Information Encounters Part 1: Broadcast Media
Jef Raskin has pointed out that ‘information cannot be designed’ but what can be designed are the ‘modes of transfer and the representations of information’. We encounter information in many different environments such as books, television, smart phones, exhibitions and websites. Each shapes our experience and perception of information. In this four part series I’ll be considering the different information environments and how information is fashioned accordingly. This first installment looks at broadcast media.
The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) is known around the world for the high quality of its information provision. Lord Reith was the first Director-General of the BBC and his directive that the company should aim ‘to inform, educate and entertain’ remains the principles to which the BBC still aspires. In March 2003 they published the BBC News Style Guide and distributed it to all their radio, television and online journalists. The guide, which gathers together some of the institution’s best practice, outlines the key issues when using the English language to communicate information through the written or spoken word. Richard Sambrook who was Director of BBC News at the time of the publication’s release introduced the guide with the following statement. ‘Every time anyone writes a script for BBC News they are potentially touching the lives of millions of people – through radio, television and the internet. It brings with it responsibilities. BBC News is expected to set the highest standards in accuracy, fairness, impartiality – and in the use of language. Clear storytelling and language is at the heart of good journalism. Keep it plain and keep it simple’.
Image: The original BBC Broadcasting House opened in 1932 and featuring statues by Eric Gill.
Broadcasters receive and gather vast amounts of information in the form of statistics, words, pictures and audio recordings. This information is then greatly simplified and synthesized into digestible chunks of broadcasting. There are often limited chances to convey messages. Broadcasters are constrained by time and think in terms of seconds and minutes and not word count as with the print journalist. Commercial radio stations may typically have only three minutes each hour to broadcast eight to ten news stories.
Broadcast writing adopts a conversational style. The advice is to use words of few syllables and aim for the widest possible audience in terms of what is likely to be understood. Radio and television are generally not the medium for in-depth essays. Journalists have to take complex information and convert it to the essence of the story. Difficult terminology should be paraphrased in a way that an audience will understand. The top line must encapsulate the whole story and act like a bait to catch the listener’s attention. The key words must also be carefully selected. Words like government, council or policies turn most people off. Many editors subject articles to ‘the pub test’. Would a listener recount the story in the same language in the casual setting of a pub?
Journalists have evolved a peculiar language that is seldom heard in conversation. The following are examples of ‘journalese’: ‘quiet but tense’; ‘glaring omission’; ‘rushed to the scene’; and ‘moment of truth’. Industry chiefs hammer out 11th hour settlements. People are rushed to hospital and fight for their lives. Sustained fatal injuries means the person has died – so why not say so? These are attempts to ‘sex-up’ the story. The BBC encourages the use of clear and simple language, which is written in a natural style for the ear rather than the eye.
Pictures and words
Television journalists are working in a bi-medial format. Writing with pictures is different from writing without them. Writing for Ceefax or online is different from delivering a radio broadcast.
Historic moments are often encapsulated in a single word or phrase uttered by a journalist. The use of the word ‘Gotcha’ expressed a sense of retribution at the sinking of the Argentinean warship Belgrano and not regret at the loss of life.
Image: How The Sun reported the sinking of the Belgrano.
People power live on TV
UK Citizen Diana Gould confronted the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher live on television regarding the sinking of the Belgrano. The encounter on this broadcast was later reappraised. You can see this reappraisal by scrolling across the options at the end of the video below.
A conduit for information
A journalist is a conduit for the information they are conveying. A radio journalist adopts the view that they can see what you can’t and their duty is to describe the scene. A television journalist doesn’t need to depict in such detail. The skill is in knowing when to speak and when to remain silent. Michael Buerk’s report for the BBC on the famine in Ethiopia in 1984 inspired the band-aid movement. He said very little. The pictures told the story and he gave factual information such as how many people were affected. It is not regarded as good practice for television broadcasters to talk over everything.
Video: Michael Buerk’s 1984 report on the Ethiopian famine which inspired the Band Aid charity record.
Analogies to print
In terms of sequencing information certain aspects of television and radio presentation are roughly analogous to print. The front cover of a book attempts to establish the identity for the content in much the same way the music or opening titles do on broadcast programmes. The key stories at the top of the programme act as the contents page. In radio and television these preliminary enticements are called a tease. A newspaper vendor’s stand might announce ‘Verdict in pedophile case’. It won’t tell you whether the verdict is guilty or not guilty. You have to buy the newspaper to find out. Television and radio broadcasts announce the headlines at the top of the programme and tell people what is in the news today with the enticement of more detail later.
Presentation of broadcast information
The television presentation of news information is constantly changing in order to maintain public interest. With the expenditure on technology broadcasters are keen to create impressive displays. Sets often have a huge graphic information board and sweeping semi-circular track. As a story arrives on screen it is accompanied by what is called a ‘slug of a story’ for example ‘Iraq bomb’ might appear on screen as the announcer is describing the scene. Although these may seem like gimmicks the intention is to make politics and hard news more accessible. If the news programme is on a commercial channel, consideration is usually given to the advertising that precedes or succeeds an item. In the past there has been unfortunate scheduling. The song ‘Disco Inferno’ once followed a radio news item on a fire in a disco.
Image: Nicholas Owen on BBC News 24 discussing the potential impact of YouTube broadcasts on the British 2010 General Election. The news ‘slug’ at the bottom is keeping viewers informed of breaking news.
Writing for different audiences
The same news report is often written several times for different audiences such as: children, the world service or a pop audience. Whether the news is broadcast on a local, national or global scale will influence the information conveyed. A global audience will appreciate being told the proper names and titles of people and full information on locations and organisations. Information is now broadcast internationally 24 hours of the day crossing time zones. Stating the time or using the word foreign would have little meaning to a global audience.
Video: How a children’s TV channel reported the death of a presenter.
Local level information
Information is also available on a personal level, a text message can be sent to the BBC from a mobile phone and bespoke information tailored to individual interests can be returned. News information is also going ultra local as well with information being provided at the level of the small community. The term glocal refers to the ability to scale from local to global.
Ambiguity seems ever ready to surface and confuse. Some 2000 years ago the Roman theoretician Quintilian wrote that ’one should not aim at being possible to understand but at being impossible to misunderstand’. The following were extracted from broadcast reports. ‘For the second time in six months, a prisoner at Durham Jail has died after hanging himself in his cell’. ‘Sixty women have come forward to claim they have been assaulted by a dead gynaecologist’.
When delivering information in the form of news it is a good idea not to taint it with personal opinion. The audience can decide whether something is good or bad news by themselves. Journalists are also advised not to introduce an item with a negative thought such as ‘it is likely to be of little interest to many people’. Why then would anyone begin to listen? Beginning a story with ‘As expected’ is inadvisable as it suggests the outcome is predictable.
If the audience is unfamiliar with acronyms associated with a particular sphere of activity they will feel excluded. The full name should be spelt out first, then resort to the acronym thereafter.
Active and passive voice
There are situations where an active voice will enliven a sentence. A passive voice can mask an idea rather than state it explicitly. Politicians tend to adopt a passive tone of voice for example they are more likely to say ‘mistakes were made’ rather than ‘we made mistakes’. A subtle change in wording distances the individual from responsibility.
Similar sounding words
Certain words in the English language look and sound very similar and can lead to mistakes in conveying meaning for example; affect and effect; principle and principal and stationery and stationary. A good dictionary is advisable.
Many of us struggle between the choices for certain words. When would you use fewer or less? What is the difference between that and which? When is it right to use may or might?
Cue and intro writing
Continuity between news items is vital. This often relies on what is called a cue or hook. The cue writer and correspondent need to be aware of what each other are doing so that the two match seamlessly. If the cue is a repetition of the first sentence of the report it will demonstrate a lack of good planning and an unprofessional attitude. Likewise some forethought is required when picking up from the exit of a piece.
Numerical and statistical representation
The writer Hilaire Belloc said that ‘lucidity is the soul of style’ and it is worth keeping this in mind when conveying complex data through broadcast media. Television uses the graphical representation of data to good effect often with animated sequences that reveal other levels of information. Newspapers provide sequential information taking the reader from the headline through introductory texts into further levels of detail contained in diagrams and charts. Radio, a medium of sound, does not have the advantage of graphic representation. It is difficult to visualise numerical information without seeing it. Too much statistical information can numb the listener and lose their sense of the story. People need to understand the broad trends in simplistic terms for example are the numbers going up, down or remaining the same? People are more likely to remember the number 3000 rather than 2993 or 3006. Mixing numerical systems such as percentages, decimals, fractions and real values will not make much sense to many people and will fail to inform the viewer or listener.
When broadcasting information one should avoid causing unnecessary offence through thoughtless use of insensitive language. The BBC Producers’ Guidelines covers such areas as gender, ethnicity, minorities, disabilities, religious groups, sexual orientation and age.
The rhythm of sentences
Reading out aloud sentences intended for broadcast is important to avoid unfortunate rhythms and rhymes. A series of even length sentences can sound like a staccato proclamation. Pronunciation needs to be clear as common words are often mispronounced. Contractions or negatives can sometimes sound like a positive. It is acceptable to spell things out in broadcasting. If spelling out ‘weren’t’ to ‘were not’ makes the information clearer then the objective of clarity over rules expedience. Sibilance is a hissing sound that derives from speaking words out aloud with a preponderance of the letter ‘s’.
Words are tools of the information trade. Using the right word to express precisely what is meant is not being pedantic. If the listener can’t have faith in the means of expression what faith can they have in the facts that are being conveyed? Where there is an alternative short word it should be used in preference to the longer alternative. Here are a few examples: ‘make’ instead of ‘manufacture’; ‘about’ not ‘approximately’; and ‘pay’ rather than ‘remuneration’. Vogue words demonstrate fashion consciousness in language but don’t always lend themselves to clear communication. Current vogue words include: fashionista and pivotal. Time is of a premium in broadcasting and one should consider single words that represent whole phrases. ‘Leaves much to be desired’ means ‘poor’. ‘By virtue of the fact that’ means ‘because’. ‘With the exception of’ means ‘except’. Concise writing is a virtue. Sometimes there is unnecessary repetition of meaning in the combination of words for example: new innovation; close scrutiny; and exact replica. John Allen, who compiled the BBC News Style Guide, concludes that ‘simplicity is the key to understanding…short words in short sentences present listeners and viewers with the fewest obstacles to comprehension’.