US Election 2008 Television Graphics. A solution in search of a problem…

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A short post. I was entertained watching the Daily Show one evening last week to notice a piece on the first appearance of a new TV graphic used by Anderson Cooper on CNN, a chart indicating the respective performance of candidates at the New Hampshire Primary.

The new graphic consisted of a (physical) board that Cooper held and against which a pie chart was matted in digitally. It sounds good, doesn’t it, but as with so many things there is many a slip twixt cup and lip. In practice… well, I’ll leave the excerpt from the Daily Show to demonstrate the efficacy or otherwise of the idea which you can view here.

While Jon Stewart presents us with an amusing critique of these ‘technologies’ – there is a serious point here, which is that we have an example of technology being used in a purely decorative and stylistic fashion which obscures more than it illuminates. The digital board also shown in the clip from the Daily Show with the votes represented by roundels which the presenters pulled upwards along the screen told the viewing audience nothing about the nature of the primary that they didn’t already know. In fact, if anything it served to confuse the actual mechanics of the primary which involved a relatively complex structure in which voters can nominate on the day as party supporters (a factor which led, in part to the confusion during polling prior to the outcome).

Greg Philo wrote as long ago as 1993 that ‘a simple truth underpins the everyday practices of the media institutions and the journalists who work within them – that they are at some level in competition with each other to sell stories and maximise audiences… They must do this at a given cost and at a set level of resources’. We see this in the example above. Graphics are – increasingly – an easy option as regards burnishing a story. Computer technologies that were arcane even five or six years ago are now commonplace as devices used to improve – or more importantly seemingly improve – the overall presentation of news and current affairs. Those who watch the Colbert Report or the Daily Show will see how they parody this tendency with their coverage as in this example.

The problem is, as Brian McNair wrote in An Introduction to Political Communications, that ‘the adaptability of the media to shifting lines of debate is essential to the retention of their legitimacy as facilitators of political discourse in the political sphere…’. In any context where the graphics are themselves an impediment to clear communication of political information this role is clearly compromised. In the supercharged political environment of a U.S. Presidential Election this lack of clarity is arguably of greater and more disturbing significance yet.

Ciarán Swan

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