New Internationalist

Watch Your Language

Issue 119

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TELEVISION [image, unknown] A creator of meanings

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Watch your language
Television appears realistic; its news programmes look like the world around us. But, as John Hartley explains, the TV screen is not as transparent as it seems. Television has a language all of its own— and it is this that determines what the programmes say.

OUR clothes, our buildings, our ways of cooking all say something about us. They indicate our nationality or our cultural identity. We use them, in effect, as forms of language.

The mass media too can be understood and analysed as languages — television. cinema, advertising or magazines. This may be less obvious since in addition they use particular spoken languages like English or French to reach us. But the individual forms that these media take, the way that their messages are structured, can also be seen as based on the model of spoken language.

In speech the words themselves are completely arbitrary. If we want to talk about a tree, for example, there is nothing tree-like in the word that we choose to signify it. Different languages use completely different, but equally arbitrary, words — 'arbre' in French, 'tree' in English.

The first point to make about the language of television is that its 'words' too are completely arbitrary. We might not expect this given that the words here are mostly images— and therefore supposedly realistic. The meanings, however, are arbitrarily chosen. A televised tree, for example, could come across in all sorts of ways. It could be a spreading oak accompanied by gentle birdsong, or it could have the wind whistling through its leaves on a dark night. The same tree can prompt completely different meanings.

The images on the screen only appear to be realistic because we think they are. We do actually know that you can't fit a tree into that box in the corner of the room. All the realism is the result of technique - of the way the pictures are selected, coloured, framed, lit — of all the conventions covering fact and fiction.

The long-running British soap-opera, Coronation Street, for example, has now built a full-size set of the street out of doors -so they can have exterior shots that match the studio interiors. It is no more real than it ever was. But it now seems much more realistic.

The effect of realism is produced by the tricks of the trade - the long-shots, tilts, pans. zooms — and in the way that the sequences are edited. If we see a long-shot of someone walking down the street, followed by a closeup of the face of someone, also walking, we will assume, from the convention, that it is the same person. All of this is based on our habituated recognition of such things as realistic.

Television will, as far as possible, stay within a limited set of such conventions and formulae and it will encourage us not to pay attention to its techniques. If we want to settle back and be entertained we must do so on its terms. We must concede that all its clever and expensive devices aren't really there: that we're looking straight through the screen to the real world beyond.

It does this by excluding anything that doesn't fit into its own codes. In a documentary about India, for example, the sound recordist with his Western dress and microphone is systematically excluded from the screen because this does not fit the picture of village life that is being created.

The television picture is not the real world; it is a form of language, as arbitrary' as any other - and it actively creates meanings. To see more precisely how it does this, it is useful to go back to the model of the spoken word. A language produces meaning by having a set of elements -the words - which can be recognised as distinct from one another. 'Tree' is a different word from 'bird'. The meaning is produced when you put the words together; meaning is based on difference or opposition.

Television similarly produces meaning through contrasting images - a starving child in Africa. say, and a well-stocked Western supermarket. The meaning depends not on the images themselves but on the relationship between them and in this case the meaning would be concerned with callous indifference rather than specifically with children or supermarkets.

The sharpest image contrast that we can have is when the ideas being presented are equivalent but exactly opposite: in spoken language this would correspond to pairs like 'good and bad' or 'black and white'. This kind of pairing is called a 'binary'.

Television makes a lot of use of the binary. In a study of news broadcasts, for example, I found that the presentation of the hard news was based on the binary 'us and them' - so whatever the item. it had much the same meaning as all the others.

In a dispute over the pay of hospital workers, for example, 'us' were the hospital patients, 'decent' workers and the government and 'them' were the strikers seen as the irresponsible minority. It was the choice of binary that determined the TV meaning, rather than the raw event itself. An entirely different meaning would have been created with a different binary pair such as management: workers. But this story was interpreted not as an industrial dispute but as a political one.

Television fiction works on much the same principle. The most characteristic genre is the police series- not because the police play such a central role in the real world, but because they are a convenient way of creating meaning based on the binary, police criminal.

The crime series does indeed explore the relations between these two, but it also goes far beyond. For the struggle between police and criminals is also a ritual enactment of the struggle between a society's esteemed central values and all the deviant foreign ones.

The central values are personified by our heroes, whom we get to know and care about week by week and from whose perspective we look at the given fictive world- Kojak, for example, or the star of the American series Magnum.

Their struggle with crime is, of course, a violent one. Various combinations of white, male, youthful, attractive, middle- class compatriots will shoot, maim, punch, or otherwise dispose of, the non-white, female, old, repulsive, inefficient, non-middle-class foreigner.

But where do all these opposed categories of people come from? We are given the impression that they are somehow natural - a part of the real world - while in fact they are produced by the structure of the TV language.

This happens with spoken language too. When we apply a label to someone as being 'old', say, we immediately start to isolate them and limit them. This is done intentionally, to simplify things. Any language must, if it is to make sense of its chosen categories at all, try to destroy the areas of overlap between them.

In the TV crime series the areas of overlap between values are usually destroyed by violence. Almost all TV violence is between strangers who are bearers of different values. The violence pushes them apart; it creates opposites out of the otherwise ambiguous and unstructured flux of daily life.

The same thing happens in news programmes. Conflict and war are forever in the news and you would get the impression from this that the world is a very violent place. But it is the news presenters who are selecting conflicts in order to sharpen and define the categories they wish to work with. The usual justification for the excessive coverage of war and violence on the news is that this is what the real world is like. But, in reality, TV is very selective in the conflicts that it deals with. It chooses the ones which suit the meaning that it wishes to create.

There have been wars in East Timor and Chad which have gone unreported for years because they don't break down easily into the right categories— and therefore TV can make no sense of them. One Polish striker being manhandled in Warsaw, however, is a useful representation of 'us' in the struggle against totalitarian communism, so he immediately takes the spotlight.

But while it is easy for CBC in Canada, say, to ignore a war in East Timor that does not fit into its sense-making categories, it is much more difficult to ignore important local issues that similarly refuse to be broken down in this way.

The problem is particularly acute when they are working with the 'us and them' way of looking at things. 'Us' is usually taken to mean all the members of the nation and involves the idea of a free, consensual society. 'Them' are generally totalitarian foreign dictatorships. Naturally such foreign unfree societies will have dissidents: equally naturally (according to the logic of binary oppositions) it would be unthinkable for us to have dissidents.

So how does television cope with real and sharp conflicts in our own societies - with regional, class, or racial disputes? Well, if they don't fit into its own categories, if they don't make sense in those terms, the solution is to present such conflicts as 'senseless'.

To do this it will present them as resulting from an unnatural disorder or a sickness. Coverage of an industrial dispute, for example, will concentrate on any violence and disorder at the factory gates rather than on the real issues under dispute. And a person with very radically different political opinions - like Tony Benn of the British Labour Party - will have his character as a deviant explored. We will get the message that he is bloody-minded, mad or malicious. rather than have it precisely explained what his views are.

Political conflict in a society pre-defined as consensual is an affront to logic, the problem, however, is seen to lie with those who protest rather than with the consensual definition that produces the meaning,

Television, like any language, produces meaning rather than simply finding it in the real world. And you can produce as much meaning with Kojak or Cannon as you can with a news bulletin; the careful distinctions between fact and fiction are more apparent than real. So it is no use demanding that we have fair, impartial, realistic, television. All we can have is contending ways of making sense.

The question is: whose ways of making sense shall we allow to be transmitted?

John Hartley is a lecturer in Mass Communications at the polytechnic
of Wales, UK, and author of Understanding News (Methuen).

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