One of the classic texts of the much-derided discipline of media studies is Kurt Lang and Gladys Lang’s 1953 study of how the selective reporting by a television camera crew distorted viewers’s perception of a parade.
By following the star of the parade along the route, Lang and Lang’s reporters gave the impression of a mile upon mile of screaming supporters welcoming General Douglas MacArthur to Chicago. Of course, the crowd only cheered as the general drove by, but the people at home saw continuous pandemonium.
Television viewers saw a very different event than those watching the parade in person. Without any intentional bias by the journalists, the medium creates a distorted representation of the live event.
Obvious as this may be to media-savvy people today, this was an important observation five decades ago.
And it’s worth recalling in light of something rather different that happened at another televised parade yesterday, when NBC sanitized a Thanksgiving Day Parade gone wrong.
NBC did not interrupt its broadcast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade yesterday to bring viewers the news that an M&M balloon had crashed into a light pole, injuring two sisters.
n fact, when the time came in the tightly scripted three-hour program for the M&Ms’ appearance, NBC weaved in tape of the balloon crossing the finish line at last year’s parade — even as the damaged balloon itself was being dragged from the accident scene. At 11:47 a.m., as an 11-year-old girl and her 26-year-old sister were being treated for injuries, the parade’s on-air announcers — Katie Couric, Matt Lauer and Al Roker — kept up their light-hearted repartee from Herald Square, where the parade ends.
Ah, the pursuit of objective truth.
(Until Google gets around to scanning that bit of the library, see Lang and Lang, “The Unique Perspective of Television and Its Effect: a Pilot Study,” American Sociological Review 18(1): 103-112.)
Update: New York Daily News columnist Richard Huff has more background:
The producers of the telecast are from the entertainment wing — not news — and apparently didn’t believe the incident deserved mention.
So there were Lauer and Couric, people accustomed to covering breaking news when all the facts are not known, missing a major story just blocks away.
Couric didn’t learn about the accident until she was off the air, and Lauer apparently found out when he got home.
The situation exposed the perils of having newscasters anchor entertainment events.
The story being picked up across the United States, as New York mayor Michael Bloomberg launched an inquiry into what went wrong with the balloon.