Television

As one of the most powerful means of communication, the variety of output of television should be critically analysed as part of a Reflect process.

Why? It is scarcely possible to exaggerate when talking about the power of television and how much it has transformed lives around the globe in the past fifty years. Any process that is concerned with communication and power must therefore give some time and space for reflection on television: what messages it transmits, to whom, and in whose benefit.  Furthermore, television can be a useful tool for learning.

When? Where the community has access to television, this might be an important element of the Reflect process.

How? Most of the time we let television wash over us as passive recipients, not questioning what is given to us.  If we can develop and maintain a critical perspective then the whole output of television can become a rich resource in unexpected ways.

The news: Many people are already cynical about television news programmes, recognising either censorship or political manipulation. However, even the cynical are often seduced as it is common for people to feel that the events they see with their own eyes on television must be true.  Asking a few simple questions can prompt people to question the neutrality or truth of such news: Why is this story the headline? Why is this in the news when something else is not? What are we not told? Whose opinion have we not heard? With what objective has this story been "framed".

Soap operas: Around the world soap operas or 'telenovelas' attract huge audiences. Yet even their biggest fans will confess that the characters are stereotypes and the stories vulgar or unrealistic. However, these popular programmes can often provide a useful way in to examination of serious social issues.  (See examples in practice, below).

Advertising: Adverts are key to understanding the power of television, and the medium's alliance to large commercial interests.  Furthemore, the more conscious we are of the ways in which advertisers manipulate us the more we might be able to make sensible choices in what we buy.  Discussion on the role, intention and impact of adverts can be structured by questions such as: What stereotypes are used? What are the tricks used to sell things? Who is being targeted? How are people seduced into identifying with products? Is there really any difference between advertised brands and non-branded, or cheaper, versions of the product?

Active engagement: The more people can contribute to making television for themselves the more its power can be demystified.  Making and editing a video yourself is a very effective way to understand the power of editing on television (see Participatory Video). And with the proliferation of local stations and cable TV it is increasingly possible for Reflect groups to get stories of local importance on to their television screens.  Links can be made with television news journalists, documentary makers, writers, drama producers or actors.  Almost any strong local story can be "sold" to television if you find the right hook, whether a connection to current affairs, a powerful human story or an interesting twist. Television reporters are always looking out for ways to illustrate their stories and their high-pressured production environment and timetables mean they will often leap on something if it arrives at the right moment and is presented to them in the right way.

In some cases, where there is good access to television, it may be appropriate to run "media training" sessions for those people who may go on television to be interviewed. It is important to be well-prepared, knowing the key points you wish to communicate and understanding the importance of eye-lines and speaking clearly, without being distracted or fidgeting.

Examples from practice: CENECA, an NGO in Santiago, Chile were keen to explore the phenomenon that some of the poorest viewers were addicted to the most absurd telenovelas, and the assumption that this was about escapism, fantasy or aspiration. 

Their analysis suggested otherwise. Although the material world of the soaps was far removed from the lives of the viewers, they found that  "conflicts on which the dramatic structure of the soaps are based were not far removed from the women's lives: abandoned children, incestuous fathers, barriers to love and so on".   Taking this as a starting point they made links to adult education groups and started to use particular characters and story lines to provoke serious debates on issues such as gender roles and relations. Almost invariably women made strong connections to their own lives.

The next step was to discuss which issues were never addressed in the soaps and why.  It became clear that "Family conflicts are presented in soaps, whereas economic ones are not".  Finally the groups discussed the kind of conflicts that they would highlight if writing a soap themselves - and started to sketch out storylines. Through this process, the women moved "from passive and credulous to being selective and demanding."  (See Literacy and Power, Archer and Costello 1990).

If you have an interesting or innovative experience of working with this tool please add your comments here.