Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Television News and Contentiousness: An Exploratory Study of Visual and Verbal Content in News about the President

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Television News and Contentiousness: An Exploratory Study of Visual and Verbal Content in News about the President

Article excerpt

Television, among other factors, has changed the war-like speechmaking of yesterday to the conciliatory and conversational forms of today's political communication (Jamieson, 1988; McGinniss, 1969; McLuhan, 1964). According to Jamieson (1988), a subtle conversion from contentious speechmaking to an effeminate style of communication is the result. Her analysis of modern political communication motivates this study of the verbal and pictorial representations of political contentiousness in news stories of the President of the United States.

Contentiousness is a human and social quality found in hostile and aggressive words and actions and in the way they are spoken and visualized. It is visually exhibited by inflexible and unfriendly attitudes in facial displays and body language. It is seen in sharp, tense, and assertive movements towards others. It is embedded in the drama and conflict pervading social relationships.

Television news depicts contentiousness through audio and visual dimensions. TV audio can accurately carry the contentious tone of the human voice and the aggressive language used by politicians and others depicted in a news story. The reporter's verbal account may enhance or diminish the conflict associated with a news story. The visual aspects of television can also convey the interactions of the President with other politicians, show him smiling and shaking hands, patting backs, or pounding a podium and shaking a fist in anger. Through a series of shots assembled by an editor, director, or producer, the visual image of television can enhance or reduce the level of contention in a news story. The President can be seen and heard in a variety of conflictual ways during any given newscast.

Contentiousness and its depiction in the media are important to understand, yet the connections between conflict, media, and society are controversial. Olien, Donohue, and Tichenor (1995) summarize social research on conflict showing that the media avoid conflict and stress consensus and, conversely, intensify conflict. They explore conflict as a social process. Critical thinking about the way media portray and create conflict suggests wide ranging implications (see for example Brown, 1998; Messaris, 1998; Meyrowitz, 1998). This study focuses on television network nightly news, because it is a pervasive outlet for information, and because some important changes are occurring in the medium. Fallows (1996) and others (for example Pfau, Kendall, Reichert, Hellweg, Lee, Tusing, & Prosise, 1997) have studied viewers who report a diminishing reliance, trust, and use of television news for political information. Does television news go beyond portraying reality and manufacture a sense of conflict which did not exist in the visual aspects of the political event, or in what the President said? If so, how is it done?

In the work of such early social scientists as Comte and Marx, conflict was a central concept. As Olien et al. (1995) explain, these early philosophers disagreed on its origin, nature, and effect. This study presumes conflict to be a positive, sociative factor (Cooley, 1909; Simmel, 1955). In this way, conflict can be distinguished from contentiousness. Conflict is seen as the positive outcome of contentious, or dissociating factors such as acrimony, hate, alienation, envy, greed, and desire.

   Conflict is thus designed to resolve divergent dualisms; it is a way of
   achieving some kind of unity, even if it be through the annihilation of one
   of the conflicting parties. This is roughly parallel to the fact that it is
   the most violent symptom of a disease which represents the effort of the
   organism to free itself of disturbances and damages caused by them.
   (Simmel, 1955, p. 13).

Contentiousness is understood as a social ill, and conflict is a remedy. If conflict is the process of suppression and release of tension, then contentiousness is the tension between divergent ideas. …

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