Television & Terror: Conflicting Times and the Crisis in News Discourse
Andrew Hoskins and Ben O’Loughlin
The twenty-first century has been seared by a succession of conflicts and disasters that have made demands on and affected journalism and audience alike. Hoskins and O’Loughlin examine how the production of news, its amplification and containment of these events both construct the discourse of news and are informed by it.
The book starts by looking at how the production of news, its rules, and its technology produce an ‘economy of liveness’ and how this modulates terror by both amplifying and containing the representations of threat. Terror is both amplified by the seeming proximity of the event on television, and its simultaneity, it takes place in the present tense and with the rolling news format is reported as it is happening. However, terror is also contained by the device of using media templates, constructing past video extracts, supplemented by new media sources such as mobile phone footage, to imposing a narrative structure to help explain the event.
The authors look at the coverage of Hurricane Katrina noting how journalistic practice determined news sources and how the journalistic need for novelty, and drama resulted in news amplifying the conflict and terror. The construction of devices such as the reporter speaking in the field, the use of split screen, and graphics also contributed to the emphasis on chaos and terror. This is further augmented by the connections made between the hurricane, terrorism and the economic crisis.
In their chapters on the Political Discourse of the Iraq war 2003, the ‘Misremembered and the Unforgotten’ and the Distant Body they examine how the lack of pictures from Iraq of suffering, injury and death contributed to the amplification of terror, in that viewers imagined the outcomes of violence with greater fear. This interestingly provides another argument to the ‘compassion fatigue’ view held by Moeller(1999). However, the containment of terror was also evident in the building of the ‘democratic imperialist’ discourse of the news where the Iraq war was placed in a familiar narrative of an endless struggle against a common enemy starting with 9/11, and leading to the July 7th bombings. The repetition of archive footage and the use of familiar templates to contextualise the July 7th bombings in London, and the conflict in Iraq post 2003, give limited opportunities for a counter discourse to emerge. The devices of speculation and repetition noted in the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, lessens the impact of the event.
As a documentary-maker I found the chapter on 24, Spooks, and The Power of Nightmares interesting in the examination of how the present immediacy of the drama, the pace and lack of reflection had a similar effect as that in news of amplifying terror. However, documentaries which have a much greater production time, can question and demystify some of the assumptions about the War on Terror. The creation of news as an extended present, to keep audiences watching, is used to good effect in 24 and raises questions about the cross-over of formats and use of dramatic devices in news.
The blurring between news and entertainment is illustrated and criticised by many academics, not just these authors, but as a practitioner, it is something that cannot be ignored. If no-one watches the news or documentary, it won’t matter how the piece is constructed or covered. Of course the context and the detail are important, but so too are the dramatic and the visual. The authors describe the news discourse as being ‘in crisis’, possibly a tabloid description itself, but they do not fully clarify what the crisis is, apart from news offering uncertainty and amplifying terror. The coverage of Hurricane Katrina with conflicting reports, different interpretations and immediate confusion, which they write, served to inflate the feeling of crisis and terror, are a representation and witness of what happens in such a crisis. It is the same in a war, one receives different reports, from a variety of people, many seem urgent and one doesn’t know what the over-all picture is. So one reports on what is happening which is chaotic, uncertain and difficult to explain. It is only afterwards that the picture becomes clearer and more context can be given, thus documentaries can offer a different reality.
There is also little alternative given as to how journalists working within the practices described can offer a different reality. The criticism that news is highly dependent on events which are on film or video (which I understand to be archive material) is obvious. What else would they use? In the same way, written accounts of events have been largely dependent on existing written accounts, and written histories. Steve Hewlett writes that new media has been embraced and incorporated into news so strengthening its output (Hewlett 2009). This, with shot footage will form archives for use in the future.
The global stretch of media and new technology offers an exciting challenge for news, but as Hoskins and O’Loughlin clearly show, the devices of speculation and repetition, and the creation of news as dramatic entertainment in an extended present, inflating the probable and offering little context for the actual are practices which any journalist should beware.
Review by Janet Harris, Cardiff University
Hewlett, S. (2009) ‘For TV news, the news isn’t all bad’. British Journalism Review. 20. pp41-46.
Moeller, S.D. (1999) Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, London; Routledge.
© the war and media network, 2009