Monday, July 27, 2009

Talking heads

Back in the days when the TV bulletin was fifteen to twenty minutes long once a night the news was just that - news. A newsreader would read out the headlines either accompanied by a picture of the related person/incident or a short film without commentary.

The nearest we would get to opinion would be a raised eyebrow or an inflection in the voice of the newsreader, but with the rise of 24 hour rolling news channels TV news reporting has changed radically.

One of the most disturbing changes - in my opinion - has been the rise of the talking head; a person who may or may not be employed by the news broadcaster, but is promoted by that organisation as an "expert" on a subject.

Now virtually every item of news includes the appearance of a talking head to explain what the news means - but this is almost invariably based purely on their own personal opinion or (if they are indeed employed by that broadcaster) the opinion of their bosses.

I have two problems with this. First of all, it doesn't allow much room for the viewer to form their own opinion. Although many will do so anyway, there is a huge number of people who will accept what that talking head says just because they are supposed to be an expert and they are appearing on a well regarded news channel which they trust.

My second problem is that it is not news broadcasting, but opinion forming which I believe should be kept out of television news reporting. Essentially, it is a form of propaganda which is insidious and damaging.


bernard said...


Many years ago an independent survey was conducted to find out if your last paragraph was true, so to speak.
It found that by far the greater majority of adult readers/viewers were quite uninfluenced by the news and accompanying comment.
The reason was, people already have a predisposed view & opinion on most matters, and only read or watch a program etc in order to have that opinion reinforced. If it is not agreeable, it is ignored.
Likewise, those who read the Telegraph do so because it best reflects what they think, and would only go to the Gruaniad in order to have those 'rightwing'(?) opinions confirmed.
There ARE other caveats on this... but that's another matter.

Stan said...

If people weren't influenced by what they see on TV, bernard then companies would not spend billions advertising their products on there. I've no doubt that if you asked 50,000 adults whether they were influenced by the news and comment they'd mostly say no - but they would be even if they hadn't realised it. The opinion formers KNOW this and that is why they make most of the medium.

Although most people have a predisposed view that isn't to say that those views can not be changed - I know mine did and I'm pretty sure many of those people in government who used to be radical communists in their youth would say theirs had too (though I have my doubts).

Most critically, the talking heads have a major influence on the next generation of adults as teenagers start to take an interest in news. That is why it is a generational process rather than instant transformation.

bernard said...


Do you suppose that when Labour was swept into office in 1997 it was because the majority of voters ceased to become Conservative and decided to become Socialist Labour instead? No.
They switched because the ruling Tory party no longer held those traditional 'values' that had previously characterised them.
(The next general election could well be a hung parliament because of this blurring between the two).
Sure, adverts can influence what sort of fridge people buy, but when it comes to the serious stuff of politics or religion they remain unmoved.
By the way, the same survey showed that children and teenagers paid more heed to what their parents liked or disliked on the media than had been hitherto been supposed.
Ask yourself, are your views radically different to those of your parents or relations?
If those 'talking heads' you speak of were so influential why is it this govt is so unpopular? After all it's not for lack of propaganda by the BBC etc.

Stan said...

Sory bernard, but we didn't have the level of 24 hour rolling news channels in 1997 or internet use that we do now so it doesn't stand up to make that comparison.

My views were influenced by my parents, but that was long before the rise of the "talking heads".

I don't agree that the news channels have been particularly kind to this government either - but they were very supportive of the Blair government and are increasingly supportive of Cameron.

The study you referred to was - as you said - from many years back. Well things have altered radically in news reporting since then and I don't think that study holds much water today. Politicians and parties understand the value of media only too well and recognise the importance in getting the media on their side which is why they spend an awful lot of time and money doing it. Again - why would they do that if there was no influence to be gained?

No - the influence is proven and considerable.