This packet is the first in a series about politics and mass media. Students will read some background information about how news is delivered on television and explore the first televised political debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Did you know that:
News reporters want us to think that they are giving us “just the facts.” However, have you ever wondered how, no matter what has happened (or has not happened) on any given day, the newscast is always the same length? For example, Sundays tend to be “slow” news days. Major political and business decisions, which are often important news stories, are usually not made on Sundays. Courthouses, another key source of news, are also closed on Sundays. How, then, do the television stations fill their 30 or 60 minute Sunday newscasts? (Watch a Sunday evening newscast and find out!)
The point is that television news is mediated. This means that the television stations or networks decide what is news and what is not news. This decision is typically a business decision. If many viewers will find the story interesting, the story will be featured in promotional messages for the newscast that are shown occasionally for several hours before the news. (These promotional messages are called teases—they give just enough information so that we want to watch the newscast to learn more.) Remember, television stations want to deliver an audience to their advertisers. The bigger the audience is, the more money the television station makes from selling advertising. Television stations often pay professional consulting firms to conduct audience research. This research is undertaken to find out what kinds of news stories are interesting to people, and how people like the information presented to them.
During the last few years, the Internet has become a significant threat to television news ratings. For example, CNN’s Headline News originally discussed its major news stories every 30 minutes. A few years ago, Headline News began discussing top stories every 15 minutes. Recently, Headline News changed again, using on-screen graphics (called a “crawl” because the words seem to crawl across the screen) to continuously list top stories every couple of minutes.
Many news broadcasters use the terms breaking news or developing stories to give a sense of urgency to their stories. Television news also tries to avoid using only talking heads—people sitting behind a desk in a studio reading the news to us. This is why we see lots of “on the scene” reports.
NEWS AS PRODUCT
Some observers have commented on how television “packages” news. News broadcasts often feature dramatic music and use words and images on screen (screen graphics) to package new stories. The events of September 11, 2001, for example, led several different television channels to use the phrase “America Attacked” to package their coverage of the events.
Television is a visual medium, and newscasters look for visual events to show on their programs. One unofficial slogan in the television news business is “if it bleeds, it leads.” We often see newscasts begin with stories about violent crimes, accidents, or other tragedies, because many viewers find the visual images of these events both shocking and interesting.
Television news must maintain a difficult balance. It must interest us and entertain us, in order to satisfy advertisers. At the same time, television news attempts to provide truthful and impartial coverage of news events.
Source: Media Literacy: Thinking Critically About Television
The first televised debate between two candidates for President of the United States was broadcast live from Chicago on September 26, 1960, the first of four presidential debates broadcast that fall. John F. Kennedy, a United States Senator from Massachusetts, was the Democratic candidate for president that year. Richard M. Nixon, the Vice-President of the nation, was the Republican candidate. Not only was the debate itself a historic event, but so was the new way politicians would use television to get their message to the American public.
Most observers agreed that John Kennedy was more telegenic (looked better on television) than Richard Nixon. Nixon had recently been hospitalized for a leg injury, and he appeared pale and tired, perspired heavily, and wore clothes that didn’t fit well because he had lost weight while in the hospital. Kennedy, on the other hand, had a flattering suntan and a thick head of hair, and he seemed much more comfortable in front of the camera. Since television is a visual medium, these details, generally ignored before in American politics, now became seen as important to winning elections. The presidential election that November was such a narrow victory for Kennedy that many commentators credited the four televised debates as the difference in the presidential campaigns.