Watching TV News: Should We Approach It Like Reality TV?

Watching TV News: Should We Approach It Like Reality TV?

Joseph Albert Cernik (Lindenwood University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8411-9.ch012
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This chapter focuses on the shortcomings of learning about complex policy issues from television news. The chapter uses the Vanderbilt University Television News Archive website to examine issues raised and not raised by television news, as well as the duration of time spent on issues by news shows. Examining the limitations of television news' ability to present and address complex public policy issues serves as a means to focus on critical thinking in the higher education setting. Two public policy issues are explored in this chapter, Constitutional interpretation and the Affordable Care Act, sometimes referred to as ObamaCare, as the means to show how limited television news is regarding presenting the often frustrating aspects of complex policy issues. Several methods used by the author to help students apply critical thinking skills are discussed. The results of these methods are also addressed.
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A legendary Hollywood director, John Ford, thought he was making a movie about the image or the myth of the Old West—but there is another way to see it. Ford’s movie was, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, released in 1962, starring, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, and Vera Miles. The movie says a great deal about how certain ways of thinking sometimes set in and become patterns that are difficult to break. Starting with this movie as an insight into how to watch television news, particularly what often passes for news on the 24-hour cable news channels, provides a means to step back and think about how to approach the watching of television news—particularly cable news.

The movie starts with United States Senator Ransome ‘Ranse’ Stoddard (played by Jimmy Stewart) and his wife, Hallie (played by Vera Miles) arriving by train in a western town called Shinbone to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne). Reporters interrupt him and want to know why this well-known man is here attending the funeral of Doniphon. Stoddard takes the moment to stop and think that this is time to explain something that involved him and Doniphon, which had occurred many years earlier.

The scene changes to that earlier period many years before, where Stoddard enters Shinbone to start a newspaper. Eventually he comes into conflict with Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin), who symbolizes the image of the gunfighter of the Old West. Tensions between the two reach their peak when Valance calls out Stoddard to have a gunfight in the middle of the street. Knowing that Stoddard will be killed, as he is no match for Valance, Hallie races to get Doniphon to help save her true love (previously she had been Doniphon’s girlfriend). Doniphon arrives in time to hide next to the building, and as Valance draws on Stoddard, Doniphon shoots, killing Valance.

The movie scene changes back to present where Stoddard is ending his story to the newspaper reporters and watches as a reporter crumples his story and throws it away. The exchange goes:

  • STODDARD: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?

  • REPORTER: This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

A study that analyzed the press commented in somewhat similar fashion, although not as eloquently as the exchange between Stoddard and a reporter: “Perceptions of media bias may be driven in part by assertions that the creature is real: The more discussion there is of a media bias, the more people believe that such bias exists, regardless of whether the news at a particular moment is more favorable to Democrats or Republicans” (Jamieson & Walden, 2003, p. 169)

Patterns, ways of thinking, establish themselves and we need to question what we have come to accept. The term commonly used to question what we come to accept and then to challenge our reasoning is ‘critical thinking.’ The term itself is not always easy to clearly define as one writer stated, “The critical thinking literature is quite abstract and fragmented among different scholars who don’t seem to talk to each other” (Nilson, 2014, p. 1). Although at its core there is the desire to instill in people, students in particular, the goal of questioning what they read or, in the case of this chapter, see on television. Another writer referred to the challenge of teaching thinking as “critical consumption and thinking skills” (Jolly, 2014, p. 1). This particular phrasing might more aptly apply to what is addressed by this chapter: Encouraging students to develop different approaches toward how they ‘consume’ television news.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Framing: Refers to a way or approach to present an issue, sometimes with the aim of getting a viewer, a listening, a voter to see an issue from a particular point of view.

Conservative: As with the introduction to Liberal, the same applies. Conservatives tend to believe: 1) There are ways of looking at issues as good/bad and right/wrong, 2) Individuals are responsible for themselves and should not rely on the government. Regarding both Liberal and Conservative, and the problems of easily and clearly defining or explaining them, are associated with the issue of self-interest. There are those who may define themselves by these terms and feel the need to explain or define whichever term they feel allied with as somehow on a higher plain where they transcend the political environment in which they may be participating. At the same time, the ‘other’ term needs to be understood in ways that demonize it. I encourage my students to think in terms of themselves as Democrats or Republicans and to avoid using the Liberal or Conservative labels. Politics seems to be associated with nasty connotations for many who want to believe they are functioning on some higher, purer plain, hence the use of the terms Liberal and Conservative These labels seem to help many people avoid thinking that what they are really doing is, in fact, participating in political activity. Admittedly, Liberal and Conservative never completely disappear, since they provide values and focus, but they need to be tempered against pragmatism, which is politics.

Conundrum: An issue or problem that cannot be solved easily.

Politics: An enormously complex term that is difficult to understand well. The first step is to avoid simply referring to it in a way that you can throw it aside (e.g. ‘That’s politics’). At its heart, politics involves the notion of give-and-take, compromise, a search for alternatives as opposed to fighting or not solving mutual problems that need to be addressed. How you search for solutions between and among groups that disagree, sometimes significantly with each other, inspires that search for a solution—a political solution. What needs to be understood is that the alternative to politics is, usually, a state of affairs nobody really wants—implying that one individual or one small group make all the decisions for the rest of us. Politics understands that no one individual or group has enough power to get everything that they want, so there are limitations regarding what they can achieve realistically, hence the need to think pragmatically, which means give and-take, compromise, working with individuals or groups that may not completely agree with you.

Liberal: Whatever explanation presented here will never be universally accepted—perhaps the problem of trying to explain or define political labels we see used on television news shows all the time without anyone stopping to explain what they mean. For the most part, liberal refers to a way of seeing the world around us, so an ideology. Liberals tend to believe: 1) There are ways of looking at issues that are not always good/bad or right/wrong, 2) Government can play a positive role in helping people to reach a point where they can be responsible for themselves.

Pundits: A person who gives their opinions or comments often on television news shows. Sometimes when the term is used, it is used negatively, but everyone has an opinion and the aim is to distinguish well-developed opinion from quick off-the-cuff remarks.

Ideology: An abstract way of understanding often public affairs issues. Sometimes associated with a worldview way of looking at, interpreting and understanding issues. Ideology usually comes with a set of beliefs, or values that aid in helping to provide a framework to understand and interpret issues.

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