A formalist Perspective on Conflict Reporting


A GoPro, strapped to the top of a tank in combat has only one master. The GoPro sees whatever the tank is focused on. There is a distinctive first person shooter aesthetic to the footage, as the GoPro moves in tandem with the tank, storing 25 frames per second of high quality video footage. Every missed bullet, every fire of the cannon is all recorded in HD. The GoPro records continuously, until either the card is full, the battery dies, or it is shot off the top of the tank. And that is the end. There is nothing else, save for a title that details where the footage was recorded, when it was recorded, and who by. The rest of the sequence is completely open to the interpretation of the viewer. The raw piece of data then finds its way online where it is pulled apart, critiqued, discussed, analysed, edited, cut and then re uploaded again, and again, and again. However the original still exists. The raw original footage is not lost or hidden from view.

Compare this to a news bulletin from a legacy media channel. I will not use the term ‘mainstream’ here, because that term is open to interpretation, particularly as online sources are more and more becoming the main way a lot of users unpack world events and keep in touch with what is happening around them. The legacy media version of the same event opens with an introduction by a ‘trained’ presenter who is telling you, the viewer everything they think you need to know. Over the course of the 90 second item, a variety of other clips will be used to help iterate the narrator’s facts and figures, providing a visual sequence that, without the narrator, would be a seemingly random assortment pieces of footage. In this case, it is not the footage that takes precedence, but the auditory news story crafted by the newsreader. The piece will have an opening, providing a problem which will then set the scene for the remainder of the segment. The newsreader will then introduce a problem to audience. Finally, to tie the fabricated story together in a nice little package, we have the glorious conclusion/resolution/final scene that alleviates the stress we felt when we almost grasped the fact that something horrible was out of our control.

As can be seen from a comparison of these two methods of information dissemination, there is a drastic difference in the way they are presented. One is an unadulterated piece of footage that exists in its own right, while the other is essentially a short story, created by doctoring together small pieces of information in a certain order so that there is a beginning, middle and an end. The short synopsis below is a framed example of this progression in order to provide the argument with a contextual reference point.

Opening: US forces on tour in Iraq

Problem: US forces face opposition from critics of the war

Resolution: US forces defy critics, stand up for their ideals

Vladimir Propp, a Russian formalist thinker outlines this obvious distinction between the first and second types of conflict information dissemination as the fabula and the syuzhet respectively.

Holquist (1990, p.111) defines this as:

The distinction between the way in which an event unfolds as a brute chronology (fabula), and as the “same” event, ordered in a mediated telling of it, a construction in which the chronology might be varied or even reversed, so as to achieve a particular effect (syuzhet).


This distinction helps us to define the clear difference between the GoPro on the tank and the news cast. While both pieces of footage have a beginning and an end, it is the way that the content within that space is structured that matters. By being completely devoid of syuzhet, the GoPro footage from the tank stands in a realm paradigmatically removed from that of the news cast. While there is content, there is no story. As Holquist (1991) states, we are simply left with the brute chronology of the event itself.


This brute chronology does have its limitations, however they exist extrinsically to the footage that has been recorded. Just as it is not the objective of the tank on which the GoPro is situated to be everywhere at once, neither is it for the recording device mounted to it. Using such raw footage, the user gains context and understanding from other videos with similar, from the title, from their previous knowledge of the situation and from the views of those expressing themselves in the feedback channels that surround the footage. The title of the video can be considered to contain an element of the syuzhet as well, however this is a necessary evil with which one must contend, simply so that they have a frame of reference for the footage in the first place.


Contrast this with the heavily syuzhet laden news story, in which there is no room for the viewer to maneuver and reinterpret what they are seeing. The syuzhet is a tool that, in the case of a narrative, helps to guide the story towards the ultimate ending, providing a journey for the reader and creating an atmosphere of intrigue. However by applying this same tool to a piece of information it turns it into a story. When raw footage and other intelligence undergoes this transformative process, the end result is nothing more than a folk tale, one that has some basis in fact but is too short and shallow to accurately describe the greater meaning behind the events that have transpired.


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