Two means of mass communication: print and video
Is print either superior or inferior to video? How would one decide such a matter?
When superficially comparing two means of communication largely used nowadays, namely print and video, one could venture stating that the latter is 'better' just by looking at the audience rates for each medium. However, the issue of deciding which type of medium is 'better' is far more complex, starting even from establishing what 'better' means. Being in no position to offer a clear-cut answer to the essay question, in the following lines I will draw some theoretical guiding lines and then outline and discuss some of the important advantages and disadvantages of using print and video as message conveyers, guided by the idea that each medium has its characteristics and each person has to decide which one better suits him or her. The focus points in comparing the two media will be related to the audience rates for each medium and their possible causes, the characteristics of the two media and of the media product on offer and, lastly, to the impact on the two types of media consumers.
Marshall McLuhan's famous phrase 'the medium is the message' (1964: 7) represents a suitable starting point in comparing print and video. It indicates that the medium through which a message is conveyed has high importance in the reception of the meanings of the text. Moreover, it implies that each medium shapes the messages it transmits to the audiences according to different factors which I will later present. In discussing these two media in this essay I will mainly refer to newspapers as being representative for the print medium and to television for video. Moreover, the media products which will be addressed will be non-fictional, i.e. not movies or literature. However, it should be noted that print is actually referring in general to the written messages, no matter which is the medium through which we gain access to them (P. David Marshall, 2004). Each medium, nevertheless, inscribes different characteristics on the message it conveys, as I shall attempt to demonstrate in this essay.
Firstly, I will cast my attention on the audience rates of the two media and on how these could be explained. As stated in the introduction, one could fall into the trap of considering video 'better' than print only because of the number of media consumers each medium has. Indeed, the number of audiences is relevant when studying a medium, especially the effects it can have on people, an aspect which could help one decide which medium is 'better'. The data presented by McQueen indicates that 'British people spend an average of over 25 hours watching television a week, with, on a typical day, 80 per cent of the population tuning into television (Cultural Trends, 1997, quoted in Glastier, 1997)' (1998: 3). Barwise and Ehrenberg draw a more generalised conclusion: 'people in many countries spend between a third and a half of their free time with television, more time than we spend on anything else except sleep and work' (1988: 12). Moreover, the specific example Bourdieu (1998) gives about French TV viewing being more popular than all newspapers is eloquent. Bourdieu also draws the attention on the possible dangers of the large number of audiences: 'television poses no less of a threat to political life and to democracy itself' (1998: 10). Not only does television manipulates through its nature (Hall, 1996), but it also alienates its audiences, according to the data presented.
Audience rates reflect the particularities of print and video consumers. The difference in audience rates is due mainly to the fact that television does not require the audiences to be literate in order to become television consumers: ‘television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification' (Postman, 1987: 88-9). Moreover, the two media have different target consumers. Newspaper reading is similar to other intellectual activities: it is habituated in the youth and then it becomes a custom (Putnam, 2000), the readers choosing certain newspapers due to their clearly defined policy 'with which its readers can identify themselves […] [because newspapers] express the feelings and hopes, often unexpressed, of its millions of readers' (Hornby, 1965: 102). Even if television viewing creates dependence, TV viewers are more flexible than newspaper readers, surfing the TV channels in search for suitable programmes which will attract them, as well as new television viewers. Furthermore, print has always been addressed to older, educated people, to the literate (Putnam, 2000), whereas by its nature the video medium creates the illusion of reality (Hall, 1996) and thus appeals to all people, disregarding their social status, sex, age or race. Extensive research shows that people consider watching TV mainly as a time-passing, relaxing activity, as Barwise and Ehrenberg note: ‘television is so popular because it provides large amounts of distraction and relaxation at a trivial cost with minimum effort to the viewer' (1988: 19). By contrast with printed material, video media products have the advantage of being more entertaining. If newspapers have the aim of informing their readers more than other media (Monaco, 1978), TV producers have to create entertaining programmes that can attract audiences and keep them tuned in. In order to achieve this, it is necessary to have access to multiple resources, including equipment, a setting, money, a team etc. In this respect, print is more cost-effective, less constrained than the video medium and more at the disposal of media consumers. Nevertheless, newspapers are not the only form of print, the contents of some magazines and tabloids being more similar to TV programmes than any other print medium, because they have the same role: to entertain their public.
If different in audience rates, the two media, print and video, are also dissimilar in what concern the social effects they determine. Putnam (2000) argues that TV viewing alienates the media consumers in different respects, such as determining them to be passive and encouraging ‘less social communication in all its forms - written, oral, or electronic' (2000: 231). Whereas texts conveyed by print engage their audiences in a one-to-one process, video media facilitates social interactions indoors, in front of the TV, as McCullagh argues: '[t]elevision may, for example, facilitate family communication and talk, but the content of the talk and conversation often has little relationship to what is on the screen' (2002: 169). Nevertheless, McCullagh pursues his line of argument by stating that 'the increased time spent in front of television must reduce the time that is available for other forms of social activity, especially those outside the home' (2002: 172), while newspapers can be read everywhere, at any time.
After having discussed a few important social issues regarding the two media which could balance the weight in favour of one of them when judging which is 'better', I can now look at other characteristics of both media. According to Postman, 'television's conversations promote incoherence and triviality' (1987: 81), while print is seen by him as 'a serious, coherent place, capable of management by reason, and of improvement by logical and relevant criticism' (1987: 63). His line of thought is developed by Fiske and Hartley:
The written word (and particularly the printed word) works through and so promotes consistency, narrative development from cause to effect, universality and abstraction, clarity, and a single tone of voice. Television, on the other hand, is ephemeral, episodic, specific, concrete and dramatic in mode (Fiske and Hartley, 1978, cited in Abercrombie, 1996: 9).
Moreover, print texts offer the readers the possibility 'to have much more control: skipping, pausing, re-reading, and so on' (Barwise and Ehrenberg: 1988: 129), unlike video which is an ephemeral medium. This does not imply, however, that television is inferior in all respects to print.
One of the matters concerning each medium is related to the amount of time it takes to transmit information to the public and between the occurrence of an event and the moment when the public is informed. In what concerns the video medium, information is transmitted faster to the audience, even if it is usually presented more briefly. Due to the technological characteristics of broadcasting which permit transmitting live footage 24-hours a day, television 'can deal with today's news, or even news as it breaks, unlike most daily papers which can report only yesterday's events' (McQueen, 1998: 100). Another aspect of transmitting news through the video medium compensates this advantage: '[f]acts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation' (Postman, 1987: 71). There is the risk of loosing the complexity of a news story because of being constraint by time, similar to the lack of space for newspaper news: 'a television script (e.g. for the news) can be more succinct, using fewer adjectives and adverbs because the pictures convey much of the detail' (Barwise and Ehrenberg: 1988: 128-9). However, the effect of this simplification of news is that ‘we are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment' (Postman, 1987: 102). Postman further argues that the short length of TV news reports has the role not to let the viewers engage too much with a particular subject, because if they do, they can lose the 'entertaining' sense of the news programme.
Spending approximately a day a week viewing TV, people happen to find out more on a particular topic without necessary having in plan to; hence, watching video materials doesn't always involve a voluntary engagement with the subject of the broadcast. Therefore, TV audiences are more likely to be passive because of the longer periods of time in contact with this means of communication, unlike the limited interaction with written texts, which is more likely to be a voluntary action, being more personal as well: ‘the mood of reading is quieter and more reflective' (Hornby, 1965: 32). Due to the limited number of pages and the one-to-one character of reading a written text, the reader is more of an active media consumer while a TV viewer could engage in other activities while the TV is on. Moreover, as Monaco argues, in order to read a text, one has to be willing, to invest a more intense intellectual effort because 'he has to supply his own images [and sound]' (1978: 6), whilst to hear or see something on television does not need such a mental effort. Hence, a written media text is more likely to be 'read' in an active manner than a TV broadcast. This does not imply, however, as McCullagh (2002) argues, that newspapers cannot be read in a distraught way.
Related to the issue of active/passive audiences is also the creativity of the media consumer. Print texts encourage people to be creative more than when viewing video materials, in which case the media consumer is a mere spectator, not the essential constitutive element of forming the mental image suggested by the text. News broadcasts comprise reading previously written news (news scripts), (motion) pictures, sounds and testimonies. By contrast with reading texts, where one has to imagine what he reads, ‘the synchronisation voice-over with images […] makes it appear as if the images ‘speak for themselves' - declare their own transparent meaning, without exterior intervention' (Brunsdon and Morely, 1996: 14-5). Ellis notes the characteristics of the video medium, which makes use of images as its main support: 'it helps communication by providing more redundancy, and provides emphasis by doubling information in both sound and image' (2000: 97). Hence, the technologies the video medium is using can bear advantages over the print medium, making the former as popular as it is.
The human resources for what is conveyed through a medium are an important part in offering a qualitative product. With regard to print, written texts have authors who express their opinions, their own views, and state their knowledge about different subjects in order to inform the readers. Hence, the articles are more personal than video media products which usually have a team to produce them. If an article is signed by its creator, the news are presented in an impersonal, but not necessarily objective, manner; this is the case of news broadcasts presented by anchors, not of broadcasters whose TV shows are 'associated with the style, manner and personality of their presenters' (Hall, 1996: 9). The video broadcasts are varied in the way they are presented, in the way information not witnessed by the audiences is mediated to the public. This aspect could also influence the viewers due to the complexity of the stimuli conveyed through video.
Apart from the statistics on audience rates and the features of the two media there is a great concern with the effects of media on audiences, which mainly derive from the technological characteristics of the medium. Unsuitable material presented on TV is more damaging than in the case of printed texts because, unlike print, video offers a more convincing image of reality. Thus, the impact on audiences is higher over a short period, which, however, 'cannot challenge the place of the newspaper as the medium that daily records in some detail, life in all its aspects' (Hornby, 1965: 98). In print, words and a limited number of images cannot present an exact picture of an event because all is filtered through the mind of the journalist; thereby, the reader receives second-hand information. The video medium offers a more exact image of the world, due to the images, comments and interviews presented. However, both perceptions of the world are biased because they are presented by people.
There could be said much more about print and video, two different types of media, which, I would agree with Putnam, 'are complements, not substitutes' (2000: 219). Therefore, it is hard to decide which one is 'better'. Each media is good at responding to the expectations of its target audience and each of them has its advantages and disadvantages, some of which I have discussed in this essay. To conclude, I will emphasise once again the role of the two media: print mainly informs, whilst the video media mainly entertains. It rests with each person to decide which one is more suitable for them and if they can cope with the negative aspects of the specific medium.