Representation and Realism (Reality TV/news/documentary etc.) 

What do we mean by ‘realism’ in Media Studies? A difficult concept, but we may start by considering the subject from the point of view of the audience. An audience needs to recognise and identify with a media text so that connections can be made with their own lives and the world they live in. If the connection is made, then the audience will get that elusive thing called ‘pleasure of the text’. 

Of course, though, it is not a simple idea, because we need to ask ourselves exactly what is media ‘reality’. Reality is almost always SUBJECTIVE, because the maker of the text and the recipient (the audience) imposes a kind of ‘filtering process’ – the maker while representing or encoding the text and the recipient while decoding the text. So inevitably ‘reality’ is, to a greater or lesser extent, controversial. 

Assessing media texts in terms of reality is therefore very difficult, partly because of the above point, but also because there are many different kinds of ‘reality’. Here they are:

Depending on the form or the genre, the audience will apply something called a MODALITY JUDGEMENT, which is Media-speak for ‘is this the right or wrong way of representing reality in this text’. For example, in the Simpson cartoon series, the audience makes such a judgement and suspends disbelief because the codes used in this text are so recognisable. It’s a cartoon, but it becomes ‘real’ because it is encoded in such a realistic way. 

Another interesting thing is the postmodern trend of re-working conventional genres, so that they become real through irony or paradox. Look at Edna Everage or the Mrs Merton character, or perhaps even ‘The League of Gentlemen’ series.

News and documentary realism 

There is most credibility from audiences towards broadcast news and documentaries. Traditionally, British broadcasters in this medium are supposed to be impartial and non-biased. They provide an authoritative and ‘truthful’ news service. This can be seen in the way that news and documentary programmes occupy prime-time slots on TV. Documentaries, too, are regarded as high-status programmes that represent ‘truth’.

In the 1930’s documentaries provided information, education and propaganda to the audience.
From the 1950’s the development of ‘cinéma verité’ (cinema truth) in France moved the representation of ‘reality’ on to the cinema screen.
In the 1960’s the TV became the principal medium for documentaries. The genre was (and to an extent, still is), typified by certain well-defined codes. 

These things created (and still create) a sense of ‘truth’ or authenticity, but it must also be noted that editorial choices and values are still at work in the creation of the news or documentary texts. What looks like truth will almost certainly have been ‘filtered’ or ‘massaged’ or manipulated’ or (to use a current term) ‘spun’ by the editorial process. 

From the 1980’s came the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ type of documentary, which has well-defined rules:

Sounds ‘fair’ but is it, really? The editorial process still happens and heavy editorial control is applied in post-production. 

Reality TV (The main staple of most of the output today, it seems!) 

This works in a number of ways:

© Val Pope 2002