News as a TV genre
At some point on weeknights, many families around Australia sit down to watch the news. “The news” is in itself a very loaded term. The myth of “the news” is that ultimately it represents the facts; that it consists of a team of journalists who go out and report on various issues, and then convey what they have reported to the viewers/readers. However it is becoming more and more apparent that this is not always the case.
The news programmers do their best to make the show seem unbiased; as merely a vehicle to relay “the facts” about current events to the viewer. They give this impression through consistent stylistic techniques; for example, by having the anchor talk directly to the audience in a reasoned, authoritative tone, or through their seemingly god-like access to accident footage (how is it that they always get to the scene in time to film the woman being carted away to hospital?)
There is also a reliable structure to the news that is consistent over most stations – something like; breaking news, then general news, then minor news, then human interest stories, then weather and sport. (There are of course different news formats, including comedy news, such as The Chaser, or current affairs programs such as Today Tonight which in their own unique ways contribute to the news genre. However these formats are certainly less respected, and aren’t considered by general television watchers as “the news”.)
The problem with these consistent formal elements is that in a way they serve to trick the viewer into trusting the news program as an impartial authority rather than as one fallible source of information. The consistent use of these formal techniques across all stations in many countries gives the news as a genre a kind of leg up over other forms of communication, as people recognise these formal elements as a sign of authority or an adherence to professional journalism (which is not always the case). When the news program does in fact have an agenda; this manipulates the viewership; who have a preconceived notion of the news as a fair, unbiased source of facts.
In Australia, there are five major stations providing a news service. Channels 7, 9 and 10 seem to have a similar style of news programming, whereas ABC and SBS present themselves and are perceived a little differently. The first three have a stronger emphasis on star-power, ratings (obvious after the “Shit Happens” controversy) celebrity gossip, human interest stories and occasionally biased reporting. On the other hand, ABC and SBS are more respected as news services by liberal minded people by having a serious, professional tone and appearance, a relatively impartial voice and a stronger emphasis on world news.
All five stations however use the tried and true formal techniques used again and again by the television news genre – clearly signifying them as a “news program”, giving them all an air of authority. Despite some clear biased programming in Australian news, I wouldn’t go so far as saying that channels 7, 9 and 10 blatantly misuse their power as a “news station” to manipulate viewers to a particular political agenda (leave that to the Herald Sun.) This manipulation is subtler, such as through negative broadcasting surrounding the mining tax and then the carbon tax, rather than by simply conveying outright Liberal campaigning.
Our news programs certainly don’t go so far as on the Fox News in the United States, who clearly takes advantage of their status as a “news programmer” to manipulate their viewership into taking up the Republican cause. The United States, which is generally a much more conservative country than Australia in a financial, religious and cultural sense, seems to allow a much more conservative style of news programming as well.
The Fox network’s blatant misuse of power and manipulation of its viewership is well outlined in the 2004 documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. It is a fascinating yet disturbing film and I can only hope that the news in Australia will not reach this level of corruption (more on an intellectual level than a financial one) despite Gina Reinhart’s foul and lingering influence on the Australian public and media. The fact that Rupert Murdoch is in fact Australian born is an embarrassment that is probably best cast aside.