Sixty Minutes. A Current Affair. Today Tonight. We like to see people’s lives. That’s why these shows succeed. They show us the good times and the bad. They bring people’s lives into our living rooms. But are these shows bringing us the honest truth? For example, the segment reported by Sixty Minutes, titled “The Lost Children”, tells the story of children who were sent to Australia for the opportunity of a so called “better life”. It would be there where they would be taken care of by the Christian Brothers. However it was in this “better life” that the children were forced to work as labourers and were molested, beaten and raped. Was the story twisting words? After all, we are all guilty of exaggerating occasionally. But was it an act, tailored to stir up our emotions by using sly, barely noticeable techniques that made us believe what they wanted us to believe? How can we notice things as simple as the sex of the presenter, or the choice of words when phrasing something? We think that we are being told the truth. However, this nearly seamless performance is about to be uncovered.
The structure in most current affairs shows are similar. It starts off with a presenter giving a rough introduction of the story, then goes to the actual story on location, with either a field reporter or a voice-over, sometimes both. The story goes through what happened or what is happening, and then talks to people that have been affected by it. These people usually provide the audience someone to identify with. The people affected can be seen as the victims. After talking to the victims, the story may cross over to whoever is to blame. After talking, or attempting to talk, to these people, the voice-over or presenter will conclude their part of the story, possibly discussing what is in the future for the victims.
The story is then brought back to the presenter in the studio, where they say a couple of words reinforcing reaction of the audience to the victim’s tragic stories. Varying slightly from story to story, the bias in the segment is usually obvious, whether it may be because of uneven timing towards the victim and the person to blame, the use of emotive language or even the angle at which the footage was taken from.
By moving the camera in different ways, different effects can be achieved. For example, a close up of a person shows emotion, a shot taken from above a person can make the person look unimportant, unimpressive, afraid or small; while a view of someone from below can make them see tall, powerful or important. Many of these techniques are evident in the Lost Children segment, especially close-ups of people’s faces. This was used to show the viewers how the victims were on the verge of crying, raw emotions projected to television screens across Australia.
The first clue that the story had been carefully planned to make the audience see the story differently in the Lost Children segment was a subtle one. The presenter was an older male. This suggests authority, which was supported by his deep voice and broad shoulders. In media, female presenters tend to report on issues that are more emotional, so that more concern can be felt. With a male presenter, the aim is more on the wrong that has been done and is told fact by fact. The presenter was well groomed, well educated and articulate. The suit and tie gave the audience a sense that he could be trusted, which may not have been as obvious had he been wearing a T-shirt and mumbling. He was also expressive, but was not emotional. This made the presenter convincing, again reinforcing that he could be trusted. When introducing the story, the presenter sounded well-informed and confident, making him sound honest. However, it was not this presenter’s voice that was heard throughout the story.
The voice-over in stories reports what is happening, without having to focus on a person. This creates the opportunity to show clips of what is happening while listening to an explanation. The voice-over heard during the Lost Children story again spoken by a man. With a concerned voice, he described the entire ordeal of the children. He also spoke with large pauses, usually after something emotionally difficult to listen to had been said. These pauses are used to let strong feelings sink in. although he was dealing with a difficult topic, the voice-over was not emotional, but rather a more matter of fact style. However, the voice-over did provoke emotions, mainly because of its use of emotive language.
Emotive language is the substitution of a word by a different word that has either a negative or positive connotation. This can change something that was completely factual into something that has a very strong bias. This can sometimes be achieved by exaggerating something slightly, but not to the extent that it changes the total meaning. An example of this in the Lost Children segment is found in nearly every sentence. For example, at one point the voice-over said, “The children had to do hard labour in the sweltering heat.” This sentence has negative connotations. It conjures up images of slave labour in desert like conditions. The fact is that although the sentence said nothing about slaves or deserts, that is what we think of. This can be used throughout an entire show, and is not considered lying. It can be, however, very misleading.
Another aspect of television current affairs programs misleading their viewers is how they select the content that they screen. This can be something from letting one person talk for a couple more minutes than another, to not letting the other person talk at all. In the Lost Children segment, the victims of child molestation and labour were given approximately ten minutes each to talk to their ordeal, even more for others. However, when talking to the Christian Brothers and Philip Ruddock, only five minutes were allocated. Even then, the reporter continued to interrupt them. The actual people accused were not even interviewed. One of the victims, Mary Malloy, received approximately twenty minutes, more air time than anyone else.
As a child, Mary Malloy was told that her parent had died and that she was an orphan. This was told to all of the children in the care of the Christian Brothers. During the show, she is not only told that her mother is alive, but also gets to meet her. This all happens as the camera is running. However, the only actual point of showing this to an audience is to provoke emotions, which it did very well. There is no need or relevance to show the reunion of the two. The segment was supposed to be about the mistreating of children in the care of the Christian Brothers. This selection of content makes the audience feel sympathetic towards both Mary Malloy and her mother, which in turn makes the audience feel even more unsympathetic towards the Christian Brothers.
People will continue to watch current affairs programs such as Sixty Minutes and Today Tonight. They will even continue to take what they see as the truth, even though we know that producers of show like the ones mentioned do use techniques like using emotive language, camera tricks and bias selection of content. However, by learning about all of the techniques they can use, we may be able to sort out what they’re saying, so that we can clearly see what is fact and what is not. The techniques they use are not necessarily lies, but they do provoke emotions that would not be evident if they were purely factual. By knowing the techniques, we can challenge the age-old saying that the camera doesn’t lie.