By Constanza Mujica
The evening news comes on, and on the screen there's a woman crying, telling of her close escape from a derailed Harlem subway train or from the gruesome Manchester concert bombing. The nightly telenovela comes on right afterwards and there's another woman crying: she has lost her love, her child, her sister or has just found out she wasn't who she thought she was throughout her entire life.
Television news coverage uses two melodramatic traits: emotionalization and personalization. The first relates to conveying information through emotions and the exacerbation of those feelings through music, close ups, slow visual rhythm and a multitude of related audiovisual resources. Personalization—the woman crying about her experience—focuses on the personal stories of clearly identifiable characters instead of posing events in terms of abstract problems or processes.
U.S. and European journalism studies have long discussed, analyzed, and criticized this technique. They have called it infotainment, sensationalism, tabloidization. From a Latin American perspective, familiarity with the study of telenovelas makes the link with melodrama studies very clear. In simple terms, it is obvious that we have newsy telenovelas and melodramatic news.
Labels can be helpful. Audiovisual genres guide both industry and consumers. When a TV channel or Netflix produces a sitcom, its makers know that it should have unitary episodes that last no more than 25 minutes. The viewer knows what to expect, what kind of pleasure is to come, and is waiting for his or her canned laughter.
The same expectation based on previous experience happens with the news and with telenovelas. One is fact, the other fiction. One is serious, the other full of excess and crying. One tells the big events and explains the processes that led us there. The other tells the story of one, very special and ill-fated couple. One is the first draft of history, the other melodrama.
But are the distinctions so clear? Not really. Genres are continuously blending.We have seen narconovelas and political telenovelas full of suspense and action, full of facts and accurate historical references. And we have all seen newscasts that tell us the latest news with dramatic music, using the story of one very ill-fated protagonist as an exemplar of an ongoing process (just remember the coverage of conflict abroad, catastrophes, or economic downturns).
Both are relying on the use of melodrama. The tradition of melodrama studies is best represented by authors like Jesús Martín-Barbero (1987, 1995) and Carlos Monsiváis (2000). With ties as a mass product to late 18th- and early 19th-century French theater, melodrama is a genre characterized by exacerbation of emotions with various resources such as background music. The plot relies on archetypal roles, with the characters’ struggle for love and happiness representing the battle between good and evil.
In his analyses of Latin American television and telenovelas, Martín-Barbero understands melodrama as a mediation strategy between two poles —the pre-modern realities that a majority of Latin American citizens experience daily, and the modern expectations at the center of much of Latin American political discourse. This is evident if you consider that classical telenovelas deal with the journey of a female character from poverty to riches through virtue, education and love. So, poor girl meets rich guy, she is deceived and gets pregnant, she is naïve, nice, works hard, and follows the advice of the old nice butler (or the handsome teacher), suffers a little more, learns a little more and marries the rich guy who has learned from his mistakes.
Traditionally, this approach to melodrama studies—the heightening of emotions—has served as a theoretical framework informing the analysis of works of fiction, but it is a useful approach to study journalism and news production as well (see the seminal work of Gripsrud 1992), beyond the exclusively negative critiques of infotainment. In fact, past research shows that melodramatic representation can be found in diverse media and cultural manifestations, such as literature—romantic stories like those by Spanish author Corín Tellado; religion—catechesis through saints' lives in a popular comic strip called "Vidas ejemplares,"and popular music—romantic salsa, bolero, bachata, rancheras, and a wide array of Latin American rhythms that evoke melodrama through words and tunes.
It would seem, as Carolina Acosta Alzuru has said, that Latin America’s story is one of despecho, of love lost and recovered only through suffering and repentance. Just listen to the lyrics of the title song of “La Madrastra” (Chilean version, 1981): “Soy el amor que no muere jamás; Que se entrega una vez, nada más; Soy esa voz que te llama al pasar, desde el fondo del tiempo...” I am the love that never dies, that is given only once; I am that voice that calls you while you go by, from the depths of time.” That’s despecho, that’s melodramatic love, a love that lives forever in loyalty and virtue. True love is right, and is granted only to the faithful and the good.
Despite the academic legitimation of melodrama as a conceptual bridge and the popularity of all things melodramatic in Latin America, the characterization of journalistic work as melodramatic is perceived by professionals as some sort of insult. Content analysis of newscasts in Chile shows, however, that they increasingly use emotional testimonies intensified on screen by the use of closeups that last for excruciating seconds, and by dramatic music. Producers recognize that they use testimonies as a way to make complex stories relate more closely to their audiences, considering that audiovisual language, like reality, is itself emotional.
Melodrama is the exaggeration of those features. We are emotional, not melodramatic, they say. “Every relevant story in life involves emotion […]. If I had to explain an algorithm, you’ll recall less [of it] than if I tell you who your colleague’s boyfriend is. There are different brain hemispheres that work in different ways [when processing information],” said the editor of one major Chilean television network.
Recent studies carried out by Ingrid Bachmann and myself seem to confirm his perception. The claim that emotion and personal stories demean information ignores the role of emotions in cognitive processes and their potential to actually increase the levels of information recall and to promote citizen social and political involvement. In our studies we found that exposure to different levels of melodramatization on news reports had an effect on how well viewers understood the causes and effects portrayed. More importantly—and in accordance with news professionals’ arguments that they rely on higher levels of melodramatization for the sake of the audience—it is the melodramatic treatment that positively affects how many facts individuals correctly remember from the stories they had just viewed.
But why does this happen?
One of the reasons suggested by academic literature is that the viewer pays more attention to what is going on onscreen when more emotion and editing resources such as music are used. Hence he or she remembers what was shown better.
The other hypothesis suggests that the audience can establish more of a relationship with the people portrayed in the news if they can relate to their feelings. Images provoke emotions, memories and associations that promote empathy. Members of the audience can identify with the experiences of those people: If my kid was sick like that man’s what would I have done? How would I have felt if I had lost my job like that woman? We enhance cognition because we can feel with them and integrate their experience.
The identification with others leads to the temporary adoption of the other’s perspective, to the recognition of what is similar among us. The combination of hard facts with examples and emotion, the integration of melodrama into the news, promotes a more complex integration of those facts, one that can be more moving not only in the emotional sense, but also in terms of discussion within communities (families, for example) and political action.
These ideas need further study, but they suggest that the derisiveness with which melodrama is treated in some circles is born from a narrow, elitist perception of knowledge.
Emotion and the experience of others are central to the Latin American notion of melodrama. This notion integrates feelings and characters in the belief that complex human beings are at the core of a mode of understanding our world. Of course, classical melodrama implies a certain ethical rigidity, a very slow-moving core of ethics. However, such clear-cut separation between good and evil has been smudged even in telenovelas. The complexity of reality that the news is supposed to portray is further served by melodramatic treatment if the diversity of views and expectations of ever-changing social contexts are included.
Constanza Mujica is an associate professor of communications at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and the interim director of its journalism department. She has written extensively on Chilean television.