CONVENTIONS OF TELEVISION NEWS
By John Hartley, 1982
Questions by Henry Jenkins, 09/15/2001
You can begin to decipher the codes operating in television news
putting them into classes as follows:
- John Hartley, Understanding News (London: Methuen, 1982)
- Visual Codes
These include codes of composition, codes of movement; and
codes of sequence.
- Codes of Composition...include the codes which govern the
way a picture is framed, coloured and lit. How many elements
are on screen together, and what is their relationship? How
does the way they are lit affect their signification or connotative
qualities? How does the use of composition codes set news
apart from other television genres?
- Codes of movement govern movement within the frame of both
the camera and the subject. One routine convention in newsfilm
is the pan from an apparently insignificant object (like the
flag of a ship's mast) to the 'real' subject of the report
(like striking seamen gathered on the ship's deck). A similar
device is the zoom from long-shot into big close-up of the
newsworthy celebrity, or the hand-held camera doggedly following
the star, the ball, the police...into the thick of the action.
- Codes of sequence are those associated with editing. How
quickly shots are changed, what images are juxtaposed, and
how different aspects of a story are differently edited into
a sequence, can radically affect the 'meaning' of an event.
- Verbal Codes
Many of these are not specific to television,
being derived from conventional speech, narrative and journalism.
But of course this is one of the reasons why news can appear to
be so 'natural.' However, the verbal element of tv news - especially
the voice-over commentary - is unique in being closely associated
with visual images. How do the verbal codes reinforce, undercut,
or modify the visual elements? Find examples of places where the
verbal discourse is 'anchored' by a particular visual image, and
- Absent Codes
Why are some familiar devices of television entirely absent from
TV news? For example: music, dramatic reconstructions of events,
studio debate. Compare a sequence from a TV drama series with
a sequence of a news film of similar length, and try to decide
which codes in fiction are unlikely to appear in news.
Questions to Consider
- Hartley encourages us to think about the differences in the
way that an event might be represented on the news and in a television
drama. Leave aside for the moment, the fact that one is performed
by actors and the other by real people. What do you see as the
differences in camera work, editing, sound, etc? How can you tell
when you are flipping channels whether you are watching news or
drama? In some ways, this is a silly question since the differences
are so great, but it can be helpful sometimes to spell out the
- Can you point to examples in the media coverage of this incident
where these distinctions break down? Is there more room for badly
composed shots, crudely edited sequences, technically inferior
images, etc. in covering something as unanticipated as this story?
Or, on the other hand, is there room for sequences which include
music tracks or which show us music video style editing as the
news tries to commerate the people who died in this event?
- Hartley tries simply to point us in the directions of the conventions
of filming television news. Can you flesh out some of the areas
he suggests? What are some other conventions of the way television
presents the news?
- One of the newer conventions of television news has been the
layering of information, so that we may have a window showing
us images and perhaps several "tickertapes" of information running
along the bottom of the screen reporting different information
or encapsulating the story as a whole. How do you think people
make sense of all of those layers of information? Do we see them
as separate bits of information or somehow interrelated? How do
they contribute to the sense of urgency in the media's coverage,
to the sense of many things happening at once?
- Some writers have argued this layering of information is an
attempt by television to duplicate the experience of the windows
interface for the computer. Do you think doing several operations
on the computer at once helps to prepare us for these new conventions
in presenting the news?
- Hartley asks us to think about the relationship between spoken
words and pictures on television. Which carries greater authority
or importance? Can you recall examples where the images simply
illustrate the words? Can you point to places where the words
simply provide a caption for the pictures? Are there cases where
the verbal narration stops and we simply respond to silent images?
- Most television news footage uses moving pictures as opposed
to still photography. Why? Can you point to examples where the
news chose to use still shots as opposed to moving images? What
might have motivated this choice?
Decoding Codes educational
project by Geraldine Haas, 09/16/2001
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