Quintuplets crying and journalistic integrity

The BBC has admitted adding a sound track to video news footage. Why is this so disturbing?

The BBC showed images of the quintuplets born recently. “The original footage, distributed by an Oxford hospital of the five girls, had no audio. But when the story ran on BBC Breakfast the clips had sound, even though the babies had respirators in their mouths.”

The BBC has now owned up and apologised: “The sound was removed from the story by the Six OClock News bulletin after it was commented upon by the hospital.”

Partly this is because of several recent complaints about the BBCs handling of news footage. (The controller of BBC1 resigned after footage was edited to make it look as if the Queen was walking angrily away from a photographic session, when in fact she was looking grumpy before the session. )

I suppose the quins crying is the thin end of a wedge. The Centre for Media and Democracy has documented 77 TV stations who used video newscasts prepared by corporate PR departments. “In each case, these 77 television stations actively disguised the sponsored content to make it appear to be their own reporting. In almost all cases, stations failed to balance the clients messages with independently-gathered footage or basic journalistic research. More than one-third of the time, stations aired the pre-packaged VNR in its entirety.”

Its not just the right-wing/ corporate who do this. Oliver Stones JFK has been criticised for “mixing real and fake footage” – as Frontline comments, “What I think Stone and his actor are saying here is that it doesnt much matter whether this is literally true or not, so long as it steers the culture where we want to go.”

I dont mean arguments about selection: obviously a TV crew can film one thing and not another, and this can give a story a very diferent slant. Or about other tricks of the trade – catching people at off moments, putting them in front of inappropriate backgrounds, juxtaposing scenes that contrast with or undermine each other, etc. Im talking about actual deliberate faking of footage.

There are ongoing arguments such as this or this about TV news footage that is alleged to have been staged.

It matters partly because video can be used in evidence, eg the famous Rodney King case, and also because it is much more emotive than a simple statement of the facts.

Staging isnt always done by the TV crew, either: much of the recent UK astroturf controversy involved those who claim to govern us providing spontaneous” events for TV crews to film, carefully staged so they would look on screen as if they were real.

Opinion polls regularly show that we trust news sources more than politicians, and TV news more than any other sort of news. I suppose its because weve “seen it with our own eyes”.

Yet, as Baudrillard would point out, all TV news is a simulation of the truth. In its most literal sense, these are moving pixels and audio speakers, which make us think we are witnessing an event that may have happened in some other time and place. Rememebr that the technology for faking images seems to get so much better every year, eg Pixars films, which do it in a good cause.

If we find that our eyes have deceived us (or in the case of the quins, our ears) it is somehow disturbing. Baudrillard would have claimed that it happens most of the time. No, I dont think it does, but it could. One of the nice things about citizen journalism, cameraphones and vlogs is that they break the monopoly of TV companies and governments by providing alternative views of events. I dont say theyre honest either – in fact theyre more likely to be dishonest – but their existence makes it more difficult to get away with fakes.

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