Conducting a Close Analysis
Step by step instructions for conducting a close analysis of a media text. Worksheets included.
Part I, Description; Part II, Interpretation
Objective: To teach students to look closely at how a media message is put together and the many interpretations that can derive from it; to teach students to analyze and to know the difference between describing an event with evidence and facts, and interpreting an event using opinions and judgments.
Description: Two worksheets are provided for students to complete while learning to conduct a close analysis of a media text. Students view video excerpts and answer questions about what they see and hear, and how it influences what the message is “saying.” Any media message can be used for a close analysis but commercials are often good choices because they are short and tightly packed with powerful words and images, music and sounds. Worksheet #1 focuses on description of events “what is happening?” The second worksheet encourages a deeper analysis that includes interpretation and opinion.
How to Use: Find a commercial to analyze by recording, not the programs but just the commercials, during an hour or two of TV watching. Select a commercial that seems to have a lot of layers-- interesting visuals and sound track, memorable words or taglines, multiple messages that call out for exploration. You will replay the selection several times as you go through a close analysis of a media text with your students.
Here is a brief outline of the activity:
Step 1 Visuals. Students will write down everything they remember about the visuals-- lighting, camera angles, how the pictures are edited together. Descriptions of people -- what do they look like? what are they doing? wearing? The focus is only on what is actually on the screen, not an interpretation of what is on the screen.
Step 2 Sounds. Turn the picture off. Ask students to listen only to the sound track and write down all the words that are spoken. Who says them? What kind of music is used? Does it change in the course of the commercial? How? Are there other sounds? Who is being spoken to-- directly or indirectly? (That is, who is the audience addressed by the commercial? Is there evidence for this?)
Step 3 Counting. Many multi-media messages or stories contain repeated visual or aural “themes” or “ploys” that lend themselves to counting, so that students see how the particular technique is used to keep the audience interested. So, for example, violent actions are often used in what is known as “jolts” per minute; how many jolts of violence are there (loud noises, crashes, explosions)?
Step 4 Apply Key Questions (Part 2). This is when you begin to apply the Five Key Questions and the Guiding Questions that lead to them. Identify the author(s) and how the specific “construction” techniques identified in steps 1 and 2 influence what the commercial is “saying”-- values expressed and unexpressed; lifestyles endorsed or rejected; points of view proposed or assumed. Explore what's left out of the message and how different people might react differently to it. What is the message “selling”? Is it the same as the product being advertised? Show the text at least five more times so that students gain experience in experiencing the text through the “lens” of each of the Five Key Questions (for each showing, examine the text from the perspective of one Key Question); it’s like peeling back the layers of an onion.
Step 5 Summarize. Summarize how the text is constructed and how various elements of the construction trigger our own unique response-- which may be very different than how others interpret the text. Try this exercise with other kinds of messages-- a story from a newscast, a key scene from a movie, a print advertisement, a website. Are different questions important for different kinds of messages? Doing a close analysis with a class or group can be exhilarating, with insights coming fast and furiously.
After the first showing, start the group exercise with the simple question: “What did you notice?” Different people will remember different things so accept all answers and keep asking, “What else did you notice?” If the group is having a hard time, show the clip again and invite them to look for something that stands out for them. Continue the brainstorming until you have at least 15 or 20 answers to the question: “What did you notice?” Challenge any attempt to assign interpretation too early. Keep the group focused on identifying only what was actually on screen or heard on the soundtrack. The key to success with this exercise is for the teacher/leader to keep asking questions. Refrain from contributing too many answers yourself.
Teaching Tip: We offer a video on our YouTube channel called Water Clip for this exercise, or you can select a different clip that is multi-layered with clear dialogue and lots of action. As both teachers and students gain experience with this deconstruction exercise, the process becomes quicker and also “cleaner” in terms of students’ ability to focus on descriptions and evidence first, and then add in their interpretation of media messages.