Wednesday, August 12, 2015

". . . editing the film to fit the story line." Or Why We're Seeing So Many Stories About White Cops Killing Black Men Now

Edward Jay Epstein's News From Nowhere was published in 1973.  In it he outlined how news at television networks got made.  It's a great book that looks at the structure of the networks and how that structure and the technical requirements at the time shaped what people saw each night as "the

Despite its age and the many changes in video and in media delivery systems, it's still worth reading because of the organized insight he offers about news production (in the most literal sense.)

And this year, as stories about white police officers shooting unarmed black men started showing up almost weekly, I thought back to this book and how it explained that 'the news' is based on a pre-determined storyline.  Clearly, police harassment of African-Americans has been taking place for a long, long time.  The Phrase Finder traces the official media debut of the term "Driving While Black" to 1990.
"The term came to public view in the 1990s, although the reports of the police tactic date from long before that. In May 1990 The New York Times included a piece with this line:
'We get arrested for D.W.B... You know, driving while black.' "
I remember being at a conference in Florida back in the 1990's and asking a black professor who had been a classmate at USC about why he was dressed in a suit and tie when most of us were less formal.  He replied that his clothing was an attempt to mitigate problems when he was stopped by the police - particularly when in the South.  Wearing a suit and tie might increase the odds that the police would let him go without anything serious happening. 

Epstein has a section called "The Story Line" in Chapter 5:  The Resurrection of Reality.
"More than fifty years ago Walter Lippmann suggested that newspaper reporting was in large part a process of filling out an established 'repertory of stereotypes' with current news.  In a similar way, network news is involved with illustrating a limited repertory of story lines with appropriate pictures.  One NBC commentator, Sander Vanocur, observed that 'network news is a continuous loop:  there are only a limited number of plots - 'Black versus White,'  'War is Hell,' 'America is falling apart,' 'Man against the elements,' 'The Generation Gap,' etc. - which we seem to be constantly redoing with different casts of characters."  Many of the correspondents interviewed complained about the need to fit news developments into developed molds or formulas, and to order stories along predetermined lines;  at the same time, most accepted it as a practical necessity." [emphasis added.]

He  explains that, in part, this is due to having to coordinate so many different people - reporters, cameramen, sound men, writers, etc.  There needs to be some common idea of what the story will be.  It's necessary
"that there be a stable set of expectations of what constitutes a proper story.  Moreover, producers generally assume that a given audience will have certain preferences in terms of both the form and the content of news stories.  "Every program has certain requirements and guidelines for its filmed reports," an ABC executive explained.  "Eventually these might harden into formulas and clichéd plots, but when they fail to hold the audiences' attention, the producer or the program is usually changed."
So, I'm guessing that until now, the 'white cop kills unarmed black man' story line was in competition with the 'cops are good, cops are honest and trustworthy' story line.  But with cameras on phones and with anyone being able to post on YouTube, there was finally footage available with the new story line that got a big audience that the mainstream news media (no longer just the networks) couldn't ignore.  And the media then caught up.

But some things seem not to have changed that much.  Epstein writes that most pieces are 'sound' pieces such as speeches, testimony, press conferences.  However,
"there is also a category of stories mainly concerned with visual action, such as riots, demonstrations and disasters, in which the pictures need not be synchronized with words spoken at the time.  In the case of these action stories, the establishing footage becomes the story itself, with the simple addition of a voice-over narration.  In these stories, cameramen are usually given free rein and are expected to seek out the most violent or exciting moments of the event.  One NBC cameraman explained, "What the producers want on the film is as much blood and violence as we can find.  That's the name of the game, and every cameraman knows it."  Robert MacNeil claimed in his book that cameramen in Vietnam at the height of the war were ordered by the networks to "shoot bloody" - and this produced a strong focus on military action at the expense of the less visible political considerations."
There's a lot more in News From Nowhere that explains how the structure of the news industry shapes the stories that the networks aired.   We all know, vaguely, that the news is managed, but this book spells out quite clearly how it was done, at least 1970s style. 

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