PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
TV mediates viewers' perceptions
© 1999 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations About the author

When we watch television, we see only what the camera operators and director have chosen to let us see and we hear only what the audio engineers and director have chosen to let us hear. We don't know what was edited out or in. Nor do we know how much the recorded images were processed and modified.

Television's ability to "mediate" and affect viewers' perceptions should be a matter of critical concern to every thinking person. I explained why in my article on "Managing personal and organizational encounters" when I talked about perceptions and wrote: "Insofar as public relations practitioners -- or anyone else -- can influence people's perceptions, they can affect how those people will respond to another person or an organization. And, like it or not, what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste can be controlled, adjusted, and manipulated in countless ways over a wide range of intensities." Film-makers, video-makers, and other decision-makers within the television industry are certainly included in that range of "anyone else" to whom I referred.


Video and motion picture camera operators and directors not only determine what is seen, they affect how it's perceived.

To the extent these film and video-makers affect how viewers perceive what they are seeing, they can have tremendous impact on how the people who eventually watch their finished program or news report will feel about the people and events they see on the screen. Let's consider a fairly simple example based on a very common situation that is frequently seen in television newscasts. Assume there is one average-looking woman, possibly a government official or business executive, who is standing facing a moderate-sized group of people (maybe 20-30) who are sitting on folding chairs, facing her, while she talks to them.

Here are just a few examples of how the camera operator's decisions about shooting this situation, whether they are guided by a director or left to the camera operator's volition, can affect viewer's perceptions.


Background and cut-away shots also contribute to how a scene or event is perceived.

Assume we're still talking about filming a news event that features a woman speaking to a group of seated people. "Cut-away" or "fill shots," usually without any sound of their own, would be edited into the film/tape of the speaker's presentation to provide visual variety so the audience doesn't have to look only at her the entire time, or to denote a transition from one subject to another, or to indicate that a portion of the presentation has been cut out. They might include shots showing audience reactions, a chart or other visual the speaker is talking about, a close-up of the speaker making a particular point, the surroundings in the room, or almost anything else. They have no audio of their own because the viewers will usually continue to hear the speaker's voice while the cut-aways are running.

Even though the speaker is supposed to be the main event and will most likely draw most of the audience's attention, the cut-aways still make up enough of the total package that they contribute to mediating the perceptions and predispositions of the audience.

Obviously, the visual content chosen for the cut-aways makes a huge difference in viewers' perceptions. But, so do the choices of camera angle and focus used in the cut-away, just as they make a difference in shooting the primary scene.

Using a telephoto lens or setting a zoom lens for its largest magnification and then leaving it on that setting without doing any other zooming also yields a different feel than shooting the same scene with a normal lens.


Even the audio and the music make a difference in how a scene/event is perceived.

It may seem simplistic or too obvious to be true, but research has repeatedly shown that crisp, clear, properly modulated audio that is easy to hear and understand would create an impression that the speaker was just as clear and forceful in her thinking as in her speaking.

Conversely, if the audio is full of static or otherwise distorted, if it's hard to understand what's being said, if there's loud or obnoxious background noise, or if there is simply not enough volume to easily hear it, it will give the impression that the speaker was confused, uncertain, or muddled in her thinking

Adding lead-in or background music can also have a dramatic effect. Music that is well known to the audience and emotionally evocative can predispose the audience, in favorable or unfavorable ways, before the main program/message has even started.

This is a small sampling of the effects and impact composition, camera angles, framing, and audio "sweetening" can have on viewers' perceptions of a person or event that appears on television.

Skilled film and television directors and camera operators spend years mastering these techniques, usually getting their first exposure in school and gaining further experience working in the field. Public relations practitioners who hope to create and manage images that will be presented on television also need to learn about these techniques and the decisions that are required to use them effectively.

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updated: 4/21/2019