Trends in network news editing strategies from 1969 through 2005.

Author:Schaefer, Richard J.

Typically produced by teams of videographers, producers, reporters, editors, and graphics experts prior to a newscast's airtime, pre-produced news stories have for decades been the dominant news-information vehicle within network newscasts. TV journalists can use several layers of recorded audio with previously shot video imagery drawn from a variety of times and places to convey the sights and sounds, as well as the more complex thematic statements, that form the "contents" of edited news reports. To do this, network journalists draw upon many of the conventions developed in feature film and newsreel production, along with interviewee soundbites, graphics, and overlaid reporter narration.

Schaefer (1997) notes that formal study of the craft of editing television news appears to have suffered from a lack of a conventional vocabulary for describing and analyzing structural techniques used in what is primarily an audio-visual phenomenon, maintaining that television journalists have traditionally learned the evolving art of news shooting and editing through an immersion process that does not readily lend itself to conscious articulation of forms. Hence, it should not be too surprising that discussions of the evolution of trends in journalistic editing are often based on scant anecdotal evidence.

This study attempts to address this dearth of formal analysis by tracking some of the editing practices evident in samples of U.S. commercial network newscasts from 1969, 1983, 1997, and 2005. As such, it determines how those techniques have evolved over a 36-year period when the dominant field technologies changed from 16mm film to analog videotape to digital video.

Literature Review

Although many video production and editing texts (e.g., Browne, 1997; Dancyger, 2002; Fairservice, 2001; Zettl, 2000) deal with the development of the more expansive and the far more artistically licensed techniques of fictional video editing, the trends evident in the more restrictive evolving conventions and practices of broadcast journalists have received little scholarly attention.

Fang's (1985) early television news texts typically provided a few short paragraphs devoted to the concepts of montage and continuity editing. More recent broadcast news primers (Boyd, 2003; Keller & Hawkins, 2002) offer entire chapters on contemporary journalistic shooting and editing techniques. These texts convey considerable guidance for videographers and editors, as well as reporters and producers, on continuity sequencing techniques and advice on avoiding jump cuts and keeping from crossing the axis. These sections in broadcast journalism texts are consistent with the even more detailed continuity guidelines found in the aforementioned video production and "editing" texts written for non-journalists.

But in spite of the careful pedagogical attention paid to continuity techniques, contemporary texts offer little or no guidance on the extent to which expansive synthetic montage editing strategies augment continuity techniques. Indeed, only one form of "montage" technique--the fast paced editing of similar images that is often set to music--appears to have become part of the common vocabulary of American broadcast journalists and many journalism scholars. Hence, judging from the allocations of space in contemporary broadcast journalism primers, readers might assume that continuity techniques had come to be an increasingly important aspect of broadcast journalism in recent years. This study tracks the extent to which that assumption has been valid with regard to the presentation of pre-recorded materials in network newscasts from 1969 to 2005.

Actuality Realism and Early Film Theorists Notions of Synthetic Montage

The present study draws upon film theorists' notions of realism and synthetic montage editing practices to better analyze the way in which more contemporary news reports have been structured. Schaefer (1997) used this theoretical framing in an analysis of the editing styles used in four network news documentaries that aired over a 28-year period. The anecdotal analysis found a strong decline in the use of continuity, or "camera of record," techniques over time. It tracked the interplay of four editing variables within each documentary: shot length, use of straight cuts or special effects transitions, synchronicity or asynchronicity of the primary audio and the visual track--whether or not the primary sound appeared to have been recorded in sync with the visual image, and a continuity/montage dichotomy variable for each shot change.

The dichotomous continuity/montage variable revealed a decline in continuity with each subsequent documentary. This variable was grounded in Peirce's (1940) semiotic theory of icons and indices, as well as understandings of film theory that developed prior to the advent of sound filmmaking. Principal among these theoretical understandings is the continuity-based realism developed by early filmmakers, such as Griffith, and articulated by film theorists Bazin (1967, 1971), and Kracauer (1960). It posited that continuity shooting and editing techniques supported realism by enabling filmmakers to compress or telescope time and portray seemingly natural spatial relationships within a scene--a practice sometimes referred to as "invisible editing," or "seamless editing." Such continuity editing practices are associated with fictional "classic Hollywood techniques" that enable viewers to follow the shots in a sequence as if a scene were unfolding before their eyes. Television journalists have adapted these techniques into their work routines and everyday vocabulary.

Drawing on Peirce's semiotics, Schaefer (1997) maintained that film and other photo-like imagery was iconic because the visual elements of the image so closely resembled those observed in visual perception. Such imagery, particularly when used by journalists, could also be taken as a marker or index of a real event that occurred in a real location. When journalists applied continuity editing techniques and also carefully adhered to the journalistic prohibitions against manipulating or changing the apparent context of the imagery, an edited sequence becomes a "camera of record" depiction of an event.

In contrast, journalists could choose to juxtapose authentic images or film clips in a sequence that portrayed a predominantly thematic visual argument even though it was made up of detailed icons. The interpretation of this imagery would rely primarily on what Peirce (1940) described as the symbolic qualities of the image rather than the indexical qualities that tied it to a real event. Arnheim (1967) wrote that Russian formalists (Eisenstein, 1949; Pudovkin, 1960) of the 1920s and 1930s used the umbrella term "montage" to describe a variety of editing strategies that were aligned with the synthetic dialectics of Hegel and Marx. These techniques were not primarily intended to depict events, but rather to convey abstract concepts. Eisenstein and Pudovkin described the production and reading of each edit in a synthetic montage as dependent on humans' persistent sense-making proclivities--a dialectical process in which the collision of almost any two shots with potentially disparate "contents" tended to produce a new meaning or realization that was a synthesis of the two images. The viewer's intellect collaborated with the filmmaker's formal crafting to produce the sequence's thematic argument--a process by which a progression of disparate shots and sounds produced or "indexed" an abstract concept, as opposed to the "camera of record" continuity editing strategies that "indexed" a coherent and seamless representation of an event.

Working exclusively with silent film, Pudovkin described five major silent film montage strategies as being so common that the Russians gave them names: 1. contrast montage--juxtaposing two images or sequences whose themes were antithetical; 2. similarity montage--juxtaposing two images or sequences whose contents were similar; 3. synchronism--associating two images that occurred at the same time but in different places; 4. leitmotiv--repeating already-presented contents as a symbolic refrain within a film and; 5. parallelism--alternating two logically unrelated images back and forth until they became symbolically linked and associated (Amheim, 1967, pp. 91-93).

Even in the silent film era, Pudovkin acknowledged that many other montage techniques existed but were less commonly used. In recent years, the juxtapositions of audio and graphics with pre-recorded film or video images has provided contemporary broadcast journalists with an exponentially enhanced range of montage techniques. It is now possible to have the visual contents of a shot thematically augment the content of narration or a soundbite, and vice-versa. The cascading complexity of the types of juxtapositions available to contemporary news editors may explain why the subject has not been systematically explored in contemporary broadcast texts, as well as why journalists have yet to develop a vocabulary for these techniques.

Schaefer (1997) maintained that tracking specific variables can detect the presence of underlying realist and formalist patterns, and thereby shed light upon the extent to which journalists relied on various discursive strategies to shape their reports.

... the structuring of materials through editing can significantly influence the "contents" and meaning of the reports. Continuity editing techniques, along with the use of synchronous sounds, help journalists to emphasize the correspondence of authentic images to real, concrete events. Such readings coincide with a classic realist frame of interpretation. On the other hand, montage techniques, along with the use of asynchronous audio tracks, suggest that the medium has been crafted symbolically to convey an abstract audio-visual message.... The presence of such symbolic strategies...

To continue reading