Question: Quickly name a piece of media that’s memorable. Done!
What are the chances it’s a piece of journalism news? Rare. Unless it’s epic.
It’s not unusual for TV executives to talk about television news storytelling and apologise for the use of the word ‘cinema’ or cinematic’ in describing a scene that leaps out of the screen. Happens quite a lot.
The apology tends to signify the presence of a highly visual aesthetic e.g. shallow focus, which is associated with, not TV, but cinema feature films.
From my interviews with execs there is an awkwardness. Television execs cite cinema emphatic in the knowledge they’re two different media: primarily one is truth and fact and the other is fiction and never the twain should they mix. We as consumers have come to believe that too, but we’re less pedantic. There’s an acknowledgment that the cinema is either a place we go to, or it’s a form we acknowledge as a movie and is fictional.
And yet my work shows a growing number of top flight journalists who make references to cinema, its visual and textual form, to aid their storytelling on news programmes, and the audiences retain strong memories of the films and are affected deeply and emotional by what they’ve seen and heard.
The journalists often too see the distinction in forms, but borrow cinema’s language or langue to use the right term, for their own ends. It works too; they win awards, their editors praise them, and the consumers, you and I, can’t get enough.
But this way of creating narrative and acknowledging interpretation of events is rarely taught. Simply because generally television people see no connection between the two. It would be akin to a newspaper journalist writing poetry, until one day, the newspaper journalist is a poet, like Archibald MacLeish a Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry, twice, and a Fortune and The New Republic magazine journalist. Katherine Davis Chapman Tillman was 19 years of age when she became a journalist. Her prose underlined her poetry which she excelled at speaking of the black experience.
I regard the press as one of the mightiest factors that move this universe of ours. So great is its influence, so powerful its results, I verily believe that if we, through any unseen force, should lose our free press, our republic would be shattered.”
And then to bookend these examples of art and journalism is James Baldwin Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Herein too is a place where cinema, a plastic art, intersects with journalism, a matter of fact. To get there, a slight detour is needed. ‘Cinema’ dug deep is more that we think. No one has ever quite cracked what cinema is, but can tell you what it might look like. Famously, the French journalist and critic Andre Bazin asked ‘What is cinema?’.
Cinema arrived before TV and for a while was factual. In the 1920s documentary was an attempt at cinema told factually, which is why Grierson, the father of docs, talks about ‘the creative use of actuality’.
When TV news arrived in the 1950s it had many reasons to discard the label cinema. This new medium needed to be distinct, different from Newsreels which followed a cinema form. Then there was the lack of resources e.g. cameras and small size of screen that hampered TV’s cinemacity. Imagine trying to ape John Ford on a screen back then which was fuzzy and no bigger than a 13-inch computer screen? Yep, but no, but!
In the 1960s Robert Drew and Jean Rouch changed this attitude to cinema with their aptly named versions of Cinema Verite. Note the term ‘cinema’ in the title, that eventually documentary would borrow. Their motivations were prominently about doing away with V/O and a reporter.
They might have had more traction in news but Drew was considered an outsider, and inside news the reporter was central. Thus observation docs ran with the term. News didn’t.
As a language, cinema’s expressiveness within an array of styles and sequences to tell a story offers a far wider palette than traditional TV news making. This wasn’t a given, but earlier in TV News’s development execs chose to create a finite template that was exported around the world. This. Is. How. You. Do. News. was the message. It still persists.
Here’s a not so obvious piece of trivia. If news purported to bring you the whole of a story, why does it only have one camera operator? Can you honestly say one camera will suffice? I know what you’re thinking. Course yes, it’s proven.
I’m afraid the original answer is earnestly more simple. Officials couldn’t afford more than one camera in the 1950s. Remember TV was never supposed to work and as such wasn’t given a cat’s whisker to survive, so little resources were spared to it.
Remember Like the five monkeys experiment, or better still this. There were ‘rebels’ in TV-as-cinema’s early movement but they were crowded out. So knowledge of creating expressive narrative was nullified. What emerged was a standardised way of storytelling. Here’s an experiment. Approach your Broadcast lecturer or TV exec and ask why they place characters on the third of the screen. The answer you might get is because well it’s so. That’s the five monkeys experiment working. It had to do with perceived balance in a photo.
Perceived because we’re taught this, but if you’re from the East. This symbol that signifies many thing including balance, suggest another way of seeing the world. In this post here, I give you a glimpse going back to Ukiyo-e paintings, which influenced one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Yasujirō Ozu.
Knowledge of this and many other reasons have been lost. TV has been made to cope with a handicap which has become an ‘obvious’ norm! Remember too when TV News pioneer Grace Wyndham Goldie’s memoirs she was dead set against cinema, documentary, or Grierson coming anywhere this new form she was helping to build.
Hence the use of lighting , different lenses to tell a story, or different camera framings was off the table. Nothing in the way, it could be ascertained back then as expressive, was permissible.
To tell richer visual stories it pays to understand cinema, just as if you were writing a news feature you might have Orwell’s writing style in the back of your head.
Now here’s the kicker. Over the years, several award winning camera operators and journalists talk of how cinema has influenced their work. So long as the journalism is present, bosses didn’t mind, is a regular refrain. And some of the World’s best journalists appreciate the modern package doesn’t work.
You could be forgiven for thinking the terms cinema and TV blur now. Fifty inch screens offer a potential for John Ford’s landscape. Drone shots provide a POV anathema to TV people in the 50s. Different lenses with shallow focus provide aesthetic shots, which by their very nature editorialise the frame.
What do I mean? When we were using 50 mm fixed lenses on broadcast cameras this was TV News’ objectivity within a frame. You the viewer chose your focus. Not now with 50mm lenses at 1.2F.
This is the equivalent of TV News’ exaptation, but not many recognise this, because the two media Cinema and TV are supposedly distinct and different. T’was so in the 60s, 70s and beyond 2000 and it will be forever so. Well?
And lest it’s thought that cinema resides in the use of tech gear, er no! Cinema studies is a broad canvas in itself and to cite Bazin there is no essence. However a modus operandi of working with the form up front or in the back of your mind, depending on the author, creates an engagement with the viewer that is purposeful and often something else.
To quote Clive Myrie and a friend and multiple award winning videojournalist Raül Gallego Abellán: “I want the audience to feel how I feel”. That is one the many spoke wheels of cinema.
This here is the exemplar work of Al Jazeera videojournalist Raül and before you discard this, as, well, it’s documentary, dig deeper into his work and some of my other posts. I have known Raül for many years, and then take a look at this by the BBC’s Clive Myrie
We should be encouraging more understanding of cinema because it’s the language of visual storytelling and news journalism is but a subset of this. Handled well and thoughtfully, we can convey meaning and facts in ways that we remember and are affected.
I’m David, a journalist, artist (former artist in residence at the Southbank Centre, creative technologist and storyteller. If you’d like to learn more about my work and co-creations, you can find more here: what the industry says about me.