Essential Question 5: What techniques are used to enhance the authenticity of the message?

Activity Question:  What techniques are used to enhance the authenticity of the message?

As we have already explored, the word "real" is pretty tricky when it comes to the study of film and television.  Documentary film and television derive their power because the images they provide seem authentic and believable.  But the concept of "authenticity" is itself a construction.

As Bill Nichols writes in Representing Reality, "Our perception of the read is constructed for us by codes and conventions." The use of archival film footage is one of the most common techniques that enhance authenticity because the footage encourages us to assume that, because the images are old, they are true.

During the 1980s, additional techniques to enhanceauthenticity were developed.  The public's exposure to amateurvideo and "hidden camera" techniques, have changed ourexpectations of what "real" looks like.  People'sexpectations about which images are authentic are influenced by cameratechniques that include the shaky camera, the grainy image, or the useof the time/date stamp.  Now, media professionals have madeadvertising, documentaries, and even fictional programming using thesetechniques, imitating (or co-opting) the look of authentic style tograb viewers' attention.

And, of course, documentaries canuse imagery that is completely inauthentic to make a very useful andinformative program.  When making a program about the middle ages, forexample, a producer will have no access to authentic film or video ofthe time period and may need to develop creative ways to producecompelling visual images that convey the mood of the times.  Closeexamination of documentaries that make use of re-enactments, forexample James Burke's series, The Day the UniverseChanged, would be valuable to help students see the complex waysin which authenticity is constructed.

What's Real about Reality TV?

Target Age:  Middle School and up

Materials Needed:  VCR and monitor, videotape of examples

Video Materials:  PartA of Segment 7 includes an illustration of three camera techniques thatare fabricated to give an illusion of greater authenticity.  Segment 7,Part B includes a clip from an episode of a "reality TV" program that exemplifies inauthentic footage.

Focus Question:  What techniques are used to enhance the authenticity of a message?

Goals and Objectives:

  1. Students will strengthen skills of observation, analysis and problem solving.
  2. Students will practice critical viewing skills. 
  3. Students will acquire greater awareness of how fictional elements are used in a non-fiction program.

Activity 1
Cuevideotape to Part A of Segment 7, which illustrates three kinds ofmanipulative editing techniques that are often used to enhance theauthenticity of a message:  time/space conflation, the asked for shot, and the re-enactment. Watcheach segment individually and discuss with students why producerschoose to sue these techniques in a documentary.

In time/space conflation, the producer uses film acquired atdifferent times, and edits them in a way that suggests that theyhappened at the same time or sequentially.  In the askedfor shot, the producer steps in front of the camerato alter some aspect of an experience in order to get a more attractiveor more effective shot.  In re-enactment, a producer usesactors and scripted dialogue in order to capture a visual event thatwas impossible to record while it was happening.

Have studentslook up the word "authentic" in a dictionary and ask them todescribe how they judge whether a program is authentic or not.  Whataspects of a program do people use to judge whether a message isauthentic?

Activity 2
Dividethe class into two groups and give each group a guided viewing questionto think about while viewing Part B of Segment 7.  One group should beasked to watch for all the authentic elements; the othergroup should watch for all the inauthentic elements.  Watchthe segment and after viewing, ask each group to identify the elementsof the program that were authentic and inauthentic.  For example, the binocular shot might be an example of an inauthenticelement, while the photos of the suspect at the end of the segmentmight be an example of an authentic element.

Write the programelements on the blackboard and discuss the blurring of fiction andnon-fiction elements in a program that presents actual experience.

Additional Discussion Questions:

Invite students to analyze the characters represented in this program.

  • Who was the hero of this episode?
  • When could you identify him? 
  • Who did you think the hero was at first?
  • Who is the most likable character in this program? With whom do you identify in this program? Why?
  • Why are stereotypes used in non-fiction programming?
  • Is this a realistic or unrealistic representation of a drug dealer? Why or why not?

Invite students to analyze the "chase sequence."

  • How did students feel during this program?
  • What techniques did the producers use to evoke this response?
  • What kinds of viewers might be confused about the blurring of fiction and non-fiction elements in this program?

Invite students to analyze their own involvement in the program.

  • What facts and details in the program are most relevant and attention-getting to you? Why?

Forhomework, encourage students to watch a "reality TV" programat home and identify the manipulative techniques used.