Title: Patterned Image of the Homeless: Discourse Analysis of
Television News Narrative
Department of Media Studies and Communication
Pochun, South Korea
E. J. Min
Department of Communications
Rhode Island College
600 Mt. Pleasant Ave.
Providence, RI 02908
(401) 456-8270 (0)
(401) 946-5714 (H)
(401) 456-8379 (Fax)
E-Mail: [log in to unmask]
Submitted to 1996 Annual AEJMC (Visual Communication)
Convention, Annaheim, CA., August 17-20, 1996.
In the past decade, no single subject has been put under such
a microscopic examination like the issue of homelessness (Snow, et. al., 1994,
p. 461). From an emotional "letter to the editor" to a systematic scientific
research, the issue has touched virtually every sectors of America. The image
of the homeless, however, has not been entirely accurate. They have been
portrayed as drunk, stoned, crazy, sick, and drug abusers by media and
researches (1994, p. 463). In addition, the patterned coverage of the homeless
by network television news is especially disturbing. Most stories on the
homeless tend to be on during the winter seasons, including Thanksgiving and
Christmas. More than 70 % of stories from NBC, ABC, and CBS, for example, were
broadcasted during the winter season (December thru February, 1985-1994).
Thirteen out of 25 stories on homeless were aired during the month of January in
1994. Moreover, types of stories from 1994 are almost identical with those of
1986. And the length of stories is getting shorter every year (Television News
Index & Abstracts, 1985-1994).
While the flood of reports and commentaries tried to make
people concerned about the issue, the habitual ways of representing the issue
have failed to deal with the real solutions to the problems of homelessness.
One of typical ways of portraying the issue is that the image of an individual
with an unique circumstance is carefully chosen to illustrate the problem. The
image of those individuals' primary "actions" captured by camera are mostly
negative. This study is, however, neither to criticize the ethical problems or
any particular ideologies of the contemporary journalists, nor to redefine what
news is or should be. Instead it examines surface structure or discourse
dimension to identify visual codes. In other words, it explicates the discourse
dimension of television news narrative by identifying and examining semiotic
modes of expression in television narrative such as camera work, sound, editing,
etc. The study mainly concerns the relationship between the major (framing)
narrators as well as (embedded) story characters and the story being told in
general, and how the framing narrators (the anchors and reporters) are
presented. It also attempts to find out if the credibility of television news
narrative depends on its two features embodied in narration, the visual
representation of the story events and the display of news personnel
(super-ordinal narrator). In order to achieve this task, this study also
borrows basic concepts from the theories of visual semiotics by Peirce, Eco,
Seiter, Silverman and Metz.
Discourse Dimension of Television News Narrative
The study of television narrative can be approached from two
dimensions of signification: story and discourse. The authors believe that all
dimensions should be examined as a whole to understand news narrative's
structural and cultural patterns embedded in the relations between fact and text
and between reality and representation. The study of discourse dimension
examines the relationship between the visual/aural expression and the
"orientation" or "point of view" of the narrative as a whole. Thus the study
presumes that television news narrative is, above all, characterized by its
mediatedness of stories by the presence of narrators, particularly, the anchor
persons and reporters as well as various verbal and non-verbal sign systems such
as screen, camera work, sound, graphic, editing, lighting, etc. The visual
presentation which mostly consists of repetitious and patterned news-camera work
in particular seems to function as a determining role in embodying a point of
view in the television news narration. Although television's "institutional"
relations require the news events to be narrated without adopting the point of
view of any party or person, as Hartley and Montgomery (1985) argue, the news
narration cannot escape the self-embedded effect of the visual codes of
television narrative. Due to these unavoidable restrictions resulting from its
"formal" relations, "All shots have a point of view, whether it is internally
motivated by the placing of a character, or externally motivated by the
positioning of the imaginary observer (viewer)" (p. 246). Thus it is important
to examine how television's repetitious and consistent visual representations
(through its unique sign systems) of the homeless in more or less a fixed
pattern lead to a production of stereotypical "interpretant" in the viewer's
head. For example, as the viewer is consistently and repetitiously exposed to a
typical portrayal of the homeless, say, wearing rags, unwashed, unshaven,
digging in the trash cans, endlessly walking on the streets, sleeping in the
public places, etc., his/her way of interpretation (that is, "interpretant")
might tend to be fixed into a certain shape, putting aside other alternatives.
This is also true to the patterned displaying of such signs as
camera work (angle, distance, orientation and movement), lighting, sound, etc.,
all of which make up of a part of the overall signifying system in television.
The uses of patterned and familiar visual codes then, as Campbell and Reeves
(1989) argue, help to transform "the troubling experiences" and threatening
aspects of homeless into "familiar news packages and stories" (P. 39).
Similarily, Penner and Penner (1994) found that comic stripes tend to neutralize
homelessness as a normal urban characteristic and a part of a downtown scene,
rather than a social problem. For the time being, it should be acknowledged
that the observational visual categories and their definitions have been drawn
from previous theories and research works in the area of television news
analysis (Bentele, 1985; Hartley & Montgomery, 1985; Kervin, 1985; Tuchman,
1978) and from information which is already available in the existing television
production handbooks (primarily from Zettl, 1984).
First of all, out of 22 "mini news-magazine" segments aired
during the period between 1985 and 1991, 25 episodes were identified. These 25
episodes then consisted of 15 by ABC, 8 by NBC and 2 by CBS. While only two
CBS's episodes were sampled for the present study, this does not necessarily
mean that CBS has been negligent in reporting the "homeless" stories. For, in
the initial sample prior to its reduction to its manageable size for the present
study, it was found that each of three networks aired an almost even amount of
"homeless" news items: 116 by ABC, 118 by NBC and 124 by CBS for the total of
358. During the period of 1986 to 1991, the average number of stories was 50
per year. The period could be called as "golden age of homeless coverage" by
three network. In the period between 1992 and 1994, however, the average number
of stories was dropped to only 19. And the contents of more current news were
similar with those of the sample period. The total length of the sample
amounted to 106 min and 36 sec: 59 min and 7 sec by ABC (55%); 38 min and 2
sec by NBC (36%); 9 min and 27 sec by CBS (9%). The total number of
"sequences" identified were 133, including 73 by ABC (55%), 49 by NBC (37%) and
11 by CBS (8%). The number of sequences for one episode ranged from 4 to 9.
The total number of 1,216 "shots" were also distributed by similar rates for
each network as in the case of "sequences:" 637 (52%) for ABC, 459 (38%) for
NBC and 120 (10%) for CBS. These percentages being compared with those for the
duration of the total episodes for each network, it can be argued that all three
networks, on the whole, share the same pattern in "sequentializing" and "making
use of shots" for making up of news stories, since the percentages for the
number of sequences and shots match very close to those for the duration of the
whole episodes. Similarly, another shared pattern for all networks is seen in
their use of sequence and shot durations. On average, ABC apportioned 48.6 sec
for a sequence and 5.6 sec for a shot, NBC 46.6 sec and 5.0 sec, and CBS 51.5
sec and 4.7 sec respectively. In short, all three networks tended to share the
same pattern in making use of sequences and shots in terms of number and
Analysis of Discourse Dimension
Camera's distance, angle and character orientation can
provide the news-makers with semiotically significant tools in terms of their
functions, which eventually contribute to construction of reality in a
particular way. These are also important in their relation to the "orientation"
of the narrative as a whole, insofar as they often play significant semiotic
roles both on the metaphoric and metonymic dimensions by producing or
transforming the meaning of a particular "event" into various shapes depending
on the narrative's particular orientation.
Table 1 About Here
For camera shot, first, the medium range shots (medium
close-up and medium shot) were the most frequent for all three networks,
amounting, in combination, almost up to 40% of the total. Secondly, long-shot
and medium/extreme long-shot were found to have been used almost evenly for all
networks. For all networks, extreme close-up shot was used the least often. In
the case of CBS in particular, only 1 out of 114 shots was taken in this range.
According to Table 1, however, medium long-shot, long-shot and extreme long-shot
combined were used much more frequently (more than 50% of the total) for the
homeless, compared with other characters with an exception of police officers.
On the other hand, the homeless were given, comparatively speaking, fewer
chances for medium close-ups, the most optimum type of shot, which can be called
the "anchor" shot (in fact, the anchors were seen in this framing about in 74%
of the total cases). The optimum framing of the reporter facing the camera at a
mid-shot range sharply contrasts to the background scene (behind the reporter)
which provides a long-shot of the homeless people with their backs to the camera
All of these discourse routines of "nomination" (the
reporter), "unnomination" (the homeless) and considerable camera work turn out
to be endowing the "textual" reality constructed by a "framing" narrator (the
reporter) with more of a quality of neutrality, factuality and authority. It is
not to generalize something from these numbers, rather it can be roughly
suspected that the homeless people along with police officers might have been
portrayed not as autonomous individuals, but rather as "collectives" more often
than other characters.
For camera angle, the normal standard (eye-level) angle shots
were shared as the dominant style by all three networks, as their frequency
averaged 82% of the total. Low angle shots were used the least often (about
4%). In regarding to the distributions of high angle shots (Table 2), however,
the homeless's 17% sharply contrasts to the other cases which range about 6% to
9%. Considering the negative effect of high angle shot in general, this figure
may suggest that the homeless were given relatively more unfavorable images than
the other characters. A high angle shot in general, tends to have an negative
effect by which the authority and significance of the subject are diminished
since the subject tends to be "looked down upon" by the viewer in an emotional
sense (DeNitto, 1985, p. 22).
Table 2 About Here
A story (12/06/88. ABC, 5:13 minutes) on a "grandfather's"
intention to help his grandson's family and of his financial incapability to do
such is well dramatized by a series of shots. The grandfather's voice-over on
the scene of his grandsons is just enough to appeal to the viewer's feeling of
"sympathy" in the humanitarian sense. Visually speaking, the high-angle shots
of Mayhew's (the grandson) homeless family with the alternative use of close-ups
and long-range shots are also semiotically effective in evoking the emotional
movement on the viewer's side. For this kind of visual presentation tends to
appeal to our sympathetic feelings towards the characters, while reinforcing the
quality of inferiority on them. In brief, the frequent use of close-up shots
and (extreme) long-shots for the homeless subjects contrasts to the optimum
shots of "us" (the reporter or the professional), and thus tends to create an
inferior quality for the homeless's overall image or just to reaffirm how they
are "different" from ordinary people. This unfavorable effect is also true in
the case of a character orientation to the camera for the homeless people. As
seen in the comparison of Table 3, the homeless were more often portrayed in
profile and less in facing-the-camera position than other characters.
Table 3 About Here
Along with these relatively negative images given by camera
work when compared to other characters, the homeless also received unfavorable
images in terms of character's primary "actions" captured by camera. As Table 4
shows what the characters were seen doing the most in individual shots, it may
be suspected that in more than half of the total shots (about 52% in combination
of 7 categories), the homeless were seen mostly in negative image categories
such as walking (without any particular destination), sleeping, eating, digging
in trash cans, weird body movements or gestures, panhandling, prostituting, and
the most often, standing around on the streets without having a particular
reason to do so. The authors believe that these features are semiotically
important for more comprehensive narrative studies since their repetitious
presentations gradually accumulate their metonymic effects both at the intra-
and inter-episodical levels. Dealing with findings about the basic
characteristics of signification on the discourse dimension, the discussion so
far has been focused mostly on the homeless's side, how they were treated in
terms of camera work and their primary actional appearances. In the
following, the study describes how two major "framing" narrators in the
television news narrative (with emphasis on the framing of the anchoperson) were
featured in their relation to the viewer side. As already discussed, the
television anchor person, mainly due to his positional advantages, always
occupies a position of top authority compared to other characters including the
reporter. The anchor, simultaneously as an "extra-diegetic" and an
"hetero-diegetic" narrator, is always seen to dominate the whole narrative
practice by subjugating all the narrative elements, either verbal or visual, to
his positional authority within a given framework. On occupying the most
superior position of authority, objectivity and reliability, he/she was seen,
across all the samples, solely responsible for controlling and leading the flow
of the narrative as a whole. This was possible in our sample partially because
of his direct mode of address, which always maintained eye-contact with the
viewer ("us"), and of the most positive camera work given to him. Above all,
he/she was seen never leaving his/her studio desk, the headquarters of the
narrative practice, which controlled all other elements in the narrative.
He/she framed the topic, initiated the tension, drew the viewer's attention into
the tense "reality," assigned the reporter and eased the tension by taking the
viewer out of it after all.
Table 4 About Here
In all sample stories, with the exception of one (NBC's
"Special Segment" on December 5, 1986) in which the anchor also performed the
role of field reporter, the reporter was assigned to perform both roles of
"camera" and "framing" narratorsp, albeit at the secondary level. Unlike the
anchor person, however, the reporter usually (not always) assumed two roles at
the same time, one in terms of narrative level and the other in its relationship
to the story. As a camera- and framing-narrator, he/she was virtually
responsible for developing, elaborating and closing the story, although it was
under the control of a given framework. While this task was mostly done by
his/her voice-over narrations on actuality sequences (the field reportings), it
was sometimes managed through the direct mode of address to the viewer.
However, the quality of his/her mode of direct address was a little different
from the anchor's. For, unlike that the anchor's direct address was always made
in the studio, the reporter's was always performed in actuality sequences, thus,
being accompanied with the background scenes. Meanwhile, the reporter, often
times, also took the role of character narrator, as he/she was engaged in the
interviewing situations along with the "embedded" characters in the actuality
scenes. Of the 25 samples, 15 episodes were carried with the role of the
reporter as an "character" narrator, either by the verbal or the visual. In 11
samples among these, in particular, a direct address mode of narration as well
as voice-over technique was used. In any case, it is true that the reporter did
not ever lose her authority as a "framing" narrator even when he/she was
actually engaged in the story itself. In short, the anchor and the reporter as
"framing" narrators were featured solely responsible to have the narrative flow
within a given framework towards a certain "point of view," while the other
characters including such interviewees as professionals and ordinary people as
well as the homeless were seen serving as a collective lubricant role for the
smooth flow of narrative.
Discussion and Conclusion
This study has examined the network's use of the semiotic
elements on the discourse dimension in general in search of their patterned use
in representing the characters involved in the news stories. The findings
suggested that there existed this "patterned" use of various semiotic elements
such as setting, various camera work, lighting, sound effects and portrayal of
characters's primary actions. This patterned way of visual encoding above all,
tended to produce two types of representation of characters; Some characters
were featured as individual "persons" and some as a "collective" mass. On the
whole, both homeless characters and ordinary people tended to be portrayed not
as autonomous individual "persons," but as a "collective" group at the
non-personal level, compared with other characters. This is partially
perceptible in network's relatively frequent use of long-range shots for these
two groups of characters, whereas the medium-range shots were mostly reserved
for those characters whose "authoritative" positional qualities tended to be
socially recognized such as professional homeless advocates, doctors, lawyers
and ministers. With regard to "depersonalizing" effect of extreme long-range
shots in particular, Tuchman (1978) argues that "Public distance [corresponds to
extreme long-distance shot range] is all but forbidden in recording events
involving "individuals," .... [thus] depersonalizes, and is used only to show
masses, not individuals" (p. 119). Moreover, it was relatively frequent that
the homeless were seen on the streets, mostly standing around, walking up and
down, sleeping and so forth, while the authoritative professionals were shown
for interview in their offices. The silent appearances of the homeless without
proper visual "nomination" or "accessed" voices also contributed to the
construction of their image as a "collective" mass.
On the other hand, the use of high camera angle more
frequently for the homeless than for the other characters suggested that the
homeless were often seen as "emotion-oriented" characters rather than
"rationality-oriented" ones. In addition, while it was not greatly different
that most characters, except the anchor/reporter, were given close-range shots,
the homeless were framed the least often in the most optimum, medium close-ups.
This again tended to reinforce the image of the homeless as lacking the quality
of "rationality" or "neutrality." Even in the case of close-ups, the effects
were different depending on who said what. In other words, it should be
differentiated between the effect of close-ups of the homeless people and that
of the other characters in terms of their virtual image constructions. To
illustrate, in most cases, what was said by the professional characters sounded
like that it was merely delivering the general, public opinion and thus seemed
to represent the society in general. In other words, what they were saying
sounded like that their opinions were not their own but the general public's, as
if they had been based on the position of "neutrality" and "rationality." On
the other hand, what we heard from the homeless characters tended to be confined
within their personal emotional reactions to their own everyday experiences and
hardships, that is, those "immediate effects" of the fact of "being homeless."
In this pattern of ironical representation, anyway, the "emotionalizing" effect
did not seem to raise the homeless's "individuality" as an autonomous human
quality at all, but tended to function only as representing them as a "group" on
the margin of mainstream society. To quote Tuchman (1978) again, "These
displays do not function as an attribute of the individual. They are social
indicators of the plight of a group, whether the group is parents with incurably
ill children, wives of soldiers missing in action, or families made homeless by
a natural disaster" (p. 123).
In contrast to all the "embedded" character narrators, in the
meantime, the anchors and the reporters as "framing" narrators were shot in the
most optimum modes of presentation such as medium-distance, standard eye-level
angle, facing-the-camera orientation, plain backing in the studio (the anchor in
particular), good lighting and decent formal dress. Their direct eye-contact
mode of address along with the optimal visual framing contributed to
establishing their positional quality of intimacy, neutrality, objectivity,
credibility and authoritativeness. As Masterman (1985) quotes Hood, "All these
persons have one thing in common. They are there to give us information which
we are asked to assume is accurate..., unbiased and authoritative....They...can
be described...as 'bearers of truth'" (p. 172). As such "bearers of truth,"
they were seen as playing the role of "impersonal" (Kervin, 1985, p. 243)
objective information agent who simply delivers the viewer the "truth" as it is.
As Hartley (1982, p. 110) has suggested, their "institutional" appearances and
voices were the only ones which were so fully "naturalized" that their
constructed and transparent-looking nature seemed hard to resist. Moreover,
this impersonal, objective quality of their voices was again supported by the
anchor's and mostly reporter's "voice-over" narration on actuality sequences as
to the homeless characters and also by the use of various graphical
presentations of related information. For example, the shape of one of ABC's
computer-graphical devices for information presentation, so-called, "FACT FILE"
(February 4, 1987), resembled that of an actual paper file folder. While it was
used for presenting statistical data about the demography of the homeless and
other related information, it certainly contributed to increasing the
"realistic" quality of news-team's own account of the "homelessness" phenomena.
The proper understanding of the visual then requires studying
how various signs as a total signifying system work in the narrative. To
accomplish this task, it is required in the first place to examine some basic
structural coding systems such as camera distance, angle and orientation to
characters, sound and editing in their relations to the visual presentation of
the characters. It is assumed, however, that the overall statistics regarding
these semiotic elements can only give us a general view about how they
contribute to constructing a particular version of reality. This study does not
explain in detail how various structural and cultural elements are selected and
chained together in constructing the specific meaning of the narrative. In
this respect, it is meaningful that Fiske (1991) , partially relying on the
participant observation method, has attempted to relate his interpretation of
material conditions of homelessness with that of the homeless's cultural
practice of "watching television" (specifically, a film Die Hard ). Fiske
contends that "the cultural analysis studies instances of culture in order to
understand both the system that structures 'the whole way of life' and the ways
of living that people devise within it" (p. 469).
Finally, this study is a subjective interpretive approach to
a complete reading of television news' visual codes in an attempt to understand
the structural encoding principles which have been consciously or unconsciously
practiced in the television journalist's news making process. The nature of
this study then partly resembles, what Geertz (1973) calls, an "interpretive"
study, which has its unique characteristics as Geertz claims in the following:
it is interpretive; what it is interpretive of is the flow of
and the interpreting involved consists in trying to rescue the
"said" of such
discourse from its perishing occasions and fix it in perusable
there is, in addition, a fourth characteristic...: it is
microscopic (p. 21).
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