Example Media Essay

Does Popular Journalism Reach Out or Dumb Down?


The news media has a responsibility to be objective, a responsibility it is often criticised for overlooking. Likewise the mass the media, with its huge audience, has an opportunity to educate - this is not to say that commercial television should fill its schedules with GCSE Bitesize revision programmes, but that there is much to learn through great writing, great acting and great comedy, that these are popular art-forms. Most mass media products do not seize this opportunity. Instead, a trend of pandering to the (perceived) base pleasures of certain mass markets is, more often than not, apparent, a trend that can be seen to reinforce stereotypes - an idea I will explore in this essay.

The real question then is: does the media reach out by dumbing down, or does it pander and condescend to its audience? In answering this question I intend to examine the ascendance of reality television since the late 1990s and question why such programmes came to prominence, and to analyse the differing approaches of various news products in their selection and presentation of the news and how this can relate to the notion of dumbing down.

The often criticised emergence of reality television came about in the late 1990s as a way of cutting down production costs whilst increasing output. With its stylistic roots in the documentary format but based on the concept of reality TV, the docu-soap came to prominence, and notoriety, with the unexpected successes of shows such as Driving School, Airport and Fairground, which followed members of the public as they went about their jobs and their everyday lives. The 'stars' of the shows often went on to enjoy minor, short-lived celebrity status, releasing pop records and guesting on other shows.

The unexpected success of the programmes opened the door to mass production, and a spate of copycat shows flooded both terrestrial and subscription channels - Sky One was notable for its successful Ibiza Uncovered series, following holiday-makers in the hugely popular club-based Ibiza night-life, which spawned countless Uncovered sequels. This was a dream come true for broadcasters, who had stumbled upon the scheduler's Holy Grail - a format that was cheap, popular, and quick to produce. The use of 'real people' cut out the roles - and the fees - of writer and actor, as well as the valuable production time taken up by the writing and rehearsing process. They also cut equipment costs by the use of natural lighting and documentary style single camera format. Therefore high volumes of programmes could be churned out for little money, in little time.

The criticism which arose against the docu-soap phenomenon centred upon the flimsy content of the shows, the canonisation of trivial incidents, the lack of narrative, and the lack of any documentary-style insight into the lives of the protagonists. Many of the shows tended to make unwitting fools of its stars. Others would take the most trivial elements of its stars' jobs - say, a routine check of an aeroplane toilet by a member of flight staff - and make it a central narrative of the show.

However what was perhaps particularly galling was that all of the terrestrial channels would pounce so fervently upon the fad. Of course any broadcaster has a lower end of entertainment, cheaper shows with lower production values than its flagship products, made quickly and cheaply to bulk out the schedule - but the docu-soap managed to find itself straddled across the channels in prime-time slots, as well as bulking out daytime schedules. For the BBC in particular, who have such a proud history of incendiary documentary film-making and social realism - this is the channel that screened Cathy Come Home (Ken Loach, 1966) - this seemed to reflect far too great a willing to sacrifice standards of content.

But in their presentation of real people in their real lives, were the docu-soaps 'reaching out' to the viewing public? It could be argued that the shows reflected their audience, that they made stars out of the viewing public, turned everyday events into prime-time viewing, took genuine events from genuine lives and put on screen, and thus reflected the social realities of its audiences to a greater degree than ever before.

However the stars of these shows were not comic characters penned for a cheap sitcom, they were human beings, with pasts, and families, tragedies, hopes, futures - but that's not how they were presented. To the viewer, they were clowns and stooges, caricatures. The tools of the programmes may have been founded in reality, but the sum of the parts was as stripped down and simplistic as journalism can get. The plot of an episode of Airport: a member of staff going about his job. The point: mild amusement at his expense. And with the elimination of the creative process, the value of cheap, mild amusement at the expense of an unwitting stooge is hard to quantify. In truth, the shows had little more than stylistics in common with documentary.

And yet their effect is great. Whilst the docu-soap fad may have petered out, their influence can still be seen in the more recent popularity of reality antique and property make-over shows, and through its canonisation of members of the public, can even be seen to have paved the way for shows such as Big Brother and The X Factor, the new royalty of reality television.

This is a reality of the digital revolution. Products such as Freeview, Sky and ITV digital compete partly on the promise of more channels with greater choice than their rivals. More channels means more shows must be put in production, and unless the company wishes to go bankrupt, that means lower production values, less experienced talent both on and off screen, and more copycat shows - antique shows, reality shows, re-runs, and repeat showings. This leads to less experienced people making cheaper shows, and spreading them over a wider array of channels.

So we can see that the dumbing down of commercial television in the wake of the digital revolution is rooted not in the value system of the entertainment industry but in the economic reality of it. Writing talent, acting talent, directing talent, production values – all these elements cost both money and time, and when cheaply and quickly produced products are just as popular, the talent becomes expendable.

So what about the broadcast news, has it also undergone a process of dumbing down? Firstly, it is important to remember the role of humanity in news reportage. For example, what constitutes a news 'event'? Is a motorway pile-up the event of the crash or the aftermath of it? Is the 'event' of a political speech the content of the speech or the reaction to it? Journalism relies on journalists, who rely on their own skills of interpretation, and it is generally accepted that every potential news story is judged on a certain set of 'news values'. One of the most recognised interpretations of these values was made by Johan Galtung and Marie Holmboe Ruge in 1965. They identified eleven distinct values:

This process is merely a reality of news reportage: not every event that happens in the world can be covered, and so events must be judged on their 'importance'. However problems can arise when this intangible 'importance' becomes linked not to theoretical values, but to the perceived values of a generalised target audience. In a News night investigation into the process of selecting stories for news coverage (screened in October 1999, BBC 2), a journalist from the News Of The World told the film crew that a story about white youths dying from drugs sold to them by a black man was more likely to be reported by their newspaper than a story about black youths dying from drugs sold to them by a white man.

This is based on the assumption by the newspaper that their audience is not interested in the problems of drug culture affecting the black community, whereas the representation of non-whites selling drugs to white youths reinforces racial stereotypes, and as such are more appealing, less challenging, and provide a greater sales guarantee. This is not just dumbing down, it is systemised media bias; it is a news service that bases its reportage on reinforcing stereotypical values of a massively generalised target audience in order to maintain circulation, and hence, profit. Even if the News Of The World have judged their audience correctly, it speaks of a worrying cycle of ignorance - if their audience members characterise non-whites as detrimental to whites, and their news reinforces this, how can they be expected to change their views?

So we can see that journalistic practice runs into serious problems when it considers its target audience in its methods of reportage. This is a particular problem for commercial television stations, who garner almost all their profits from advertising sales - sales which rely on the selling of a target market, one which is shared by the channel and its potential advertisers. What then happens if a certain news story does not appeal to a news product's target market - is it tailored to be more attractive? Is it left out altogether? If the news product does not suit its target market, ratings drop, and advertisers pull out. ITV is a channel which survives on accessibility, so if its news is not accessible, does not reflect the tone and style of the rest of its programming, it risks losing viewers.

Let us examine the coverage of the first annual May Day protests in London. In May 2000 Trafalgar Square was occupied by members of the anti-globalisation protest group Reclaim the Streets, in protest against the practices of multinational corporations and the climate of brand power. As the demonstrations went on, a small minority of vandals along for the ride embarked on a low-scale wave of petty violence, which was denounced by RTS as contrary to their values.

RTS are a young political group, tapping into the youth culture trends of anti-capitalism and the deification of counterculture. Looking at the scenes of the protestors, they were young men and women, almost to a head in the 18-25 age group. The only terrestrial news channel to give any air-time to a member of Reclaim The Streets, or to even mention their name, was Channel 4 - the channel whose programming is aimed at the youth market to a greater degree than the others - in fact a channel who is contradictorily required to be 'alternative'. The BBC news focused on the graffiti tagging of the Cenotaph, and ITV news focused on the small-scale vandalism and violence incited by a small minority of "protestors" who had crashed the party. Both news products characterised the protestors as 'anarchists' and 'rioters' (true of just a tiny minority). In this case, it is not hard to see how each news product's target audience affected the reporting of the event. On the other hand, 'Select', an alternative music magazine, ran a 12 page special on the inspiration behind the protests, the base of the issues at the heart of Reclaim the Streets, and interviewed popular protagonists of the anti-capitalist sub-culture - comedian Mark Thomas and theorist Naomi Klein.

This does not necessarily suggest a greater moral credibility on the part of 'Select', but simply that they were in a position to make such a report. The style and tone fitted in perfectly with their target market, and the piece also ran interviews with various alternative musicians, such as Zack De La Rocha of politically outspoken anti-capitalist funk-rock group Rage Against The Machine. So whilst all of the terrestrial television news programmes can be seen to be dumbing down the event, it would be more accurate to say that they were catering their product to the perceived expectations of their target market, and 'Select' did exactly the same. It is hard to see the BBC devoting 10 minutes of a 30 minutes broadcast to a history of anti-capitalist theory and demonstration, but on the other hand this is a channel that recently gave prime-time half-hour debates to the leaders of the three major political parties in the run-up to the general election. 'Select' gave comprehensive coverage to the history of RTS and the theory behind the demonstration, but they may not have given so many column inches to, for instance, a pro-hunting group. Their coverage may have been more in depth and comprehensive on the May Day protests, but in the same way as the BBC and Channel 4, they covered what would sell.

So then we can see that 'dumbing down', within news reporting at least, perhaps has less to do with appealing to the lowest common denominator and more to do with appealing to a target audience. This can be seen to be a rather exclusive approach - appealing to a particular, and generalised, target audience excludes audience members who do not ascribe to the values of the target audience, and in this way we can see how popular news reinforces social stereotypes. It is, for instance, a rather galling assumption that a viewer of the BBC news is less interested in the motivations behind a political demonstration from a peaceful political group (who denounced the small-scale vandalism of a small minority as being contrary to their protest - at least they did when given air-time), than a stereotyped representation of anarchic youths run amok.