by Jay Jamison
When watching TV news broadcasts, most of what we see are images of the story and the on-camera people. Out of sight and often out of mind are the numerous people and images behind the scenes that make the broadcast possible. Producers, directors, camera operators, lighting specialists, copy writers, sound engineers, and a host of others are not seen or even thought about during a news broadcast. These people are just as important to the success of the program as the familiar faces on camera. When the microphones fail, or there is some other auditory anomaly, we suddenly become aware of the importance of the sound guy.
Our sense of reality is often skewed by what is seen as opposed to what goes unseen. When watching a news broadcast, we often confine ourselves to what is on the screen, and rarely do we ask, what’s happening off-camera? Like a spectator to a magic show, we may infer that what we see is all that there is, with little thought about what is happening behind the scenes.
One reason why I prefer to get my news by reading, is because reading is active. I must actively do something, to gain the information I’m seeking. I can go back and re-read passages in the text, which is largely an option unavailable to passive TV watchers. Even if you can record some shows and view sections several times, I suspect most people don’t do this when watching the news. When reading a text, there is a flow to the narrative and the insightful reader can often detect when something is deficient, as when claims that require support stand out in glaring isolation. A good reader can frequently reveal such defects in ways that often go undetected in the fleeting images and glib sound bites of television.
I’m old enough to remember the Iranian hostage crisis. Throughout the crisis, during the Carter Administration, TV news viewers were subjected to the same scene night after night, of screaming insurgents in front of the gates of the American embassy in Teheran. This image gave us the idea that the whole city was in an uproar. One evening, a CBS News correspondent asked his cameraman to swing the camera around in a 360-degree arc. This revealed that the seeming throng of protestors, filling our TV screens, were in fact, few in actual number. They were clustered directly in front of the cameras, and the rest of the city, off camera, was revealed–by the CBS cameraman–to be somewhat tranquil. That revelation was a great lesson for me. It brought home that philosophical problem of appearance and reality (see, Plato’s Cave). The protestors were creating appearances of a false reality, with most of the TV news broadcasters playing along—that is, with the notable exception of that lone CBS News crew.
I believe we are less likely to be fooled if we are engaged in an activity like reading to gain knowledge of some events, rather than passively receiving images produced by others. When reading, I can move at my own pace, sometimes stopping and pondering about what I’d just read. Those moments often stir up questions, and questions often incite further inquiry, which is a good thing.