How to Conduct a 'Close Analysis' of a Media 'Text'
A basic media literacy exercise.
By Elizabeth Thoman
While getting "caught up" in a storytelling experience has been the essence of entertainment since our ancestors told tales around the fire, the relentless pace of entertainment media today requires that at least once in awhile, we should stop and look, really look, at how a media message is put together and the many interpretations that can derive from it. The method for this is called "close analysis." To learn to conduct this basic media literacy exercise, try it first yourself; then introduce it to a group or class using tips at the end of this article.
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. Find a commercial to analyze by recording, not the programs but just the commercials, during an hour or two of TV watching. Play the tape and look for 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. Replay your selection several times as you go through the following steps:
After the first viewing, write down everything you can remember about the visuals-- lighting, camera angles, how the pictures are edited together. Describe any people-- what do they look like? what are they doing? wearing? What scenes or images do you remember clearly? Focus only on what is actually on the screen, not your interpretation of what you saw on the screen. (See the following sample exercise, What Do You Notice? ) If necessary, play it again but with the sound off. Keep adding to your list of visuals.
Replay again with the picture off. Listen to the sound track. 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? What is their purpose? Who is being spoken to-- directly or indirectly? (That is, who is the audience addressed by the commercial?)
3. Apply Key Questions.
With the third viewing, 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 you 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? Continue to show the text over and over; it's like peeling back the layers of an onion.
4. Review Your Insights.
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 exhilirating, 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.
While no one has the time to subject every media message to this kind of analysis, it takes only two or three experiences with close analysis to give us the insight to "see" through other media messages as we encounter them. It's like having a new set of glasses that brings the whole media world into focus.
Media Text: A :60 commercial showing an attractive middle-aged woman driving on a dark, lonely road when her car breaks down. She tries in vain to restart the car. . .a truck passes going the other way but does not stop. (Turns out to be a commercial for a cell phone.)
Teacher/Leader: What did you notice about this text? First, what did you actually see on the screen?
Group Responses: driving on a lonely road. . . it's night / dark . . . woman alone . . . car breaks down . . . she's afraid. . .
T/L: Oh?, you saw fear?! How did you see fear? Fear is an abstract concept . . . what did you actually see (that led you to conclude : fear)?
(You might want to chart the following typical responses in two columns which can later clarify: denotation / connotation)
GR: Closeup of woman turning key in ignition with sound of car grinding but not starting. . . close-up of foot on gas pedal. . . close-up of engine light. . . close-up of her fingers drumming on the steering wheel. . . closeup of her looking out the window to see if anyone around. . . no . . . on the sound track, the music is in a minor key, kind of eerie.
T/L: Okay! After the establishing shot which put her on a dark country road, there were four quick cuts showing her trying to start the car. Put those together with the eerie music and we viewers jump to the conclusion that she's afraid-- or that she should be afraid. . .
Further exploration reveals that each shot of the commercial, plus the editing which goes faster and faster like a racing heartbeat, is carefully constructed to build the case that the woman is in danger and afraid. If we, as viewers, buy into it and begin to identify with a feeling of fear, we've been "hooked" by the commercial's premise, whether we ever buy a cell phone or not. This is the power of visual language and why we need to help our students learn to "read" it.