Saturday, January 29, 2011

Showing versus Telling

I've been following the Egyptian protests on the radio, and it's been an interesting experience.

I grew up in the era of Television news, and I'm living through the age of the Internet press. I've been fed a steady diet of images and text, moving and still, broadcast and streamed, on-demand and pushed, collaborative and not. Recently, however, I've been so busy that the only news I've been able to consume has been on the commutes to and from work, the meal of choice being the BBC World Service.

It's strange listening to someone describe a scene to you, rather than seeing it yourself. Television shows; cellphone video footage shows; radio tells. Granted, there is an attempt at scene-setting - background sounds of protest dubbed over with commentary- but the basic mode of radio is description and telling. When a radio reporter says "These are the most amazing scenes I'd never have thought I'd see in Cairo", you're left largely to imagine what those scenes are.

On the Television, and on blogs, there's a clear division between commentary and viewing. A news reader will say "Let's watch this amazing footage coming out of Cairo", show a clip, without any commentary, and then tell you what you ought to think of it. A blogger will write "Just click on the link and watch the video", and then comment afterwards. On radio, however, the line between description of events (reporting) and interpretation of events (commentary) is unclear. The reporter both describes and comments at once.

You might think that I am implying that radio is less reliable as a source of news than Television, or other visual media. After all, seeing is believing, and with radio, you never see. However, I think quite the opposite happens: the apparent truthiness of video gulls us into a false sense of confidence. We think that video shows us the facts, and gives us the freedom to decide for ourselves, when an interpretation is implicit in the choice of what to shoot, what to focus on, who to interview, what to edit and juxtapose, and many other features of a video opaque to the viewer.

Radio, on the other hand, makes me painfully aware that someone, a human being with prejudices and opinions like me, is interpreting events for me. My experience of listening to the radio is one of questioning: I find myself being critical of the report in ways that I am not with video. I ask myself questions about the nature of the evidence for the conclusions reached, I question the objectivity of the report, I am skeptical of poorly supported and poorly reasoned commentary, and I am on guard. This same alertness is not present with watching the news on tv: you're more likely to just sit there and go "Gosh, that's a violent demonstration".

Radio is a poorer medium than video - it is less rich, conveys less information, is less compelling- but news reporting over the radio (at least of the kind we get from the World Service) makes for a richer experience than the passive consumption video, whether on tv or YouTube, promotes.