'Reading critique has to be a joyous task'

13.05.2013, Viewpoint

Լրագրող, արվեստի քննադատ

TV critic Irina Petrovskaya considers herself someone who has "alternative hearing" — television for her has become a window to observe the world. "I sing whatever I see" is how she describes her highly particular but greatly in demand profession.

A columnist for the Russian paper Novaya Gazeta ("New Gazette") and co-author of a program aired on Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy ("Echo of Moscow"), Petrovskaya was recently in Yerevan, giving lectures and holding master classes for Media.am's critics. 

As a rule, actual television comprises only a tiny percentage of your articles, which are more so meditations on life. 

Indeed, I write not so much about television as much as the impression I get from television, its reflection of reality. Television is my angle of observation, my window to view the world. And whatever I see from that window I write.

Of course, it's a dubious profession. It seems easy: sitting comfortably, watching television, then writing about it. But no matter how pathetic it sounds, we critics work for the audience, ensuring a specific communication between the TV set and the viewer.

Your articles almost always have an ironic tone to them. Perhaps there's no other way to write about modern television?

I think, in your stock of expressions there definitely has to be irony, as well as different types of subtexts, illusions, comparisons, and references. It allows you to show your attitude towards what's happened. 

In general, anything written about television has to be appropriate. It's easy to write I saw this, I liked it, while that other thing I saw, I didn't like. The reader will say, so what? A critic needs to invent a dramaturgical structure, on which impressions and conclusions will be aligned.

I think, writers always create, while a critical piece is in itself creative work. And no one can clearly identify the laws governing this creative laboratory. Much depends on the author's vocabulary and accumulation of meanings. 

"When a person places herself in a double-entendre system (writing one thing in one place and something completely different in a different place), then she is not telling the truth in one of the platforms. And I think this is something akin to vocational crime"

As well as the reader's…

You know, it's absolutely horrible when no segment of the readership understands your written work. And this segment is growing, mainly among the youth. It seems that we're reading and writing in the same language, but when the reader doesn't get your starting point (since she is from a completely different generation), she cannot comprehend what you wrote. 

Have there been cases when a TV critic's remarks have seriously affected (positively or negatively) the fate of a program or TV personality?

Of course, no piece of writing can either overthrow or glorify a phenomenon or person. But if the reader is a thinker, no doubt something gets clarified for him. There have been cases when some of my friends in television have confessed that what they read helped them reach a decision and make certain corrections. But I have to say, that happens quite rarely. 

What about infotainment, is it unavoidable?

I think, yes. The entire world is swept away by this. The problem is simply talent. In the past, infotainment was witty, intelligent and talented, but now it's becoming more and more tasteless and gaudy. I often visit regional TV stations and see that they mainly use various superficial and flashy tricks, small "decorations," if you will, forgetting about content [in their programming].

The media industry often questions whether infotainment is dangerous for journalism or that it, nevertheless, is necessary.

In these times of media saturation, people quickly tire and stop processing new information, and infotainment allows us to get their attention. It turns out that using this engaging format you can capture the audience's attention on content.

And sometimes do the opposite — divert their attention…

Of course, sometimes also divert. At the end of the day, television can easily "drain" a person — there are many such examples. 

You said that you prefer to write happy content so that the reader gets a dose of joy.

Reading, of course, has to be an interesting and joyous process. Well, you can't very well read a dull article about pointless things that make you go crazy, can you? It definitely has to be happy. Sometimes I really don't have another way of expressing my opinion other than making the reader laugh. To provoke readers to form their own opinion through laughter. 

Irina Petrovskaya in YerevanDiscussion at the Lradadar media critics' club

 Is critique always subjective?

Subjectivity is always present, since in selecting the facts and the story the author is already being subjective. Of course, the subjectivity element is more pronounced in opinion pieces, but this is why such pieces attract audiences, which allow contact with the author, though distant.

There was a time when we tried to migrate to the Western style of journalism, but then we understood that readers are no less interested in opinion pieces. Today, newspapers that only convey and disseminate information can't compete with the Internet — by the time the paper is printed, the information is already old and of no use. 

Newspapers' advantage is their journalists, who write about their vision of news and express their own opinions. Of course it's subjective, but if opinion is separated from fact, reading it is always interesting. Moreover, if the author is of interest to the reader, it's because of his subjective approach. 

Of course, in our country, journalism is a mishmash (especially in television) — facts, commentary, opinions, and assessments are all put in the same pot, which I think is a Russian approach. 

"Subjectivity is always present, since in selecting the facts and the story the author is already being subjective. Of course, the subjectivity element is more pronounced in opinion pieces, but this is why such pieces attract audiences"

Do television audience ratings speak to the quality of programming?

Often it's the exact opposite. A rating is a quantitative indicator — nothing more. And it can't be considered an indicator of an attitude toward a program, since that measurement includes negative attitudes ("I hate it, but I watch it"), background viewing (when the TV is on but no one's watching), and accidental viewing.

Critique and ratings are considered to be different poles. As a rule, rating is a quantitative and critique is a qualitative assessment. Quality (as a characterization) isn't even a part of the equation when it comes to ratings. 

There are many TV channels in Armenia. Does this reduce the quality?

Of course. If all are guided by ratings and are trying to gather an audience, then the quality of programming certainly falls. It's nearly always like this, since taken into consideration is not only the program's broadcasting time slot, but also its cost, which is comprised of the advertising in that program. 

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Pro-government TV channels usually don't address controversial topics, saying that it will cause alarm and harm viewers. Does this perhaps protect us from the threat of instability?

Everything depends on the particular news story. I think, if there's a massive brawl or accident, television will show that gladly. But if we're talking about political protests and rallies, these are absolutely ignored. Generally the number of protestors isn't noted or half-empty public squares are intentionally shown (say, filming is done one hour before the start of the protest when protestors are just arriving). 

Television also likes wide-angle shots to show various marginal and unsightly characters, say, drunks who are always standing in that spot. Camera operators especially seek out neo-Nazis with aggressive posters or flags. Everything is done to show that those coming to rallies are the riffraff, bearing Swastikas and beer bottles. 

If we view this through journalists' eyes would it be censorship or self-censorship?

It's not censorship but the way things are that many journalists abide by willingly. We have many fiery, patriotic journalists, who gladly contribute to this state of affairs. And they are the ones who are sent to cover the opposition protests or court cases. 

It's easy like this. Of course, it's quite disgusting but easy. One can very quickly make a career for himself and if he wants, get paid a lot. Journalists at a young age don't think that there is still a long way to go, and when there's a change of government, they fall off the wagon in the blink of an eye.

"In these times of media saturation, people quickly tire and stop processing new information, and infotainment allows us to get their attention. It turns out that using this engaging format you can capture the audience's attention on content"

Some Russian television reporters are leaving their jobs, saying they don't want to take part in the charade. Is it possible to stay clean and work honestly if the channel's general approach is not so honest?

Probably the only constant in journalism is integrity — a journalist has to have integrity, to be honest. If at any stage a news outlet is engaged in a smear campaign and then you, wearing white, assume the opposite position, undoubtedly you are legitimizing your predecessor's "smear" tactics. 

For TV viewers it doesn't matter what sort of journalist you are; it's all the same, you are in the general flow, and broadly speaking, you serve the current regime and system. 

If you are a person with principles and you decide to leave the station, you have the right to say you no longer take part in the dishonesty. 

This debate is constantly going on in my country. I too found myself confronted with this dilemma when working at the newspaper Izvestiya: I understood that it's no longer a paper but a government mouthpiece. It seemed to me that my column won't suffer as a result: I'll keep my readership, who understands that I have nothing to do with the paper's general stance. But there came a time when I understood that, alas, I'm connected to reality, since an article that evokes a desire to be swallowed up into the ground could be published next to my piece. And when my readers said, how can you be published next to that scum, I left the paper. 

But that's a very sensitive matter — each person who leaves understands that finding work is nearly impossible; we all have families and have to earn a living. And I have no right to reprimand anyone. 

"Newspapers' advantage is their journalists, who write about their vision of news and express their own opinions. Of course it's subjective, but if opinion is separated from fact, reading it is always interesting. Moreover, if the author is of interest to the reader, it's because of his subjective approach"

Disputes over work ethics have become aggravated recently. When a journalist posts in social networking sites, is she expressing only her opinion or also the publication for which she works?

This is a huge problem. One view is that a journalist remains a journalist regardless of the platform. Recently, a young journalist was fired from her job when she posted on Facebook content that the channel had refused [not aired]. Many news organizations monitor their employees' posts on social media. 

Whenever I write about a program in social media, I can allow myself to make more severe statements than in my articles. For example, recently referring to the MP [Irina] Yarovaya and Pozner interview, I used a harsh word to refer to that woman in Facebook, which I wouldn't use in my column. But I always try not to cross the limit. 

When a person places herself in a double-entendre system (writing one thing in one place and something completely different in a different place), then she is not telling the truth in one of the platforms. And I think this is something akin to vocational crime — more so if you do it knowingly, misleading and lying to your readership. 

How will the television of the future be?

The economy will decide everything. Those TV channels that are successful and bring revenue will remain. Having a lot of channels isn't that bad; much depends on the (of course, relative) extent of their independence. It's important that channels give the audience the complete picture of reality (if one is silent, the other talks). When all the channels are managed from one center, any flow of new information is immediately blocked. 

In Russia, for example, even small channels are controlled from the same center. If one of the channels decides to broadcast, say, a biting social commentary, the channel's director is called to the center and told it's not necessary. And the main constraining factor is economic — they say if you don't obey, we'll shut down your business. 

Television itself is a very odd phenomenon. Besides its main function, to convey information and enlighten viewers, it can also organize, gather, and also help people. However, these functions are applied less often. In the formidable sea of information, there's a need to orient oneself, to separate the real from the imitative. 

Interview conducted by Nune Hakhverdyan.

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