Editorial: Why study media talk ?

In this editorial and the accompanying three texts we present a certain take on analyzing the details of communication in the media, a perspective now often described as the media talk approach (see Hutchby 2006; Tolson 2006). This is an approach that focuses on different forms of broadcasting and it starts from a simple observation that such media has a capacity to engage its viewers and make them feel they are being addressed personally. But how this is accomplished is not as immediately obvious as it might seem and took many years to develop. Horton and Wohl (1956) once described it as broadcasters create an ‘intimacy at a distance’ with its listeners and viewers. Broadcasters use certain techniques to achieve this sociability and a crucial element is to imitate features of everyday conversations and adopt these to the context of reception, i.e. the viewers’ everyday lives. These are techniques, used across genres of broadcasting, across news and other factual and reality-type programs, which broadcasters have progressed over time and continuously work on and adjust to keep them up-date. That they exist and alter can easily be revealed by watching early television which can be a rather jarring experience. The media talk approach is one highly useful way of allowing us to take apart and understand these often taken for granted elements of communication.

News presenter welcomes the viewers.
News presenter welcomes the viewers.
Talk show host introduces his programme.
Talk show host introduces his programme.

Consider for a moment what takes place on television during a regular evening. On one channel we find a news presenter looking directly into the camera and saying ‘good evening’ when the news starts. Over on another channel a talk show host acts in a similar way while welcoming the viewers to what is promised will be an exciting show. Later on in the news a reporter conducts an interview. The interviewee, a politician, gives long, complex answers, but on one occasion is interrupted by the interviewer, who is seemingly discontented with the interviewee’s response and follows up with critical, interrogative questions. At the same time, the talk show host is engaged in a lively and seemingly spontaneous conversation with one of the celebrity guests. They both make jokes and laugh and the studio audience laughs along and applauds the on-going talk. These can seem transparent and unproblematic. But closer scrutiny reveals that such interactions have certain interesting and less obvious qualities about them which can be revealed through close analysis.

Why are these particular actions enacted? Why do they have the character they do? And why do they engage the viewers. What the media talk approach provides is a set of theoretical resources and methodological concepts through which we can answer such question and identify the methods broadcasters use in order to establish a sociable relationship with its audiences.

From this perspective it is no co-incidence that the news presenter and the talk show host make act in a similar way although their programs even if they have very different intentions. A greeting is an action that, in an everyday life context, we would expect to be returned. But in the context of a television broadcast, for very obvious reasons, it cannot be returned. And, of course, it is not expected to be returned. It is then, in a strict sense, superfluous. However, this is a good example of broadcastings’ sociable capacity. The greeting, together with the look into the camera (as if s/he is looking at us), is an interactive device broadcasters routinely use to get attention and establish a communicative relationship to the audience. Such interactivity is a key aspect of all broadcasting and it is how such links to the audience are realized through the organization of talk that media talk research generally aims to reveal.

News interview
News interview
Talk show interaction
Talk show interaction

A crucial element in this work is to see media talk as a certain type of performance (Tolson, 2006). It is self-evident that a news interview or a talk show dialogue is not conversations only between persons present in the studio. Those talks are of course performed for the viewers. This is also reflected by how the talk is organized. If we first consider how interviewers construct their questions we realize that they include information that would not have been necessary if no one were listening. We can also think of how the interviewees act. The politician will elaborate the answers and might take the opportunity to criticize a political opponent, while the talk show guest might tell a funny behind-the-scenes story (Eriksson, 2010). Even if the talk is planned beforehand, it is not rehearsed as a theater play would be. Both the reporter and the talk show host will prepare questions in advance, but the answers and how the talk progress is not predictable. The reporter who finds inconstancies in a politician’s answer will see a need to go on with follow up-questions. For the talk show host it is necessary to have a have a capacity to improvise and interact with the guest in a jokey manner so that the talk comes across as spontaneous and relaxed.

A key role for developing those insights plays the work by members of The Ross Priory Group for Research on Broadcast Talk (http://ross-priory-broadcast-talk.com/), and especially the historical works of Paddy Scannell on the early days of radio (1991; 1996; see also Scannell and Cardiff, 1991). What Scannell (and David Cardiff) showed was that when radio was a new medium, broadcasters (BBC) had to learn how to use it effectively. Earlier on many programs tended to talk at listeners which seemed to have an alienating effect on the listeners. Gradually, however, the broadcasters learned that a more ‘conversational’ style of address, one which included talk that appeared more spontaneous and ‘natural’, had a much greater potential to involve listeners. What the broadcasters basically did was that they learned that they had to adopt their talk to the context of reception, i.e. peoples’ everyday life where they take part in broadcasting. According to Scannell (1996:23), this sociability is, ‘the most characteristic of broadcasting’s communicative ethos’ and it is fundamental for the way broadcasting works. It is so since the relationship between broadcasters and audiences is an ‘unforced relationship because it is unenforceable’.

The media talk approach is an interdisciplinary approach. Scholars have their background in different disciplines (Media Studies, Cultural Studies, Linguistics, Discourse Analysis, Conversational Analysis) and employ a range of methods and theories in their studies, but there are some common principles. Studies are performed through detailed, systematic analyses of transcripts of talk. Small details such as tone of voice, if words are stressed, the tempo of speech are seen to have great importance for how the talk progresses. Talk is seen as both context-shaped and context-renewing and it is thus necessary to reveal how utterances are linked together in interaction. Each utterance is seen as an action whose meaning must be understood in relationship to preceding and subsequent utterances, and by carefully consider how broadcast talk unfolds it is possible to detect the precise elements that make it sociable.

Göran Eriksson
Göran Eriksson

In this contribution to SemiotiX we provide three examples of how the broadcast approach can be applied. Marianna Patrona connects to the now rather extensive research on news interviews (e.g. Clayman and Heritage, 2002; Eriksson, 2011; Ekström and Patrona 2011; Ekström and Tolson 2013), to analyse political interviews on Greek television. She demonstrates that the idea of neutrality as a universal journalistic practice needs to be re-thought. Angela Smith and Michael Higgins discuss a trend of televised confrontations, what they term ‘belligerent broadcasting’ which we now find running across television genres such as political interviews, reality shows and comedy. Åsa Kroon Lundell shows that the emerging forms of television exclusively produced for the web, aims at establishing a new form of ‘communicative ease’. Her contribution also shows that the media talk approach is equally concerned with multimodality and analyzes complex relationship between camera work, talk and gazes (Montgomery, 2007; Ekström, 2012).

Clayman, Steven and Heritage, John (2002) The News Interview. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Ekström M (2012) Gaze work in political media interviews. Discourse & Communication, 6(3): 249–271.Ekström M and Patrona M (eds) (2011) Talking Politics in Broadcast Media. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Ekström M and Patrona M (eds) (2011) Talking Politics in Broadcast Media. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Eriksson Göran (2011) Adversarial Moments: A Study of Short-form Interviews in the news, Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, 12(1) 51-69.
Eriksson, Göran (2010) Politicians in celebrity talk show interviews: the narrativization of personal experiences, Text & Talk 30 (5): 529-551.
Tolson, Andrew och Ekström, Mats (eds) (2013) Media Talk and Political Elections in Europe and America, Palgrave McMillan: Hampshire.
Horton D and Wohl R (1956) Mass communication and para-social interaction: observations on intimacy at a distance. Psychiatry 19: 215–229.
Hutchby I (2006) Media Talk: Conversation Analysis and the Study of Broadcasting. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Montgomery, Martin (2007The Discourse of Broadcast News. Abingdon: Routledge.
Scannell, Paddy (ed.) (1991) Broadcast Talk. London: Sage.
Scannell, Paddy (1996) Radio, Television and Modern Life. Oxford: Blackwell
Scannell, Paddy and Cardiff David (1991) A Social History of British Broadcasting. Oxford: Blackwell.
Tolson, Andrew (2006) Media Talk: Spoken Discourse on TV and Radio. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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