life – of waiting for the water to boil or waiting on hold, trying to figure out directions or filing our bills. And so, instead of life, what the news media gives us is what fiction gives us -- stories, packaging, orchestration. It takes raw events (and a great many events staged for its benefit) and coverts them into narratives, brief and fast-moving narratives, that use techniques of literature, poetry, rhetoric, theater and film to create a sense of drama and excitement for audiences.

These stories typically have one or more narrators who may or may not be directly represented themselves inside the story. In most print stories, the narrator is the reporter who introduces him or herself with a byline and then politely disappears from the text, which may, however, still betray hints of his participation in the events described. In the case of television, the news is spoken by narrators who usually appear on screen at various points, and who are, themselves, very obviously narrator-characters in the story, although they may or may not have originated the words in the story they tell and rarely have taken or edited the pictures.

News, than, is something that is told to us, by journalist-narrators, like stories repeated around the proverbial dying embers of the campfire, and like most works of fiction, but unlike most television dramas, films and plays, which are made to appear to unfold before our eyes, without extraneous comment, as if we were looking in, unannounced, on life. It is this explicit narration or telling that ties the parts of news narratives or stories together, and gives them their meaning. Even when events do unfold before our eyes, as in the televising of live events, the journalists will, as noted, frame what we see and hear, at one point or another, with this same kind of narration.

There are also other elements that appear as part of news stories, of course – spoken or written quotes, photographs, videotapes, illustrations, recordings. Typically, these are intended to create a sense that the story contains "windows," which allow the audience to directly see into the events described, instead of merely being told about them. To create such a window, a written news story will typically refer to some situation, and to those involved, and then include a quote from the various parties or from other observers, to create a sense that the reader has now heard directly from the parties to the dispute or from others with some special knowledge. Similarly, a photograph accompanying a news story will create a sense that the reader has a visual porthole to some element referred to in the story - the scene of conflict, the prize being fought over, one or more of the players involved, and so forth.

This sense of peering directly at events has some truth to it, at least to the degree that quotes and photographs and videotapes are unretouched and unimproved, by the story's creators. But, in the end, these elements are really only more narrative - they are embedded in the verbal narration, explicitly or implicitly referred to by the narration, given their meaning by the narration, and used to illustrate and support the claims of the narration. Like the narration, they are abstracted from the stream of events, cropped and cut; and as with any narrative element, they can be given a different meaning, when other parts of the story are changed. Thus, the same quote can be made to seem to be a lie, a confession, or a disinterested observation, depending on how it is framed or referred to by other parts of the story. And the same series of events can provide very different photographs and quotes, depending on what the journalist chooses to abstract from events, to fit the news account.

In the case of print stories, narration and quotes seem to unfold along a single track, alternating with each other in a linear sequence. If there is a second track, of photographs or illustrations, it is usually spare and consists of one or a few visual elements, next to the verbal narrative.

In the case of television news, things are more complicated. Like print stories, television news is dominated by verbal narration - with journalist narrators, speaking to us directly, so the story unfolds in time as we listen to it, rather than being laid out on a page that we can take in, as a whole, in one or a few glances. When the journalist-narrator appears in video, which alternates with other videos that show elements of the story, it feels as if we are seeing the story unfold on a single track, not unlike print stories, in which narration alternates with quotes.

But here, the narration can also overlap the video, in which case the sound on the video may be reduced or suppressed, so the two elements are presented at the same time, or two pictures can be shown on the same screen, perhaps even with a spoken narration, moving us, so to speak, along two or more tracks at once, which weave around each other and overlap in interesting ways.

There is a far greater sense here than in print stories that the news is providing windows onto the world, allowing us to peer in on events and situations. As in the case of photographs in the print media, this has some truth to it. But, for the most part, once again, all these pictures and words are just more narrative. Whether the videos overlap with the narration or alternate with it, or any combination therein, there is still a constant crossover: it is the spoken narration that gives the pictures and sounds their meaning and these exist to illustrate what is being told in the spoken narration.

So, despite their differences, print and television news have certain similarities in form, although television has more possibilities to play with.* Both narrate a story that unfolds in a sequence, and that sequence often conveys information about one or more other sequences of events, some of which may be shown. Both use quotes from participants, witnesses and experts, any of whom may act as additional narrators, commenting on the story and saying things or adding believability in ways the journalistic narrator can't, not unlike the way an author telling a story will have characters tell parts of the story about other characters, inside the narrative. And both use pictures, although print stories will mostly use verbal descriptions.

In telling their stories, news stories also make use of an important form of point of view, which defines much of what they are. In essence, they allow audiences to see events as a whole, even if it is a whole partly constructed by journalists. News stories are a summary, a synthesis; they convey an illusory sense of omniscience, as if we see some segment of events in their totality, with all the parts brought together, so we can perceive the total pattern, including its meaning.

They create these wholes by describing and showing us events separated from us by time and space - events that are far away; that are blocked by physical barriers; that are too large or small, to slow or fast, for us to see, or that happened in the past. These same objects, places and events are, often, also separated from each other, so the story brings them together and weaves them into a single narrative. News stories similarly use speculation and illustrations, including fabricated computer images, to show us events as they have happened in the past or might be happening elsewhere or might happen in the future, to fulfill this same function of bringing information to us that we could not get otherwise.

And they allow us to understand events separated from us by differences of culture and language. They may even claim to give us a sense of what goes on in the minds of participants, through quotes, paraphrases and speculation. Thus, news allows audiences to peer into places that otherwise would be blocked from view, taking audiences to many locations, on a kind of journey through time and space, as they perpetually explain what events have to do with us and each other.

Putting these characteristics together, it is obvious that news offers a kind of mundane transcendence, allowing us to escape, at least in our thoughts and perceptions, from our physical limits, and surpass the normal obstacles of life. But it does so only to bring all these disparate elements together into the unity of the story. Everything serves the story and it is the story that ultimately conveys this sense of omniscience, by giving what is shown and described a meaning.

Thus, events will be abstracted from the flow of time and arranged in sequences, in and out of actual chronology, in ways designed to tell the story. A television news story, for example, may begin by showing the reporter-performer live, in "real" time. He or she may then introduce a video of a past event; then an illustration of an event in the more distant past and then a video of a more recent event in another part of the world. We are taken for a ride, but, as in roller coaster rides, it is very well orchestrated, and much of the experience is in the interrelation of the different moments.

Similarly, the news story weaves together scenes separated from each other by space; it globe trots, but always reveals how these scenes relate to each other. It shows us these scenes with a number of different kinds of physical perspectives, showing us events from a great distance, so we take it all in in a single gaze; and showing us events at close range or showing us what it is like to be immersed in the events in question. News stories constantly tack back and forth between these perspectives, with a great many gradations in between.

Each time the perspective jumps to a higher level, we lose a degree of detail. The ultimate overview, presumably, is of the known (or possible) universe, which can be provided not only by descriptions but by simulations. Of course, it is almost never provided to audiences, in part, because we have so little detail on it and because it seems to have so little relevance to our lives, given that the details we are centrally concerned with can be found at a level many scales down in magnitude. Views of the earth are similarly uncommon. Relatively common are views of events taken from the air or as if they are taken from the air, showing us events from a certain height, so that much or all of the event can be encompassed in a single scan or gaze. Television does this all the time, giving audiences an aerial view of the disaster or some part of the war, and print does it using photographs. Print and television can also provide maps, models and other renderings, which display the layout and setting of events. And print and television can also provide a description of scenes and settings with words.

In any case, news stories often tack back and forth between overviews and closer range views of events, frequently switching back and forth a number of times in the course of the story, providing audiences with a sense of great freedom and power, as they vicariously sweep in and out of events and gather their meaning. At close range, we are given what the war looks like on the ground: the crumbling cities; the people fleeing on the road; the soldiers dug in to their positions . At times, we seem to see things through the eyes of participants, not unlike the Humphrey Bogart movie that created the illusion audiences were seeing everything through the eyes of the protagonist.

But even here, there is a sense, often conveyed in accompanying narrative, that we are outside looking in, coming in for a sample only so we can appreciate the larger view, like the mythological Greek Gods who appeared in Earthly form but remained in another, higher dimension.

But, ultimately, the ability to offer us a sense of mundane transcendence is made possible by the story. It is the story that gives everything else presented and described its meaning shows the connection between the things. The story creates a framework of meaning, a model, that allows us, to perceive (or believe we perceive) larger situations, and not merely scenes and actions.

This ability to tack back and forth between near and far perspectives, to show the links connecting events across time and space, and to reveal events at great distances, is by no means something limited to news, nor is it something new. Television, film and literature tell their stories the same way, but with fictional events, settings, characters. This ability is ultimately based on basic faculties of cognition and imagination, which do the same things with the ghostlike pictures of the mind. Indeed, an historical study might well trace the emergence of our ability to think in this mode, in texts and pictures. Of course, in all previous ages, story-tellers who were describing actual events were limited by their own lack of mobility. Today, forms of transportation, communications, long distance sensing devices and recording technologies provide a technological infrastructure for our ever-expanding ability to engage in mundane transcendence.

In fact, this ability to engage in mundane transcendence is increasingly becoming a basic mode of everyday existence. Today, it relies on the news media and entertainment, which is to say it relies mostly on television, as well as film, and secondarily on newspapers, magazines and radio. It is also an important feature of computers which will increasingly gives us the ability to choose what we watch, and manipulate the images and perspectives, even as we are connected to a vast network of information. It seems likely that in the not-too-distant future, we will choose our perspective on computer screens as we look at our own homes and property, look at other locations, and view events through new forms of computer news.

It should also be noted that news stories don’t bring together all these elements merely by putting them together in a single story. Rather, they must be artfully woven together into a story, a goal that journalists (and other story tellers) achieve through the use of "connectives." Connectives are devices of both form and medium and content, that are used, as the name implies, to turn various parts into a whole. One kind of connective that is in the realm of content, are all the statements made explaining to audiences and readers what the subject of the story is, that ties all the information together. Some will typically appear at the beginning, which are used to define and delimit the story -- it is about this, but not that -- but stories may have various explanations like this sprinkled throughout. These may also be used to explain the connection of a quote or photograph or illustration to a text. Thus, a caption may be used to explain the connection of a photo to a story. Just before a quote, a transitional sentence may explain that we are about to hear the view of Senator So and So, who represents one side in the ongoing litigation just described. Here, we are viewing efforts to weave a story together, to create a coherent whole, by ensuring that audiences understand the connection between elements.

Another "connective" that provides this sense of continuity for the reader, is simply the use of the same elements - the same events, characters, and so on, this being the actual continuity of the story itself, at least as perceived by the journalist. But, in addition, journalists (and other communicators) also use a degree of verbal artifice to smooth transitions and create a constant bridge. They may start off a sentence with all kinds of "linking" words and phrases, whose primary purpose is to appear to join it to the sentence above it, as in the use of such phrases as: "In any case...," "But...," or "Then again..." The journalist may use same key word in two sequential sentences or use parallel structure in sentences, to create a sense of unity. Quotes may also be chosen (and altered) so that they link up with the earlier narrative, through the repetition of words and subject, without explicitly announcing to the reader that a relevant quote is about to be provided.

Many "straight" news stories may actually be spare in the use of such connective, compared to some other kinds of rhetoric, because they give the audience a pared down account of events, frequently with an austere style. Often, one of the elements we refer to when we say writing is done with style is precisely the use of these elements to smooth the flow and carry the reader along, effortlessly and without sharp breaks that cause the reader to try to figure out what connection one element has to those that have gone before, pulling him or her out of the immersion in the story and the world it creates..

In the case of television, in which communications may take place on more than one track, there are all kinds of possibilities for linking parts. Anchors may provide lead-ins that provide an overall frame, defining what the story is about; spoken words may overlap with the images they describe; similar images may follow each other, and so on, creating a more dynamic linkage that fits the more complex story form possible with the interaction of moving pictures, other visual elements, sounds, and words.

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* Print could interweave two or more tracks, of course, and with the Internet exploring new ways of providing information, some instances of this may become common. But right now, print provides news this way virtually none of the time.

This is also one things that characterizes some of the pages on this site – efforts to create two tracks of words or one of words and one of pictures.


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