Category Archives: Media

Death of the Narrative: A Radio News Perspective

Jane working the early morning hours at 570News (circa 2009)
Jane working the early morning hours at 570News (circa 2009)

This morning I am struck by a strong sense of time and narrative. Triggered by what, I’m not yet sure. Whether it’s because just this week I noticed a few grey hairs on my head, (for who knows how long; it just snuck up on me). Or whether it’s because my teenage daughter is now starting to fight with me the same way I used to fight with my mother, with a hint of condescension as if to say, “what the heck do you know anyway?-you’re out of touch”. Or, whether it’s the 1993 video veteran newscaster Dick Smyth shared this week of our 680News team in the early days of the first 24/7 news wheel format in Canada. I sense that it’s this latter scenario drawing me in, provoking a strong need to reflect on the perception of time, narrative, and what it does to the psyche. But first, a little background story.

In March of 1988 I was a high school senior partying in Cuba over Spring Break, living in the moment, not thinking too hard about what I really wanted to do after graduation. There were close to fifty other teens who came together from various regions in Ontario, all feeling the same way. We were escaping our futures, holding on to the moment, and to our youth. One of the teens from our small 10-member Niagara group would go on to embrace the future the following year, marrying a co-worker at her part-time student workplace. Still another would go on to serve in the Canadian military, dying 15 years later in Afghanistan from an improvised explosive device going off underneath the Armed forces’ light armoured vehicle he was traveling in. But these were not the potential realities we were thinking about in Cuba. Excited by our new-found independence and celebration of youth as a collective group, we spent the nights drinking and talking, and the days sleeping on the beach.

One late night we let “living in the moment” slip. A boy from Cambridge talked about his plans to go to college for Radio Broadcasting. It was all I could think about for the rest of the trip. What was I going to do with my life? Shortly after I returned home, the sun melted the Spring ice and a TV crew showed up on our door to film my mother for a gardening episode on TVO. I got some advice from a young crew member and set my sights on applying to Ryerson and getting a co-op placement at the local radio station.

At CHSC, the afternoon news anchor and later, my friend Ed Eldred took a chance on me and sent me out to do a story on the tall ships that had sailed into the Welland locks. I found a young sailor who invited me to sit and listen to stories of his travels and description of what a typical day was like living on the ship. It is this first interview that remains ingrained in my memory, succeeded only by a handful of others including an interview with the sister of NHL hockey player Brian Bellows. A strong spirited survivor, Sandy wanted to reach out to other young women after she was raped and savagely beaten in the snowy woods by serial rapist and murderer Peter John Peters. She had lived because a retired police officer overheard her screams of terror and rescued her, and she now had a strong desire to tell her story. I held two pieces of ID up to the window while two dobermans sniffed enthusiastically at the cracks of the door before being let in for a 2 ½ hour interview.

I joined the 680 News team right after graduation. In fact, Dick’s video was taken on the day Jamie Munroe and I had to leave work early to attend convocation. With the fresh 24/7 news wheel format, we were now responsible for getting news out around the clock and by the second. I often think back on this time as the moment radio reporting died for me (though I continued to anchor off and on). Instead of meeting with people and really hearing their narrative, the immediacy of the new format largely forced us into gathering sound bytes with man-on-the-street and over-the-phone interviews. Since that time, other shifts have worked to reinforce its death. Our evolving technology has combined with our post 20th century desire to live in the moment, acting like a hammer hitting the final nail on the coffin of the style of radio reporting I fell in love with almost 25 years ago.

I do not mourn the passing of the radio medium as a major news source sent into the back corners, but rather the passing of a public’s narrative and with it the echoes of empathy heard through the recounted stories of those we connected with; those we took the time to hear. Much the same demise has played out on our 24/7 news television screens, turned by audience desire for immediacy and entertainment. Many of you may argue with me, citing the unusual full-length playing of Charles Ramsey’s step-by-step account of how he saved three kidnapped women and a child from confinement. You may say, “the narrative isn’t dead. They even played the full 2 ½ minutes of Ramsey’s interview this week during a radio newscast”. I can’t help but hope there is a fraction of the public seeking to revive the narrative, but I’m more inclined to believe it’s entertainment they’re after.

Sunday May 12, 2013 Update

More evidence that the narrative is taking a hit for the sake of its audience comes in the Toronto Star today with media analyst Robert Thompson saying, “Basic rules need to be taught, not only on consuming media but how people themselves use media in these completely democratized ways. And that would include a sense of ethics, even if you are not a professional journalist.”

The article is largely about how news outlets keep getting the big news wrong time after time with the pressure to publish first. Coincidentally, the Toronto Star obviously failed to re-read before publishing. Reporter Mitch Potter used direct quotations for a person named Bleier twice. However, Robert Thompson is the man who should have been quoted throughout. He is the director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Centre for Television and Popular Culture. The use of “Bleier calls the rush of…” and “said Bleier” shows that even the Toronto Star can’t seem to write an article on journalistic mistakes without making mistakes of their own.


Now That’s PD!

EdCamp Hamilton
via David Carruthers @pluggedportable

What a fantastic end to a rough week. I had the opportunity to attend EdCamp Hamilton, coming off the back end of several heated discussions around the organization and attendance of a focus group held by Pearson last weekend. I had taken issue with the fact that some were unable to distinguish the difference between a conference and a focus group. Today, I stand somewhere in the middle.

My colleagues were at the Pearson session to share opinions about social media. They weren’t told exactly what Pearson was looking to gain from the meeting but I’m told by several attendees that it didn’t really matter since anytime Tweeps come together face to face, PD is happening. Fair enough. Members of this group have a high interest in advancing education into the 21st century and are well-meaning and forward-thinking people. Though I still take issue with the misguided use of the ontsm hashtag. It suggested that 50 educators were representing all Ontario teachers on the topic of social media. It also didn’t include Pearson’s company name in the hashtag. This led to the embarrassment of at least one colleague doing her best to smooth over the recent political turbulence with the public over education, tweeting how proud she was that Ontario educators were getting together over a weekend on their own time for PD. She did not know that this time, these teachers were being paid. Though I can’t go without mentioning that several of the same attendees of the focus group had paid for PD at the Google summit the week previously and showed up to the free edcamp event in Hamilton this weekend. Afterall, these are highly engaged teachers.

Edcamp felt like neutral ground. The uninhibited chance for everyone to freely post and select topics keeps current practice just that-CURRENT-with a capital “C”, and I thoroughly enjoy edcamp for that. The topics were also uninhibited by companies hawking their wares through sessions and trade show-like activities. Yes, there was some corporate sponsorship, but we’d be remiss if we failed to acknowledge that at least some money has to come from somewhere for an event like this. However, towards the end of the day, I overheard a publishing representative approach a colleague of mine asking for a meeting. It proves just how desperate these companies are to infiltrate the good things we have going on in education. Whether you view it as a goal to exploit teachers for profits or whether you chalk it up to simple recognition that we’re on to something big here, we’ll have to examine our relationships with publishers and educators. The line has become blurred between our meeting spaces.

I suggest that we need to take into account all the relationships that we have-with our employer, the college of teachers, our union, and our corporate suppliers. It’s time to revisit our contracts around ownership of our content in all arenas. Consider also whether you will take an open approach and use Creative Commons or whether you will go privately; corporate or as sole owner. So, the next time a company approaches you with a media release or some other sort of contract, what would it hurt to ask for it in advance and have it checked over by a board or union lawyer? Sometimes in our effort to be shift disturbers we push too hard, too fast without considering the agency of all parties. And above all, keep a critical eye open and remember that all media have commercial interests.

A Teachable Moment in Media Literacy and Global Perspective


Members of the Jeddah Kings United all-female team attend football exercise in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. AP Images

A group of grade 11 girls were showing the music video they had just finished producing for my Communications Technology class, when it occurred to me how differently the video would be perceived in some parts of the world. It was a video about three girls all doing different sporting activities but coming together at the end to high-five and yes, even chest bump each other.

I asked them to explain the main message of their video. They looked surprised, as we had conferenced over the video several times through the production stages and they knew that I knew full-well what their intentions were. I asked them again, adding “for the sake of the class”. The girls explained that the message was about the fact that even though these girls enjoyed different sporting interests, they could still be good friends. Can you read the message laying beneath their statement? The realization just about knocked my socks off, especially after reading about the recent bus rapes in India and viewing pictures on the Internet of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was sent to a U-K hospital to be treated for a Taliban gun attack she endured for promoting education of females in her homeland. I thought about my students. We enjoy so many freedoms in Canada. Without a global perspective who can be blamed for taking these freedoms for granted?

I asked my students to consider if and how the message in the student music video might be received differently elsewhere in the world. After some silence I prompted them with, “how about, for example, in the middle east”? They were still very quiet. After this even lengthier moment of silence I mentioned there were some countries in the middle east where girls are not allowed to go out of the home without the accompaniment of a male family member, let alone play sports. This led into a discussion about culture and the importance of becoming acquainted with various global perspectives. In the end, the girls who produced the video said they wished they had been able to make the connection earlier, but were now even more proud of their project outcome, high-lighting just how lucky they felt they were to be living in Canada and empathising with those women who will never know the joy of sport.

It’s a topic worth re-visiting and requires digging deeper, as it’s really not so black and white. Women of privilege in Saudi Arabia are training for sports amidst constant criticism, while state run schools neither have the facilities nor the approval for physical education classes. The Human Rights Watch was quoted, “Millions of (Saudi) girls are banned from playing sports in schools, and women are prohibited from playing team sports and denied access to sports facilities, including gyms and swimming pools.” The division of rights based on class is worth a discussion.

Ohio-born and Saudi-raised Equestrian Dalma Malhas was to have been the first Saudi female to compete at this past summer’s Olympics, but the International Equestrian Federation reported she was disqualified from the Games in late June for failing to meet minimum eligibility standards. Two other women did end up qualifying in their sports for the Olympics. Wujdan Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar became the first women ever to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics; Shahrkhani in judo and Attar in track and field.  Shahrkhani had to jump many hurdles in meeting both the dress code demands of her country and the Olympic rule-book. Still, one North American news outlet viewed Saudi Arabia’s allowance of the women to compete as a “sham“. Perspectives of cultures holding deeply polarized oppositional and dominant readings is certainly worth a look with students.

Saudi Arabia may be the only country still banning women from sport in government schools, but that doesn’t mean women in other countries are completely free of barriers to play. Obstacles such as war, gender-bias, and violence against women put survival first and foremost on women and girls’ lists, leaving very little consideration about sport. One only need look to the situation in the Congo where a Refugees International report says women are choosing between rape and hunger. While it’s important to consider the various barriers to women playing sports in the world, we also have to take care not to place the issue in very geo-specific areas such as the middle east.

Extensions of the topic may include a look at American perspectives of how sport enhances female power. I recommend using a Forbes article titled, “The Secret to Being a Power Woman: Play Team Sports“. How might this perspective be viewed by other cultures?

Lastly, shifting the topic from sports to the Saudi ban on women driving is worth a look as the release of MIA’s music video, “Bad Girls” is sure to get students’ attention (my personal favourite music video from 2012). At the beginning of our Music Video unit, I showed this video to students first without any explanation of the laws in Saudi Arabia, then after explaining the situation, I played the video again. At first, students had no idea what message MIA was presenting, but felt the pimped out cars being rolled on the edge was kind of cool and then a bit overdone by the end of the video. However, on second viewing and with their new learning, they were able to point out so many details of subversion including the men cheering on the women driving, women toting guns, and exposed female skin and fashions. They also pointed out that the desert was likely a whole lot closer to Hollywood than Riyadh (actually, it was Morocco).

I can’t stress how important it is to present these opportunities for critical reflection of pop culture and global perspectives, even for a Communications Technology teacher. Our students are producing cultural artefacts; snapshots of current perspective, trends, and interests of North American youth. It only makes sense that we do them the courtesy of validating their work by offering opportunities to consider the relationship of these cultural artefacts to oppositional readings, global and even generational perspectives.


Another Look at Pointless Populism

the|G|™ / Stock Photos

William R. Seaman’s “Active Audience theory: pointless populism”, 1992

Active audience theory grew in practice during the application of ethnographic research methods in the study of TV audience viewing practices in the 1980’s. In John Fiske’s 1987 book, “Television Culture” he explains how ethnography came to be a valid method of studying television and its viewers. David Morley (who Seaman actually criticizes in his 1992 paper), felt that Stuart Hall overemphasized the role of class in producing different readings (Hall’s work was in encoding/decoding, examining preferred reading, negotiated reading, and oppositional readings). There were some cross similarities between people of different social backgrounds such as bank managers and apprentices, and Morley surmised that the two were similarly constructed as subjects of capitalist ideology, inserting themselves into the dominant ideology in a shared interest of the economy’s survival and success. As a result, the emphasis of ethnography shifted away from the textual and ideological construction of the subject to socially and historically situated people. The emphasis in the late 80s turned to studying “the way people live in their culture” and acknowledged the differences between people despite their social construction and pluralized the meanings and pleasures they found in television. (Fiske) Greg Philo later writes that people do read the intended encoded message of a media text the same; it’s not polysemic in having different meanings to different groups. He believes instead that audiences are likely to criticize the content of a message in relation to another perspective, which they hold to be correct. “They are therefore aware of the encoded meaning and the manner in which it was constructed -they just do not agree with it.” (Philo, Active Audiences and the Construction of Public Knowledge, 2008)

Summary of reading

Seaman has an aversion to ethnographic research in the field of cultural studies, rejecting the overall view that, “television audiences hold far greater power over the medium than is generally acknowledged.”(301) He also says that an “active audience approach has tended more to mystify than to clarify, to rationalize a set of practices rather than to explain them.” (309) Further, he charges active audience theorists with taking a rhetorical role in theory construction, rather than an analytic or descriptive approach. (306) Seaman also argues against the active audience theorist view that the viewer’s individual interpretation constitutes interaction, implying a measure of control over the televisual text, as the text is just an A/V signal and is not altered itself by the viewer. (306) This goes against Fiske’s view that TV doesn’t have an effect on the individual, but rather on the ideology of a society in that it promotes and prefers certain meanings (that already exist).

Seaman has trouble with the term “free agency.” Unless viewers are aware of the “highly constrained character and content of programming…of the information, analyses, perspectives, beliefs filtered out by mainstream media, it is wrong to suggest they are truly free of their decisions to act.” (307)

Ethnographic Research

-Seaman believes it allows cultural studies theorists to makes self-serving judgements

Seaman’s first critique of ethnographic research in active audiences is that it focuses on the apparent characterizations of these theorists in certain cultural practices as “resistant” or “oppositional”. He criticizes Morley’s playing with the oppositional reading. Morley countered an earlier view that Thomas Lindlof and Paul Trandt had earlier observed in that television is used to create personal space and may actually be used to avoid conflicts and be used to lessen conflicts within larger families with his own reading that television is used for things such as acceptable zones for private pursuits and provides organizing centres and an opportunity for new types of communicative contexts. In doing so, Morley started to replace words such as “can be seen” with the more definitive “television is”. Another example Seaman gives is when theorists say that the text is being “used” in a particular context, it implies that the subject is controlling the text for his or her own purposes. Other questions must be asked first, such as whether or not the subject is even aware of alternative choices so that essentially I think what he is saying is that comparisons need to be made in order to judge the assessment’s validity or plausibility. Seaman warns that theorists must be careful that possibilities are not turned into judgments as this can be misleading.

Audience Interpretation

-Ineffective override and negative reinforcement

A) Seaman warns that mediated effects cannot confirm whether or not a target subgroup interprets degrading representations of that subgroup in ways that overthrow the dominant reading.

He used the example of Fiske’s work in stating that “women have told me how much they enjoyed Charlie’s Angels when it appeared on their screens in the 70’s and that their pleasure is seeing women taking active, controlling roles was so great that it overrode the incorporating devices that worked to recuperate feminist elements in its content back into patriarchy.” The way that the women may have perceived the experience of viewing cannot stand alone as the success of overriding the incorporating devices of a television program. “The word “pleasure” has to be explored in context. Seaman surmises that interpretations that rest on such elements as “viewer pleasure” can be self-serving.

B) He also warns that an oppositional reading of a text by a subgroup may work as an affirmation of their prejudices, giving them even more strength. He cites the anti-Arab racism in the American mainstream media and says the harm is not the demoralization of the subgroup, but the reinforcement of the prejudice and an encouragement to continue racist feelings in the dominant group.

Empowerment and the Active Audience

-Seaman wonders how can Active Audience findings empower, if there’s no readable action being taken?

Seaman says viewers do use the information they pick up on TV as reference points in making sense of the world but worries when theorists see this as an empowerment. He argues that viewer empowerment through the use of interaction with television is alarming to the “degree that elite interests dominate our news media and so constrain the field of options for ‘reference points’, examples and analyses” (305). I think he means that knowing that not all of the information and viewpoints make it to the audience by way of TV, it would be scary that we only see what does make it to the tube as worthy enough of conversation, consideration, or even value. More evidence to this view is on page 308 when he writes, “The problem does not lie with audiences, but rather with a system of mass communication that systematically excludes certain forms of programming and imagery in favour of a profoundly restricted and highly interest driven selection. The problem is not with audience interpreting practices, but with what is available for interpretation.”

Seaman seems to have a problem with theorists who use the term “empowerment” when it doesn’t really have a measurable effect in terms of action. On the subject of empowerment, he writes about Madonna as empowering for young women, “does nothing to decrease the staggering risk of date rape and other all too common forms of sexual assault and harassment.” (308) The result deals more with thoughts and feelings, which Seaman says is difficult to characterize, and makes the point that it’s not that he feels audience thoughts and feelings should be ignored.

Seaman harshly slams the active audience approach, saying it provides no insight into research in communication and media theory. He refers to the “pleasures made possible by inflected television readings simply will not address, let alone confront, the parochial bigotries, racist and sexist hiring practices, or the conservative voting trends that threaten even the most basic social programs, affirmative action and abortion rights here in the U-S…the violence against women and people of colour. “ (309)

Morley’s Rebuttal

In 2006, Morley wrote a response to the backlash against ethnographic research in his paper title, “Unanswered Questions in Audience Research.” Morley feels Seaman’s “Pointless Populism” is really “a return to a very old story about media effects and largely readable as the return of a narrowly fundamentalist political economy.”

“It is one thing to argue (as I have myself done) that some recent audience work has exaggerated, and wrongly romanticized the supposed power and freedoms of media consumers, imagining that all audiences everywhere are engaged in a continuous form of “semiological guerrilla warfare” (Eco, 1972) with the media, in which they constantly produce oppositional readings of its products.” (Morley, 2006)

Morley further acknowledges Seaman’s criticism of qualitative ethnographic research for not leading to follow-up action. “The further question raised by the critics of cultural studies audience work is whether it matters if people make oppositional or subversive decodings of media material, unless they go out and ‘do something’ (go on a demonstration; start a petition) about it.” Morley defends himself by saying that the many micro-instances of ‘pre-political’ attitude change in the cultural sphere acts as the impetus for political change. (Morley, 2006)

Morley ends up calling for a balanced approach to the two methodological practices of qualitative and quantitative. He surmises that there are times when more traditional types of research such as quantitative (number crunching and statistics) may be useful in audience research but warns that too much content can “deaden” under the weight of the “quantity of unanalysed contextual data. He gives validity to qualitative and ethnographic research in that it provides insight into, “the complexities of how audiences “indigenise” the media materials which they consume”, but warns that it runs the “danger of, descending into anecdotalism” and “we should not mistake the vividness of the examples it offers us for their general applicability.” (Morley, 2006)

In Search of Production Equipment

For my MRP, I’ve been scavenging around looking for equipment. The distance from home to school has me worried about renting equipment from Ryerson. Those late charges could sure add up if the 401 Eastbound is shut down again any morning I try to bring the equipment back.

I have purchased Adobe Premiere Pro, After Effects and and Photoshop software. I have a good working knowledge of the editing program and am a beginner at the other two. For a camera, I bought the Canon Vixia HV40. I tested it out this weekend and it is quite good quality. I shot in HDV and tried to import a 45 second clip into my Apple MacBook Pro. After several attempts to import I finally figure out that the camera setting for playback must be on “DV Locked”, and the setting on Premier Pro must be on Canon Alternate 2. When I did capture the clip, the program froze and the swirling pizza ball of hell would not vacate my screen. After shutting down and re-starting, i found the clip in my movie file (I imported it as an .mov). I tried to import it into the project but the swirling pizza ball of hell came back. I decided to check the file size. It was almost half a gig for 45 seconds! That’s about 10 megabytes per second. I am going to do some more tests before shooting at the ECOO conference this week. Maybe Standard def in widescreen is the way to go.

I also purchased a little side light which fills in the shadows on faces. it tested pretty well. The Audio Technica mic US1Photo sent doesn’t work and will have to be sent back. I did an online purchase for one through B and H Photo and sped up the delivery time. That was Friday and I have to shoot Thursday. I’m keeping my fingers crossed!(received an email later in the day saying they shipped it out today…still keeping my fingers crossed).

Also today, I tested out audio for field use. Mike Murphy gave us a good overview of the different types of mics and some tips for use. It was interesting to learn how the cardiod shotgun condenser mic works. The phasing that happens with the ridges on the sides of the mic to cancel out delayed sound is highly useful for shooting at a conference when you don’t want extraneous noise. I took the mic outside and it picked up the helicopter going by above me quite well and when I pointed it down 45 degrees the volume was noticeably lower. Even the ambient noise changed with the position of the mic. This mic required phantom power even though it was battery powered, unless I was using it wrong. I couldn’t get a level without the phantom power on.

I then tried out my Shure SM11 lavalier mic. It needed phantom power as well. The levels were quite a bit lower than the shotgun mic. I tested out the sound in the RCC lobby and talked in a regular voice while a girl beside me spoke in a loud voice. It picked her up as well. I can see how important it will be to have that shotgun mic at the conference and I really hope it arrives before my shoot on Thursday. Ryerson won’t let me take out the shotgun mic, nor the portable audio mixer because the first and second years are using them this week. I’m starting to see how important it really is to have your own equipment. However, there are other good reasons for this. I know that starting a project with one camera and mic and switching to other equipment can cause differences in audio and video footage in various a/v levels that can leave you with hours of colour correction and matching audio levels and warmth. I’m hoping to save myself some time this way.

I tried out the Marantz USB recorder. I think I’ll use this to record my audio separately at the conference and then sync it up afterwards. I recorded .wav at 48kH. About 4 minutes of audio took 46 megabytes. For my MRP I’m expecting about 6 hours of native audio files. 5 seconds takes up 1 mb. That’s do-able. I’m looking at recording 6 hours. That’s just over 4 gigs.

I did try to plug both the shotgun mic and the lavalier into the Marantz but the levels were so different and there is only one level knob. The Marantz in no way should be used as a mixer! The ease of transfer from the Marantz via USB is a terrific time saver. This may be the next item on my list of things to buy.