Unintended Infotainment in Armenian News Media

Nune Hakhverdyan

Art critic, journalist

The most watched and read news stories on television and on local news websites are becoming adventure thrillers or bloody detective stories. The journalist who, by incorporating intrigue and elements of reconnaissance into his reporting, is able to stage an incident is likely to gather a large audience.

This is more so the case when used are hidden cameras, anonymous phone conversations, and spontaneous interviews, which are then presented under the illusion of documentary footage (with shaky filming, a certain amount of poor audio, and the beep of censored words, justified by the exclusivity of the story).

Among Armenian news media’s top headlines are accidents and the visual stories constructed from them. The new trend in local television? The ordinary person in extraordinary (severe) conditions.

Stories of brutal murders, fraud in the business sector, details of family and street fights, counterfeiting medication and meat products, and mothers with many children left without a home and out in the cold are accompanied by photos from the scene and comments made on site, becoming that slick trick with which TV channels and news websites guarantee high ratings.

Naturally, we gravitate more toward shocking cases of real people in real situations than fictional lives on soap operas. And I’m not just talking about infamous photojournalist Gagik Shamshyan’s reports of terrifying automobile accidents but about coverage of simple everyday topics.

The ordinary man in extraordinary conditions becomes a toy with which news outlets can “play”. And as a result of that selfless game, they undermine the everyday person while at the same time making ruling authoritative constancy more lasting.

Truly concerning and touching destinies and problems are mainly presented as cases that are quickly resolved and have a happy ending. For instance, a serious public issue is presented as a small, private incident, which is then resolved through the good will of state agencies and the selfless work of journalists.

Journalists try to place themselves in the position of their protagonists (which is especially preferred by those producing Armenia TV’s “Sur Ankyun” program), and they do this demonstrably and with great pleasure, changing outfits and reducing controversial topics into situational comedy. For example, speaking about firearms, a journalist appears on camera with gun in hand to demonstrate his point (watch the video below from 22:48).

Or, in a report describing issues related to fuel and heating, the journalist herself begins to dry the cow dung, preparing the manure for storage (which will then be used to heat the home and food for the family featured in the story). And at the end of her report she says, it’s better to use natural gas. Note, the report centered on people who are dissatisfied with the quality of the gas, and to whom it likewise theatrically was advised to stay away from provocation and continue to use gas (instead of cow dung) to heat their homes. It’s noteworthy that until then the journalist had pointed out there’s only one lab in Armenia measuring the energy of natural gas which is in ArmRusGasProm, the sole company providing natural gas to Armenian consumers. It seemed that there would be further inquiry on this point, but no, nothing more was said.

“Sur Ankyun” declares that its mission is telling the whole truth — “because partial truth is nothing”. An Oct. 28, 2012 broadcast begins with information about spider mites, discovered in Armenia 3 years ago, that ruin crops and require the frequent application of pesticides. The journalist advises us: procure these necessary pesticides, which, incidentally, are imported by the Ministry of Agriculture.

On Nov. 18, 2012, the same program features a story of PanArmenian Media Group (of which Armenia TV is a part) providing housing, work, and bedding to an unemployed, homeless woman and her children. The entire story is accompanied by sentimental and at the same time melancholic music (which, perhaps was meant to show that the issues have been resolved).

Coverage of the ceremony of the RA First Lady sending gifts to poor families also had the same tone.

“Sur Ankyun” is full of such entertaining reports stylized as promotional clips.

For instance, a report about early parole for prisoners (watch from 24:37) had approximately this message: in the past, subjective decisions were made, but now “an independent commission will hold something like a test based on clear criteria”.

If we add to that the host’s extremely pathetic or mocking tone, we are left with the stupendous impression that we’ve found ourselves again in Soviet times, but with the addition of new, improved technologies and diligent journalism. During the Soviet era there existed only one opinion. Now too it’s the same, though to get to that opinion, journalism today goes through more twisting paths — it lashes (punishes), at the same time legitimizes, then mocks, but with the same mockery displays sympathy.

“Sur Ankyun” prefers to use footage it captured with hidden cameras, the use of which is often not justified, since before the camera a person says that which he openly says before a camera, but this deception conveys a certain charm of authenticity to the report (an imitation) and shows that journalists have done a lot of work (they’ve not only worked on the surface, but also dug deeper).

For example, Sur Ankyun’s reporter, in order to show the situation of the pharmaceutical industry, secretly filmed interviews with people in high-ranking positions in the industry, some without noting their position or name. A viewer, naturally, then asks: if the camera wasn’t hidden, wouldn’t those speaking have said the same thing? Perhaps they would have. But the word “hidden” or “covert” evokes intrigue, with which the producers amply flavor their reports.

Information conveyed through the lips of individuals who have been deliberately made anonymous also evokes doubt about the source of information. We don’t know who’s conveying the information and to what extent it’s accurate. The only thing we can do is to blindly trust the journalists, who prepare reports with the help of partly true sources (as there’s a face but no name or profession).

Of course, stories of “smitten” people in vulnerable situations are the pivot of interesting news stories and can be the top favorites of investigative reports — in the best case scenario they can even rouse in viewers the healthy desire of occasionally asking questions and the (likewise healthy) trust of getting answers. But in Armenia’s news media, poignant reports are served with somewhat of a different flavor. They, it seems, acclimatize audiences to the existence of ill-fated human stories and various cases of fraud and dishonesty. They reconcile with what’s happened.

Nune Hakhverdyan

The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.

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