Thursday, October 7, 2010

Media is not almighty

I keep forgetting that the news is written and broadcast by people. When we talk about it in my Policy courses, the media is a big, nasty corporation – mechanic and malicious, sinewy and self-serving. All the newspapers, magazines, journalists, and broadcasters get lumped into this impersonal monolith.

But it’s not all the same. At least, that’s what I’ve been getting out of this class. The news is written by journalists – actual people who, for the most part, work to portray the news as accurately as they see it. The news is also shaped by culture and history. It’s all about context. I was surprised to learn that some sensational-looking newspapers from Serbia with large, bold headlines, lots of bright colors, and a picture of a topless woman, no less, could be considered a legitimate source of news. On the other hand, French and German newspapers contained pages of lengthy, in-depth articles with just a few, small pictures. “That’s great but do they really read all this?” Professor Burton asked, flipping through pages smeared from top to bottom with text. I also liked her note on the French television news, where breaking news slowly filters on to people’s television throughout the day supposedly because the French are in no rush to get things done or to get stories out.

Undoubtedly, the media shapes society, but I hadn’t considered how society shapes the media. As societies and cultures vary, so does the media, which we saw in the juxtaposition of European newspapers. In the same way you realize the particularities of your native culture when you come in contact with a foreign one, the characteristics of one type or nation’s style of newspaper – could you call them the values of that country’s media? – are emphasized when compared to another. Through this plurality of journalistic styles, we can better understand the news that is presented to us in a particular country.

Accents in the News: Flare or fail?

"People trust accents,” Professor Burton said. Although it was only a short aside as we discussed the history of journalism and the start of the BBC, this comment piqued my interest. She explained that when people listen to the news, they prefer genuine voices of people – accents and all – rather than the practiced pronunciation of old school British news anchors (à la 1953 BBC). Huh, ok. I wondered how that outlook would work in news broadcasting in the US or Japan.

I imagined what radio news would be like if Carl Kasell on NPR were to have a New York accent. What if Michele Norris had a thick southern accent (think Paula Dean from the Food Network)? On one hand, it would add flare to the news – something unusual and diverse – but which also runs the risk of becoming irritating or even incomprehensible. My mom, who is foreign but has lived in the states for 20+ years, could not make heads or tails of Southern accents when we first moved to NC. She would have a cow if she had to try to understand the news through some rich, thick accent.

For similar reasons, the news in Japan is broadcast in standard, formal Japanese. Japan has many regional dialects – Osaka/Kansai, Kyoto, etc – which are often considered more expressive and interesting than standard Japanese, but because there are so many particularities to the dialects, people in other parts of the country would not understand the news, not unlike UK accents (see vid).

Still, in the defense of accents, when things like Story Corps on NPR are narrated by the individuals and include their Chicago twang or the sway and flow of black English, their stories become more vivid and personal. I also enjoy listening to Fiona Ritchie’s broadcast during the Celtic music segment and the many UK accents aired on the BBC. Despite perhaps not being practical for reporting headline news, I think accents would communicate to the public the news is not just about media corporations. It is stories about real people in the world told by real people who have quirks and eccentricities in the way they speak – just like you and me.