Notes on the Construction of Reality in TV News Programmes

Daniel Chandler


John Fiske argues that 'theories of news which foreground questions of accuracy, bias, or objectivity are based on an empiricist notion of reality... These questions are, however, important... because they can give insight into the professional ideology of the news makers' (Fiske 1987, p. 282). Note that what Fiske calls empiricist realism is also variously referred to as epistemological or metaphysical realism.
News programmes, which figure high in the ratings, appear to be 'the most real' and least mediated programmes on TV. In Britain and the USA the news on TV is widely seen as more reliable than any other source of news (particularly the BBC). Unlike newspapers, broadcast news programmes (TV and radio) are not supposed to take sides, but are required to present an impartial and balanced summary of significant events. TV also offers apparently raw 'evidence' of events as they happen.
News stories are unavoidably handled from particular points of view. Andrew Goodwin suggests that 'the real issue is whether the range of biases represented is fair. In other words, does it adequately reveal the range of points of view held by the public?' (Goodwin 1990, p. 54). He adds that 'It is quite plausible to believe that all media images are constructed and still maintain that some constructions are more truthful than others. Surely there are competing explanations of social reality, and surely all factual statements are also statements of value... Some explanations receive more attention and validation than others' (ibid., p. 57). John Fiske notes that 'News, of course, can never give a full, accurate objective picture of reality nor should it attempt to, for such an enterprise can only serve to increase its authority and decrease people's opportunity to "argue" with it, to negotiate with it. In a progressive democracy, news should stress its discursive constructedness, should nominate all its voices... and should open its text to invite more producerly reading relations' (ibid., p. 307-8).
Broadcasters emphasize the informational and factual nature of the news: news can be 'gathered', 'uncovered' or 'exposed'. The idea that TV offers 'a window on the world' still seems to be common in the newsroom. I F Stone argues that 'most of the time, objectivity is just the rationale for regurgitating the conventional wisdom of the day' (cited in Curran & Gurevitch 1991, p. 228).
The newsreader is presented as a 'neutral' observer. By reading the scripted news, the newsreader, dressed with sober formality in an orderly studio, and seated behind a desk (which reduces their body language), appears to speak 'the objective discourse of "the truth"' (Fiske 1987, p. 288). Newsreaders have a sense of permanency: they are always there when the programme begins: they are never seen to arrive, and they don't move about duing the programme. And yet we are directed by the newsreader. Our gaze follows the newsreader's gaze when we or she looks off screen. Everything seen seems to support what the newsreader says. Although the content may be far from reassuring, the newsreader's manner is always friendly, reliable and reassuring. The 'tail piece' offers a happy ending. Even the weather presenters have become cheerful figures.
Few events are directly observed by reporters. Most stories are repackaged from secondary sources such as news agencies, press conferences, spokespeople, often with biases intact. Elites are both key sources and key subjects of news. News often reports what prominent people say about events rather than the events themselves: indeed, what such people say may constitute an event in itself: powerful people 'make news'. 'Experts' and 'special correspondents' are also used to comment upon events, a purely stylistic feature which tends to reinforce faith in the status quo - in the basic soundness of existing society - and to favour the point of view of privileged groups. Also, a limited range of individuals are deemed 'newsworthy', appearing regularly. In this sense television identifies an elite group of people, whom it over-represents, whilst 'ordinary' people rarely feature. Less powerful groups are given disproportionate coverage (e.g. women and minorities). Some minority groups are ignored whilst others are portrayed negatively as threats to society (McQuail 1987, p. 194).
Library footage serves to 'authenticate' stories. The 'immediacy' of 'live' TV is also valued for its sense of 'nowness' (of events 'as they happen'), which tends to disguise the constructedness of news.
News programmes are as much of a construction as drama, and have a similar need to attract viewers - to entertain. In the early 1980s the BBC lead its main evening bulletin with an item about the shooting of 'J.R.', a fictional character in the soap opera Dallas.
It is often argued that news has an 'agenda-setting' function. The themes in the news constitute an inexplicit (albeit unconscious) political agenda. By what is omitted as well as what is included newsmakers may influence what we think is important. Certain inexplicit assumptions are also unavoidably built into news programmes, such as that we all want strikes to end, that we oppose 'extremism' and favour 'moderation', and so on. Of course, news viewers (or readers or listeners) do not necessarily think what they're told. However, a correspondence has often been reported between the order of importance which the media give to 'issues' and the order of significance attached to them by the public and by politicians. Whilst this might possibly represent a fair reflection of existing public concerns, it is usually interpreted as suggesting the agenda-setting influence of the newsmakers. The cultivation hypothesis might also lead us to expect that heavy viewers would be most likely to adopt the TV news agendas as their own concerns. The 'agenda-setting hypothesis' is plausible, but the evidence is inconclusive (McQuail 1987, pp. 275-6).

Criteria for inclusion

Obviously news is selective. Stuart Hall notes that 'journalists speak of "the news" as if events select themselves. Further, they speak as if which is the 'most significant' news story, and which 'news angles' are most salient are divinely inspired' (in Schudson 1991, p. 153). The criteria involved are not explicit, or at least not visible to the viewer. Richard Hoggart argued that the most important filter through which news is constructed is 'the cultural air we breathe, the whole ideological atmosphere of our society, which tells us that some things can be said and that others had best not be said' (cited in Schudson 1991, p. 154). Michael Schudson adds that 'that "cultural air" is one that in part, ruling groups and institutions create, but it is in part one in whose social context their own establishment takes place' (ibid.). Schudson continues:
    The cultural air has both a form and content. The content, the substance of taken-for-granted values, has often been discussed. Gans (1979) arrived at a list for American journalism that includes ethnocentrism, altruistic democracy, responsible capitalism, small-town pastoralism, individualism, and moderatism as core, unquestioned values of American news. They are the unquestioned and generally unnoticed background assumptions through which the news is gathered and within which it is framed... By 'form', I refer to assumptions about narrative, storytelling, human interest, and the conventions of photographic [plus televisual] and linguistic presentation that shape the presentation of all of the news the media produce. Weaver (1975) has shown some systematic differences between the inverted-pyramid structure of print news and the 'thematic' structure of television news... Hallin and Mancini (1984) demonstrate in a comparison of television news in Italy and the United States that formal conventions of news reporting often attributed to the technology of television by analysts, or the 'the nature of things' by journalists, in fact stem from features of a country's political culture. All of this work recognizes that news is a form of literature and that one key resource journalists work with is the cultural tradition of storytelling and picture-making and sentence construction they inherit, with a number of vital assumptions about the world built in. (Schudson 1991, p. 154-5)
There is a tendency for there to be a bias towards dominant or consensual values: as if there were a 'middle' way between two 'extremes', and as if this middle way were always right. Stuart Hall suggests that 'The media... tend, faithfully and impartially, to reproduce symbolically the existing structure of power in society's institutional order' (cited in Barrat 1986, p. 101). Justin Lewis argues that TV news 'favours ans sustains the hegemony of those with power.'
    In countries like Britain or the United States, this means the ideas promoted on TV news tend to fall somewhere between the status quo and the political right, with a few occasional bursts of liberalism thrown in. Ideas that subvert the existing power structure (usually somewhere on the political left) are, on the whole, either ignored or treated as a problem. This is not a conspiracy (although we should not pretend conspiracies never happen), but a prodict of an elaborate and disparate array of social and semiotic deteminations. (Lewis 1991, p. 124)
Hall argues that over time, news actually creates the 'consensus' knowledge by which reporters and viewers recognize 'newsworthiness' (McQuail 1987, p. 205).
'What is absent from the text of the news, but present as a powerful force in its reading, are [sic] the unspoken assumptions that life [in our own society] is ordinarily smooth-running, rule- and law-abiding, and harmonious. These norms are of course prescriptive rather than descriptive, that is, they embody the sense of what our social life ought to be rather than what it is, and in doing this they embody the ideology of the dominant classes' (Fiske 1987, p. 284).
'Negative events in another part of the world do not bear the same relationship to these norms and are therefore read differently. Third World countries, are, for example, conventionally represented in western news as places of famines and natural disaster, of social revolution, and of political corruption. These events are not seen as disrupting their social norms, but as confirming ours, confirming our dominant sense that western demoncracies provide the basics of life for everyone, are stable, and fairly and honestly governed' (Fiske 1987, p. 285). Ethnocentric bias is evident in the portrayal of countries which are culturally, economically or politically close, regardless of size or proximity (McQuail 1987, p. 194). There is indeed a general bias in favour of things 'close to home'. The so-called 'McLurg's Law', named after a legendary British news editor, is that 1 dead Briton is worth 5 dead Frenchmen, 20 dead Egyptians, 500 dead Indians and 1000 dead Chinese.
Recency is obviously a key criterion, contributing to the idea that the TV news is up-to-the-minute. This is a key application of new technology.
Genre-related factors strongly influence the selection of items. News stories are categorized into broad types - placed into interpretive frames. News is divided into categories such as: politics, the economy, foreign affairs, domestic news (including both stories of conflict and crime and human-interest stories), occasional stories, and sport. Such categories are used both to structure stories and to structure the programme by grouping them. For instance, British news programmes always seem to at least one overseas story and usually a sports story.
Events which are likely to turn into or contribute to a long-running 'drama' are favoured. However, being sudden, unexpected or violent can also make events more newsworthy. There is thus an over-representation of untypical events in the news: everyday realities are not news; crime is strongly over-represented. Important but gradual social changes are less likely to feature than stories in which daily events are obvious: what Galtung and Ruge call 'event orientation' leads to a neglect of background circumstances. Reporters tend to be more interested in events than causes. Strikes and riots thus tend to seem sudden and irrational.
Logistical considerations are important. The availability of personnel, of sources or of visuals, or budget limitations play a part in whether a story appears. A story which is easy to obtain and report may be more likely to be reported than others. Regular events are thus anticipated and routinely reported. Investment in reporting an anticipated event may even lead to what turns out to be a non-event becoming a reported story. The concentration of the world's news agencies in the West also leads to superficial treatment of Third World events.
Stories with more potential for dramatic conflict are also more likely to appear; many 'news stories' are interpreted in terms of conflict anyway, since this is more dramatically interesting. There is thus a bias in favour of 'bad news', a featuring of negativity. Like drama, the news does tell a story. On landing in the (Belgian) Congo during its evacuation, an American journalist rushed over to a group of white women asking, 'Has anyone here been raped, and speaks English?'. As Fiske comments 'His story had been "written" before landing, all he needed was a few local details' (Fiske 1987, p. 283). Tail-piece items (often 'human interest' items) may have little news value at all, but are featured to fill the formal function of 'ending on a lighter (perhaps humorous) note'.
The ordering and duration of items reflects the importance which newsmakers ascribe to them. The format of news programmes is thus strongly hierarchical.
Some stories are likely to appear prinarily because there is a slot for them in the conventional generic template; others may not appear because they do not fit neatly into an obvious slot. Chibnall argues that 'Instead of aiding his audience to come to terms with old realities in new ways, the journalist now tends to help his audience come to terms with new realities in old ways' (cited in Barrat 1986, p. 101). Fiske also points out that compartmentalizing social life tends to encourage 'solutions' which lie within the categorial frame and 'discourages any critical interrogation of the the larger social structure' (Fiske 1987, p. 287).
However, news items are not simply selected but are actively constructed.


In TV fiction speakers do not directly address the viewer by looking at the camera (except when the convention is flouted for dramatic effect). But in TV news programmes the newsreaders always do so. John Hartley notes that '[apparent] eye-contact alone establishes an I/you axis between newsreader and viewer, without, apparently, any unwanted editorializing interventions' (Hartley 1992, p. 77). What has been called 'a respectful Medium Close Up' of the newsreader is used for most of the programme (Taylor & Mullan 1986, p. 91).
Hartley (1992, p. 77) notes that although there is a technical distinction in filmed fiction between 'point of view' (p.o.v.) shots (those from a particular character's visual point of view) and 'neutral' shots, 'all shots have a point of view' (ibid., p. 78). 'The news also constructs an imaginary viewer, positioned as it were behind the camera... All the people who are seen, and all the textual deployments of sound, picture and sequence, are subordinate to the imaginary viewer, who thus takes the place of the omniscient author/narrator of realist novels' (ibid., p. 78). 'News has to be impartial; that is, it must narrate events without a point of view. Since that is impossible, there is a contradiction between (required) impartiality and (unavoidable) point of view' (ibid., p. 78).


Fiske notes the attempt at seamlessness: 'In news or current affairs programmes location interviews are normally shot with a single camera trained on to the interviewee. After the interview is finished, the camera is then turned onto the interviewer who asks some of the questions again and gives a series of "noddies", that is, reaction shots, nods, smiles, or expressions of sympathetic listening. These are used to disguise later edits in the interviewee's speecg. When a section of this speech is edited out, the cut is disguised by inserting a "noddy", thus hiding the fact that any editing of the speaker's words has occurred. Without the "noddy", the visuals would show an obvious "jump" that would reveal the edit' (Fiske 1987, p. 29).
Location shots are typically accompanied by voice-over commentary.


News programmes tell 'stories'. Gaye Tuchman noted that 'to say that a report is a story, no more, but no less, is not to demean news, nor to accuse it of being fictitious. Rather, it alerts us that news, like all public documents, is a constructed reality possessing its own internal validity' (in Schudson 1991, p. 141). News stories tend 'to be cast in the form of a narrative, with principal and minor actors, connected sequence, heroes and villains, beginning, middle and end, signalling of dramatic turns, a reliance on familiar plots' (McQuail 1987, p. 206). Fiske argues that just like a sitcom or a cop show, the basic structure of a television news story follows Todorov's outline of narrative structure in terms of the disruption of a state of equilibrium and an eventual return to either a similar of identical state of equilibrium. Fiske notes that such a form is 'reactionary or conservative' (Fiske 1987, p. 293). However, Justin Lewis argues that the structure of TV news in fact abandons narrative, owing its structure primarily to print. A TV news item begins, like a newspaper item, with the 'main point' whereas narrative leaves this until the end. The fragmented structure of TV news 'bears more resemblance to a shopping list than a story' (Lewis 1991, p. 131).
Stuart Hall argues that the form of news stories may be more important than the content:
    Those stories, or rather those ways of teling the stories, write the journalists. The stories are already largely written for them before the journalists take fingers to typewriters or pen to paper... Let me make the point that if you tell a story in a particular way you often activate meaning which seem almost to belong to the stock of stories themselves. I mean you could tell the most dramatic story, the most graphic and terrible account of an event; but if you construct it as a children's story you have to fight very hard not to wind up with a good ending. In that sense those meanings are already concealed or held within the forms of the stories themselves. Form is much more important than the old distinction between form and content. We used to think form was like an empty box, and its really what you put into it that matters. But we are aware now that the form is actually part of the content of what it is that you are saying. (cited in Fiske 1987, p. 293)
'News is largely about "the masculine" and aimed at a male audience, so it is hardly surprising that news stories are structured to provide a point of narrative closure that approximates that of masculine fictional narrative. News stories have to impose a closure upon the openness of ongoing events' (Fiske 1987, p. 284). However, 'with most news stories the point of closure... [is] formal and temporary... conflict is always left unresolved and ready to disrupt the fragile equilibrium once again' (ibid., p. 307). 'There will always be more terrorists, more political conferences, more murders, more disasters, more kittens in trees' (ibid., p. 145). What the endless repetition of the form suggests is the shape of the dilemma (e.g. conflict between opposing poles).
It has been argued that TV news tends to be 'tighter' and more 'closed' than documentary and drama programmes (McQuail 1987, p. 203).
'Segmentation' is a feature of TV programming. News items form segments somewhat like advertisements. Such segments are disconnected fragments and offer little history or explanation of causes or processes.
News programmes have what semioticians call a 'metonymic' structure. Discrete items are presented as 'the news'. Simple images are made to stand for complex issues.
News stories are heavily people-centred. Events are reported largely in terms of who said or did what rather than in terms of processes or community movements. Johna Galtung and Mari Ruge offer several possible reasons: one is Western individualism; another is the nature of story-telling, with its need for 'identification'; and there is the 'frequency factor' - people act within a 24-hour time-span that matches the frequency of the daily news (cited in Schudson 199, p. 153). A further possibility is a universal feature of human perception: what psychologists call the 'fundamental attribution error' in human thinking (attributing to individuals responsibility for causation that might be better atributed to background or large-scale trends or structures). But some have suggested that programme makers assume that 'ordinary' viewers can only understand abstractions when they are personalized.


Individuals ('scroungers', 'terrorists') and events ('muggings' or 'child abuse') are labelled in stereotypical terms to make the stories easier to tell. Such labelling favours one-sided ways of looking at people and events. In capitalist news programmes, trade unions are typically presented as 'demanding' whereas management 'offers' (Fiske 1987, p. 285). 'We' are clearly the management; 'they' are the unions. Labelled events can then become part of familiar myths: as yet another example of 'the declining moral standards of the young' or of 'the extremism of Islamic fundamentalists'. Stories are thus placed on what Stuart Hall calls a 'cultural map of meaning' (cited in Barrat 1986, p. 100).


John Fiske notes that 'All television channels or networks use an early evening news programme to lead into their prime-time schedules. his is designed to draw the male of the household into the TV audience... though it often ends with a "softer" item that is intended to bring the female back into the audience. It is typically followed by a softer news magazine programme, often of local as opposed to national interest, which is designed to appeal to women and to consolidate the family audience in front of the set for the prime-time, prime-profit advertisements that are to be wedged apart by programmes for the next two or three hours' (Fiske 1987, p. 281).
As a source of information about the world surveys suggest that television has been ahead of newspapers and other sources since the 1960s in the USA. In 1987 percentages citing each were: television 66%; newspapers 36%; radio 14%; magazines and people 4% each (with multiple responses). 50% cited television as their only source. As to which they would be more likely to believe, television has led since 1961: the figures for 1987 were: television 55%; newspapers 21%; magazine 7%; radio 6% (Anderson & Meyer 1988, pp. 243-4).
Asked the next day, news viewers can recall on average about 2 items in 8, and our comprehension is not much better (Taylor & Mullan 1986, p. 91). Justin Lewis argues that the fragmented structure of news 'forces viewers to draw more actively upon their own ideological resources to make sense of what is going on', but he found that few viewers are very good at doing this with news programmes. He finds the style of these programmes to be at fault.
    Television news... does not offer the viewer a coherent vision based on historical connections; it deals in a series of disparate associations. As long as these associations appear to float above the ebb and flow of historical reality, they are immune from the contradictions it may expose. Cultivation analysis has produced evidence that appears to confirm this analysis. A detailed examination of attitudinal data suggests that the more TV we watch, the more we are able to hold contradictory ideas simultaneously. (Lewis 1991, p. 156)


  • Anderson, James A & Timothy P Meyer (1988): Mediated Communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage
  • Curran, James & Michael Gurevitch (Eds.) (1991): Mass Media And Society. London: Edward Arnold
  • Fiske, John (1987): Television Culture. London: Routledge
  • Goodwin, Andrew (1990): 'TV News - Striking the Right Balance?' in Andrew Goodwin & Garry Whannel (Eds.) (1990): Understanding Television. London: Routledge
  • Hartley, John (1982): Understanding News. London: Methuen
  • Hartley, John (1992): Tele-ology: Studies In Television. London: Routledge
  • Lewis, Justin (1991): The Ideological Octopus: An Exploration Of Television And Its Audience. London: Routledge
  • McQuail, Denis (1987): Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction (2nd edn.). London: Sage
  • Schudson, Michael (1991): 'The Sociology of News Production Revisisted'. In Curran & Gurevitch (Eds.), op. cit.
  • Taylor, Laurie & Bob Mullan (1986): Uninvited Guests. London: Chatto & Windus


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