Readers, Writers, Texts

Distorted Reality

“The basic definition of news as factual information that its viewers need in order to participate in society is only half the story.” 

Fiske, 1987
In 2004, Robert Greenwald set out to prove that Fox was not a news organisation. Outfoxed, Greenwald’s documentary, is a hard-hitting assault on the right-wing network that discredits the channel’s slogan: ‘Fair and Balanced.’

Many people might think that the news provides a window into the world, allowing you to understand what is going on everywhere, all the time. But it only takes a moment’s thought into the practical aspects of delivering the news to know that this is patently impossible. Televised news is often segmented into a slot of 30 minutes or one hour. Newspapers are bound by notions of weight and size and only have so many ‘column inches’ to fill. Even 24 hour news sites are limited by their visual or audio interfaces and only provide a selection of the ‘happenings’ in the world. Furthermore, there are commercial considerations: many media providers use the news to build an audience for the programmes that follow and to sell lucrative advertising space in the ‘prime time’ early evening TV schedules. Finally, companies producing the news do so for a particular society, and the news tends to reflect social norms and values. Therefore, you might say that the news presents a certain version of reality, rather than reality itself.

In this section you will learn some underlying theories of the news (whether print, online or televised) which will teach you to be critical about the information you receive via news media and ‘official’ outlets like mainstream newspapers, BBC, Sky or Fox news. You will learn the key concepts of bias and how the news is narrativized – turned into stories for public consumption.

Begin your study with an inquiry into ‘bias’ in the news by watching Outfoxed (above) and investigating some of the sources here: 

Class Activity: One-Minute World News

Visit this broadcast, commissioned by the BBC and released once per day, which summarises the news from around the world. The BBC is a British-based broadcasting corporation with a reputation for impartiality and objectivity. Despite this, according to the theories you have read about, the news they choose to broadcast should still be inherently biased in some way. Watch the video summary, check what content is in the ‘Top Video’ section, and look at the headlines. You might even like to skim a couple of the main stories. Which biases – if any – can you detect in today’s feed?

Learner Portfolio

Is it possible to be completely unbiased? What does it mean that the news presents a ‘version of reality, rather than reality itself’? Like stories, the news contains narrative elements. What are these biases and elements? Write up your learning from this section in a one-two page journal entry.


Paper 1 Text Type Focus: diary entry

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below are samples of diary entries. Diaries can function as records of events witnessed by individuals, and are always written from an individual point of view. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of diaries and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

Body of Work: Ross Kemp in Afghanistan

“Television news reports from journalists embedded with the military have become familiar to us in recent years. The journalist lives with the troops, sleeps where they sleep, eats what they eat, faces the same dangers they do and gets to know them as individuals. They are humanised, and surely that is a good thing – what could possibly be wrong with that? Nothing at all, if you are unconcerned about seeing impartial and balanced news coverage. But if you value these things, you should be worried. The praise heaped on embeds both by their colleagues and their audience for delivering to us “the reality of war” discounts one very important fact: that those journalists are invariably embedded with one side only. And that, in no shape or form, is balance – the very principle our major news channels claim underpins everything they do.”

– Alison Banville, Embedded War Reporting Cannot Escape it’s Own Bias

Investigate the concept of Embedded War Reporting, by watching this Sky One British documentary series fronted by actor and investigative journalist Ross Kemp about the British soldiers fighting in the War in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Consider how the medium (television film-making) creates a picture of reality for the viewer, and ask to what extent the documentary represents ‘real life.’

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

This documentary would make an ideal text to bring into your Individual Oral. The named author would be ‘Sky One.’ You could explore the Field of Inquiry of Politics, Power and Justice and investigate the Global Issue of ‘The Writing of History’. According to the famous proverb: ‘history is written by the victors.’ In the aftermath of events such as a war, the way in which the event is written about or depicted can define the way in which it’s remembered. Over time, the ‘true’ events can be hidden behind the story of what happened. In watching this documentary, you might like to search for inherent bias, evaluate the impact of viewpoint on the way the story is told, explore the portrayal of the war in Afghanistan, and question whether the documentary presents a ‘true’ version of events on the ground. Speak to your teacher about ways to pair a scene from this documentary with a literary text, or use the following suggestions as a starting point: 

  • J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun – although in part a work of fiction, Ballard’s novel is also semi-autobiographical, inspired by his real experiences in a Japanese internment camp outside Shanghai during world war two. You might like to compare the presentation of war by Ross Kemp in this documentary with the war in Shanghai as told through the eyes of Jim. 
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – you could investigate to what extent cultural difference is a cause of conflict in these two texts. You might also like to consider the way the audience’s perception of Shylock is led by the Christian characters (Act 3 Scene 3 is a good example of this).
  • Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife – in this poetry collection, Duffy retells famous historical, literary and biblical stories from the point of view of the female participants, who were ignored or marginalised first time around. Choose a story where this reversal is particularly stark, such as Thetis or Pygmalion’s Bride.
  • John Keats’ poetry – in Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats looks at the images of people engraved on the urn and tries to imagine their lives. He asks where they came from and where they are going. Of course, the pot doesn’t answer. You might like to consider this poem alongside Ross Kemp’s documentary, and ask whether a record of the past “canst thus express a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.”
  • Broken April by Ismail Kadare – perspective is a crucial part of Kadare’s novel. If you only follow Gjorg’s – or Bessian’s – perspective, imagine what you might think about the kanun by the end of the story. Diana, and even Mark Ukacierra’s, perspectives are crucial if the reader is to come to a fuller understanding of the kanun, what is means and how it works in reality.
  • Shen Congwen’s Border Town – this novel elegantly reverses prejudices people may have about rural peasant folk in early 20th century China. While poor, Congwen’s characters are certainly not unhappy, or sick, or immoral. You can choose a passage that reveals the vitality of life in west Hunan province – a scene he brought to life with the skill of a master painter.

Wider Reading and Research

  • Media Manipulation – in this Boredpanda article, readers sent in their own examples of how life through a lens might look real, but isn’t always true.

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