Making TV news more open

what a marker system for TV news production might look for

Channel 5’s proposal to make TV news more honest should become a standard for transparency in media production.

David Kermode announced that Channel 5 news is banning ‘noddies’ and some of the other artefacts of old school news production. This is a big deal. Channel 5’s been trying to shake up news for a while – user-contributed content is a big part of their offer already. This is the proper role of a third or fourth ranking player: keep shaking things up, keep provoking the big boys.

Kermode’s announcement is clever and provocative. I’ve been thinking about it for a few days and I find myself getting a bit overexcited about the potential for Channel 5’s bold self-denying ordnance.

What if Kermode’s idea turned into a new framework for editing and presenting news on TV? What if his promise not to hide edits – not to fake the passage of time, not to wrap stories in phoney context – became a kind of standard for honesty in factual video?

Noddies, among other things, conceal edits. Once the noddies are gone, what are we going to do with the edits? Kermode’s idea is to use simple dissolves. We’ll get used to them. We’ll learn this new grammar. We’ll absorb the idea that a dissolve indicates a gap, a discontinuity.

But that’s hardly an improvement is it? Dump one (admittedly cheesy) telly convention and replace it with another? Not what I’d call a radical response to the collapse of trust in TV.

Why not take it all a bit further? Take Kermode’s proposal and beef it up: formalise it. In the spirit of openness why not make those edits visible: mark them so we can see them as they go by. Let’s invent a set of visible markers for video edits: a red band for an edit that deletes material. A green band for an edit that changes the order of events. A blue band for an edit that changes the sense of a sequence. A horizontal ten-frame bar could warn of an upcoming edit, a discreet on-screen red dot could indicate that sound and pictures were not recorded at the same time (maybe a wild track was used), another that library footage has been used.

Sounds strange I guess, and maybe news producers would find it restrictive but I think our expectations have been so altered by the web that only this kind of explicit acknowledgement of process – of the artificial nature of edited video – can give factual TV back some of its lost moral authority. It would also throw down the gauntlet for online pretenders, setting a standard for openness that would be difficult to match.

If something like this caught on it would quickly be adopted by manufacturers: edit suites would transparently mark edits, a layer of metadata would be generated automatically: there’d probably be an XML schema. There’d be hardly any extra work and all the time burnt filming those phoney sequences would be won back for real news gathering.

The industry could really achieve something here: inventing a rich descriptive vocabulary for the process of news production, taking control of the agenda again and moving telly news into a new and more honest phase. I like this idea a lot. I hope Kermode has the guts and the managerial support to take it all the way.

The pic is an attempt to visualise how it might work. Click the little pic for a bigger one.

7 thoughts on “Making TV news more open

  1. Carry on like this and those media studies courses really will be redundant.

    Seriously though, people do know stuff is edited but they don’t like to think about it because it’s the content they’re interested in, not the form.

  2. I guess you’re right, but we’d just be replacing one eighty- or ninety-year-old convention (Eisenstein and all that) with a more up-to-date and helpful convention that doesn’t get in the way of the content (keyword: discreet) and actually provides some information. Why not?

  3. WHY NOT? Because it has no economic rationale. TV news is strung together with gaffer tape. How could they afford it.

  4. Interesting idea – Wikipedia’s model allows people to peer behind edits… so it’s already being done on a very reliable and user-friendly platform.

    But I think television is different. The viewing experience needs to be much tighter and polished.

  5. Nice idea. In the old days in the mid-nineties I had a short stint on Newsnight and would be sent out to shoot interviews with various contribs around the place that would be used in the short films that introduce an item and lead into an interview, usually expressing opposing points of view. (Digression: We filmed at Boris Johnson’s house once and blew the fuses. he seemed like a nice guy). My questions were simply a prompt and I wasn’t featured and the clips would be strung together in the edit with the actual reporter’s voice over. If I’d been briefed properly then I already knew what the contrib was meant to say and would spend the whole time getting them to say that. If they said anything different it invariably wouldn’t be used. I suppose my point is that the ‘deception’ wasn’t in the detail but much more in how you fill the perceived need that TV news needs to have pictures. So you go to a contrib’s office and get them to say what you already know to fill the gaps in what you’ve already determined is the story. Anyway, that’s why I prefer radio news – the agenda is determined much less my access. A sound only interview with Osama Bin Laden would be played in full on the radio news but edited heavily for TV incase people got bored by the lack of pictures with some news reporter paraphrasing.

    While I like your idea of news reporting with a director’s commentary as a possible overlay I think the problem is much more about the actual selection of stories rather than how they’re made.

  6. It is an interesting idea and the more we’re told that TV can’t be trusted the more feasible it sounds but I still do think people would rather be fooled by editing tricks that make it seem ‘real’.

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