Dirk Schouten  

This text is a rewriting and an extension of the article by Goof
van Amelsvoort and Dirk Schouten: *Real Communication with
Video* in *Vorming*, june 1987. 
It is also an appendix to the book: *Media Action Projects: A
Model for Integrating Video in Project-based Education, Training
and Community Development*. It will be publised by the
University of Nottingham, England end of 1997.   

When you are dealing with books, looking at paintings, analysing
papers, or studying films, you have a theory (a set of thoughts)
which you set next to the text as you work. Or, to put it
differently, you have a viewpoint from which you consider the
book or the film. That theory has various open and hidden
assumptions; about us as spectators, about the product to be
analysed and finally assumpti- ons about mankind and nature in
general. Sometimes it is difficult to identify these assumptions or
to keep them "up front" while you are working, but that is only a
temporary difficulty, since you can always be sure that the
assump- tions are there. These assumptions are often as "natural"
to us as water is to fish. When asked about it, they tell you they
have never heard of water. These theories are also known as
'rock-bottom assumptions', 'paradigmas', 'basic beliefs',
'worldview', etc. (see for example: Competing Paradigms in
Qualitative Research, by Guba & Lincoln, in *Handbook of
Qualitative Research*, Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S.
Lincoln (editors), SAGE, Thousand Oaks, 1994).

Audiovisual Media.
When you are producing media, you also need 'a' theory. A set
of thoughts or instruments that have the 'appropriate'
assumptions for you in your work.  This theory is able to act as
a constant frame of reference for you as you work on the making
of a programme. And, of course, a facilitator working with
groups will also need to have a clear understanding of that theory
and how it relates to and supports the work of her students.
When a group wants to make a powerful documentary on school
life or womens rights, for example, where do they get their
theories from? Of course, during research they will probably be
dealing with theories on education and/or women and maybe on
research itself (see also the *Handbook of Qualitative research*,
an excellent guide). But when they have developed a thesis and
they want to make a program about it, what then? What set of
assumptions are they going to draw on to help them get their
argument across clearly to their audiences? Here the problem

Or if a group want to make a powerful video on how a sewage
worker plants a bomb in the treatment works because he has
discovered that factories have been pumping cancerous material
through it, what theoretical framework will they draw on to make
the project work well? Should it be a tearjerking documentary
rather than a drama? And should they start by studying how
documentaries are made or by looking at theories of dramatic
cinema, or theories on social action, or basic beliefs in
communication? Maybe, but there are other considerations too.

When you want to produce programs with media, media theories
are not immediately useful. They may conceivably help you to
decide what to do, but not necessarily how to do it, or why to
choose one way rather than another. You need a theory, or at
least a set of assumptions that come before the media theory.
Before we concern ourselves with media theory we need to look
at the issues of communication, the most basic principles on how
to make your meanings clear to others and how they, in turn, can
make their position clear to you. 

The media are (by their definition) inbetween the people involved
in such exchanges. They are something that stands between you
and the others and, while there are undoubtedly advantages to
this, there are also some drawbacks.

Media communication is different to everyday comunication
between people. You are dealing with audiences and viewers
whose attitudes to listening and watching media have been
heavily influenced by their experiences of watching television,
listening to the radio, and so on. It is quite conceivable that your
video will not fit the viewing pattern the audience has built up
during a lifetime of watching television and in this way your
programmes can miss a target audience if the audience does not
understand your way of communica- tion. It can even be argued
that television has had such a profound influence on audiences'
expectations that you are better to avoid video altogether and
concentrate on less common media such as tape-slide, but since
the trend towards video is still so strong we must try to come to
terms with these difficulties about audiences and their viewing

The most obvious solution might be to try and match our
programs to the general viewing experiences of the audience: to
give them what they are used to. But there are problems with
this. Most television output is created in conditions which are
inappropriate to our task of helping groups explore, explain,
understand and react to issues within their real communities. We
need an approach which will not try merely to match the
program to the conventional *viewing* experiences of the
audience, but which will let programme makers join the viewers
themselves in their overall exprerience of the issue (not just as
viewers but as people, as complete human being).

Watzlawick's theory on human communication is of use here
(Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson: *The Pragmatics of Human
Communication* PubliserXXXXX for he identifies different
levels of communication between people. Every communication,
Watzlawick proposes, has a  content-aspect and a relation-
aspect. He means that every communication conveys not just its
content, but also the way in which the content should be
understood. He calls the first 'communication', the second
'meta-communication'. Meta-communication is an important
concept for us, not least because it helps to classify the

For example, when I say to you "Shut the door", the content
level is simple and unproblematic. I can also ask "*Shut* the
door" or "Shut the *door*" or "SHUT THE DOOR!". In all
cases the content of the message is the same. But in all four
examples the meta level of the content differs. The first one can
be rather neutral, the second one can be said to someone who
forgets to shut the door, causing the wind to blow away papers
from the desk of speaker says the sentence. The third one is for
someone who always forgets to shut doors and the last one can
be said by someone who has said it already a hundred times
during that particular day.

This distinction between communication-levels is worth attention.
It can remind us how programme makers should recognise and
be explicit about their meta level of communication and should
point out their relation to the content they supply. By
understanding this relation, by recognising the
programme-makers' own position and interests, the viewers are
put into a position where they also develop their relation to the
content. Because of the huge amount of audio-visual material
already available to audiences this clarity is essential.

Our audience will be accustomed to coming across programmes
on this (and other subjects) which are fundamentally different
from each other in a number of respects. They will have seen
programmes with similar content but different
'meta-communicative' aims. For example, compare a
documentary program on a racial issue from the South Africal
Television with a program on racial issues from the Dutch VPRO
Television. You can see the same black communities, but the
programs convey completely different messages. Or, another
possibility, the audience will have seen other programs with
similar aims but different contents. Have a look at two
commercials for whasing powder. And, to complete this variety,
they will have come across programs which are different in their
content *and* their aims. Most likely that your program can be
put under this category. 
By making their own communication (their content) and their
meta- communication (the way they want their content understood
and in that way their relation to the audience) as clear as
possible, programme makers reduce the risk that they and their
work will be dismissed as unreal, foolish, deceitful or
unnecessarily biased. This can happen very easily. On one
international course a group of students from a Dutch polytechnic
could not understand a program that was made by a similar
group of students from an English university. The subject was
the same, the course was the same and the way the programs
were made was also the same. Lack of understanding of meta
levels (context, differences in involvement, differences in
connotation, different perspectives on the same subject, cultural
differences) made the Dutch students reject certain parts of the
English programs.

Many factors could lead to audiences dismissing the programmes
simply because they seem to appear to be of a different order
than the viewers or listeners are accustomed to. It is by
recognising, and considering these aspects of their work that
groups can try to join the experiences of their audience not just
as viewers (which suggests eyes with no brains attached) but as

The main weakness with Watzlawick is that he is concerned
mainly with the production side of communication; the one who
speaks. It is a supply-side model, dealing (like much media
theory) more with the communicators' side than that of the
receptionists. A solid theory on communication should not only
see them as equally important, but should also include the
program makers themselves. In addition his concentration on the
distinction between communication and meta-communication
leaves no room for considerations of truth and how to question it.
Maybe this is because Watzlawich was mainly concerned with
'distorted' communication; with psychiatric cases, with
schizofrenia and related psychological problems. Watzlawick was
not dealing with 'normal' everyday communication.

Watzlawick's theory is fine as far as it goes, but for a more
sophisticated analysis of communication and it's problems and
possibilities, it is worth turning to the German philosopher
Jrgen Habermas and his Theory of Communicative Action (J.
Habermas, * The Theory of Communicative Action*, volume 1
and 2, Polity Press, London, 1986, 1991, 1995). His is a sound
theory on communication which operates without notions of
media, although they can easily be incor- porated (as Habermas
demonstrates in his Second Volume, p. 389-395).

Moreover, it offers a theoretical base (the rock bottom theory,
the basic assumptions) for handling group processes and it can
serve as an instrument for critical evaluation of programmes by
the makers, the particiants and the target group. Considering
audio-visual programmes through theories of language and action
(like Habermas's) helps us to overcome the inherent weaknesses
of media theories. 

Habermas divides speech acts (what someone says) into two
principle categories. There are Stategic Actions (speech acts
which make people do things) and Communicative Actions
(speech acts which are designed to arrive at a common
understanding of a situation). He thinks that Communicative
Actions are more appropriate than Strategic Actions for reaching
an understanding, promoting emancipation or improving relations
between people. He also is convinced that we shoud make more
room for them in our everyday and our political lives (for a
convincing but also difficult work, see: J. Habermas, *Between
Facts and Norms*, Polity Press, London, 1996)

Habermas's work is often considered to be inaccessible but there
are some summaries of it which are helpful to us. Stephen K.
White, for example, describes Habermas's claims that the speech
acts of communicatively competent actors conform to a set of
    Such rules describe the competence an actor has for using
    sentences in utterances aimed at "reaching an
    understanding." As the analysis of speech acts since J.L.
    Austin has shown, speakers, in saying something, also do
    something. This doing of something is what Austin called
    the 'illocutionary force' of an utterance. Habermas wants
    to argue that the universal core of the many and varied
    things speakers do in uttering sentences is to situate those
    strings of symbols in a system of validity claims. When a
    speaker orients himself toward understanding - that is
    engages in communicative action - his speech acts must
    raise, and he must be accountable for, three rationality or
    "validity claims" (Geltungsanspruche): truth, normative
    legitamacy and truthfullness/authenticity. Ony if a speaker
    is able to convince his hearers that his claims are rational
    and thus worthy of recognition can there develop a
    "rationally motivated agreement" (Einverst„ndnis) or
    consensus on how to coordinate future actions.
    From the perspective of communicative action, utterances
    can be assessed as rational or irrational because they raise
    criticizable validity claims, that is, ones which are fallible
    and open to objective judgement... 
    In developing the ability to speak and act, each individual
    acquires the know-how required both to differentiate the
    three dimensions of validity and to employ the standards
    appropriate to each dimension for the purpose of assessing
    paricular claims. For a given agent this know-how may be
    more or less conscious, but it is always intuitively
    accessible. (S.K.White, *The recent work of Jurgen
    Habermas*, Cambridge, 1988, pp. 28/9).

Habermas's writings benefit from perseverance and we shall
summarise some of them here before considering their relevance
to communicating with video.

Speech acts, according to Habermas contain a propositional and a
performative part (like Watzlawick and Austin, he believes that
when we say something we also do something.) The
propositional part indicates a state of affairs in reality.  For
example: "The average income of farmers in South America is
just 87 dollars per annum".  The performative part implies or
indicates how the propositional part needs to be understood  (in
this case "The speaker thinks this is disgraceful"). In that way
one can categorise or question something. An audience can
respond: "I think that is disgraceful, too." Or: "Why do you
think it disgraceful?" Or: "I see what you mean, but..."

In fact a speaker, by saying something, not only says something
that is true to her, but also says: I claim the communicative right
towards you to have an opinion and to say it to you in this
defined situation. The performative part defines the boundaries of
the communicative action. It marks out the (communicative)
context of the (propositional) content. It makes clear which
relation the speaker wants to make to their audience. As long as
the participants are aimed at reaching mutual agreement, a
communicative situation is shaped, because the speaker makes
three "validity claims" with their speech act: 
1. They claim that they are speaking *the truth* in the
propositional part of the speech act; 
2. they claim *normative legitimacy* concerning the
communicative act in a smaller sense (the performative part); and

3. they claim *truthfullness/authenticity* concerning the
intentions and emotions they express.

These validity claims the speaker makes can, in principle, be
critisised, although in practice this possibility is often blocked. In
communicative action the hearers can (if they wish) demand
reasons from the speakers to justify their validity claims.

What has this to do with the things that programme makers do?
Our particu- lar interest here is in documentaries or programmes
that show one or another factual reality. Well firstly we can
safely say that such a programme can be seen as a claim from
the makers on truth, normative legitimacy and authenticity. When
we look at the mainstream of programs, these are all apparently
communicated to the audience. In reality though, the possibility
to critisise is systematically blocked most of the time. In a
conversation, on the other hand, the participants continually
change roles as sender and receiver. During an audiovisual
program that is not possible, you are forced in the role of listener
or audience and it is very difficult to give feedback or opinions to
programme makers. Now a strange thing happens. Instead of
dealing extra carefully and openly with the three validity claims,
nearly all conventional programmes ignore or conceal them.

The medium of television appears to speak the truth. A fact is
considered to be really true when it has been on television. In the
French media messages appeared that Isabelle Adjani (a French
singer) was dead. People only believed the opposite when she
appeared on television. More recently (in October 1993) a
technician for Sky Television in London saw an obituary being
updated for the Queen Mother. Not knowing that this was a
routine procedure he phoned his mother in Australia to tell her
the news. She contacted the local radio station and the news
started to circulate as "real", before it occurred to someone to
check the details with the UK.

Even programme makers can fall victim to this illusion that
audio-visual programmes automatically speak the truth. They can
also find it easy to hide behind the medium and the conventional
processes of producing their material. Conventional broadcast
material is made within institutions which ensure that none of
those who contribute to the work is seen as responsible for the
content or form of the programme. So, who can the audience
turn to when they want to challenge it on the grounds of truth,
normative legitimacy or authenticity?

Even claims on truth (the most direct of these) can cause great
problems in programmes. A clear example is the nature
documentary "White Wilderness" by Walt Disney. It is a nature
film on the wildlife on the North Pole. In it we see lemmings,
due to overpopulation, start a gigantic migration, that ends with
the death of a lot of animals when they jump off the rocks into
the ice-cold polar sea. This massive suicide is portrayed as a
biologcal mechanism for survival of the species. This clear
example therefore is often used in biology teaching.

Recently it became clear (Volkskrant (Dutch newspaper), 12th
April 1986) that the scene of the migration and the massive
suicide of the lemmings was recorded some hundreds of
kilometers south of the arctic circle. The lemmings did not throw
themselves from the rocks but were pushed. Biologists now seem
to accept that lemmings do not commit suicide en masse. Accor-
ding to them there aren't even such rocks in the polar area for
the lemmings to fall off...

Similarly during analysis of the Canadian documentary "The
Cruel Camera" on animal abuse in wildlife programs it became
apparrent that a lot of footage was staged, mostly in the name of
'helping nature a little bit' (though of course there were also
financial considerations). When these reactions were presented to
an American nature filmer, he refused to comment. Or, to put in
another way: he was absolutely unadressable on whether the truth
was told or not. We had to view his program as the truth and we
are not allowed to make critical remarks abut it. Many nature
films deliberately speak untruths. They construct "realities" and
pass them off as "genuine". And the audience can hardly do
anything other than accept what they are shown as true.

One more example: An audiovisual program can contain the
proposition 'the condition of women in the Third World should
improve'. That seems fine and one can have very little opposition
to that. However, it makes a great difference whether this
message comes from a manufacturer of milk powder or a Food
Union. And it is exactly this information which is lacking in
many audiovisual programs. Who are the makers? What is the
relation of the makers to the content? Whose interest is
represented? If these are not apparent in the program then the
performative part of the communicative act is hidden. Sometimes
this ommission will be deliberate (as it is with covert sponsorship
and product placement). Sometimes it is the result of laziness.
But whenever the performative part is lacking, the program is no
longer an example of communicative action (aimed at
constructing critisable validity claims to promote understanding),
but one of strategic action (aimed at producing a particular
response by the viewers, i.e. accepting the program makers

So it takes effort to make critisisable programs. It is easy to stay
on the background and to promote yourself as 'neutral',
'balanced', 'not being there', or 'just a vehicle for other people's
opinions'. Maybe it is the biggest difference between
conventional television and the approach suggested in the "Media
Action Projects" book. In some ways it takes more effort to
make critisisable programs, to aim for a common understanding
or to say reality is complex and not easy to understand, or to say
things differ. A good example of someone who makes
televisionprograms and who is critisable is the German
programme maker Bernward Wember.

He is quite explicit about his validity claims in his program
"Poisoned or on the Dole" (Vergifted oder Arbeitslos). He is
open about his interest: we are going to look at the problems
brought about by agricultural expansionism. He informs us that
the two parties involved are the chemical industry and the green
movement and also indicates that the programme is made from
the viewpoint of the green movement. This programme (first
televised in 1984) brought Wember into sharp conflict with the
German chemical industry and parts of the film were censored as
well as parts of the accompanying book. It is asthonishing to look
at a page where parts of the text are blackened by a censor in
Germany in the early ninetees. 
After a series of prosecutions and lawsuits he asked the chemical
industry why they were so hard on him. After all, the green
movement makes films about the evilness of the chemical
industry, the television companies make programmes about
pollution, so why bother? The answer was that they could not
tolerate the form in which he had made the programme. In fact
they were saying that the programme was not just clear in its
content (the propositional part), but also in how the content
should be seen (as a contribution to a discussion) and even
contained the question to talk about when it had been broadcast
(the performative part). The programme had a great response by
the audience who said that it was the first time they really
understood the complicated problem.

If we are to apply Habermas's theory to the making and
distribution of our own programmes we need to be clear about
the ways in which programme- makers can claim truth,
normative legitimacy and authenticity through their work. We
also need to know how audiences can discuss and challenge these
validity claims if they wish to do so.

These are important questions, which should be raised when
using video for communication. We should ensure that we are
starting from a situation in which the participants involved are
directed at the reaching of an understanding (that this will be
Communicative Action, not Strategic Action). We shall consider
them first in respect of the programme makers then in respect of
the audience.

As far as the senders are concerned (with their documentary,
factual programs with a clear claim on truth) we can say that
they claim the truth if they come up with valid utterances based
on research of a formulated question. At its most basic they will
undertake not to tell a half truth as the truth. (In the light of our
observations about the institutionalised deceiptfulness of the
medium this may be difficult). In addition to this it is important
that they make their validity claims on the basis of this research.
As we said when describing the "Media Action Projects Model",
good research requires a research question which covers the
problem, the parties involved and a possible solutions. The
process of discussing and exploring this presupposition with all
the involved parties is designed to uncover what is seen as the
truth by those parties, and also where there are differences of
opinion on facts. 

*Normative Legitimacy*. 
When the group make and distribute their programme they are
effectively claiming that they have the normative right to transfer
these messages, under these circumstances to the audience, and
to use video (or another audiovisual medium) for doing so. The
makers of video programmess must realise that, with their
programmes, they have the ability to exercise influence on the
opinion forming processes with the recipients. By making a
programme they say, in fact, that they have something important
to say. In "Poisoned or on the Dole" Wember claims the
normative right to make a programme on his terms and from the
point of view of the environment movement. This claim is all the
more obvious because most television programmes prioritise the
industry's viewpoint.  

The group's claim on authenticity can be found in their implied
assertion that they mean what they say with their message,
believe in it and are emotionally attached to the content. This
sounds simple but it is often the case that makers do not mean
what they say and wrap up their message in a way whereby form
dominates content and a 'beautiful' program appears. The
audience may never be given the chance to engage with the
programme's concerns. And it is very common for a group to
make a programme and then show no interest in when and to
whom it is shown. I have already stated the importance of
makers being there when their product is shown. It can be a real,
physical presence or through a telephone or studio link.
Eventually makers might not be able to be with their programme
at every screening but they can still make plans for their work to
be shown in a way that will include discussions and exchange of

As far as the audience (the receivers) are concerned we can state
that the programme's claim for truth must allude to a clear-cut
proposition. It makes the group and the program criticisable. On
top of that the programme offers insight into the truths of the
group. By considering a clear cut proposition in the product the
audience can develop its own position towards the content. In this
way environmentalists and industrialists can take their respective
positions on the facts discussed in Wember's 'Poisoned or on the

*Normative Legitimacy*. 
The receivers can test the claim for normative legitimacy to the
data if the norms and the relations of the makers to the content
are clear and critisable. Both the group and their product are
available for critisism on a normative level.  An example may
further clarify the validity claims: Let us imagine that a group of
milkpowder manufacturers, in an audiovisual program, proclaims
the message that the position of woman in the Third World
should improve. Let's say they made a convincing program. As a
recipient I am left with the question where this group finds the
normative right to adress me with this message, because, in my
political social opinion this group has contributed in practice to
the exploitation of woman in the Third World. The claim to
normative legitimacy is an important point when any group
makes programmes about other people. It is to question the rights
of white middle class males to make and transmit messages on
ethnic minorities, women, liberation movements, workers, etc.  

When considering the programme the audience must be able to
identify the programme-makers' claim to authenticity, and
compare it with their own beliefs and sincerity towards the
subject. In a programme which works as communicative, rather
than strategic action, the material will encourage the audience's
own need to get into dialogue with the makers or the people or
situations shown. They may recognise who the makers are, not
only by doing some analytical puzzle, but because they are
visible. Real interaction is visible and audible between the people
in front of the technique and behind the machinery. The audience
really get the feeling of being one third of the triangle with the
makers and the participants. People wrote to Wember that now,
for the first time they understand relations between the
environment and carbon-dioxide.
 Put in a scheme this whole network of validity claims looks as

                  Sender            Receiver
TRUTH             1                 1a

LEGITIMACY        2                 2a

AUTHENTICITY      3                 3A

1. Coming to valid claims of the truth on the basis of research of
a formulated hypotheses.
1a. The product has a clear supposition by which group and
product are critisable. The program also gives insiht in hte values
of the group.
2. the right to give this message to the recipient under these
2a. Norms an the relation of the makers to the subject become
clear and cirtisable . Group and product are, on a normative
level available for critic.
3. The claim that you really mean your message and your
3a. Belief in the intentions and aims, but also in the emotions of
the makers and participants. The program is part of a dialogue in
which you too are involved.

So far we have not touched on the concrete form of a product.
The table concerns *the structure* of the communicative process
following the claims of a group and a product on truth,
normative legitimacy and truthfullness/authenticity. Between the
makers of products and the target group stands the form of the
message and the channel through which it will pass. The closer
the makers are in social and cultural terms to the target groups,
the easier it will be for them to choose the most appropriate form
for their product. When a group is culturally separate from the
target group, it will have to study the recipient conditions and
subcultural backgrounds of the target audience. Practically this
means that the group studies codes and conventions of the target
group, not to improve their ability to manipulate them, but out of
respect for their individuality.

By considering this scheme, derived from Habermas' theory on
communicative action, the programme makers can do practical
self research on the validity claims of their programmes. The
audience will also be offered efficient ways of agreeing or
disagreeing with the validity claims or criticising the programme
and will see whether they are taken seriously or are just used as
'viewing figures' to raise the broadcasters income on
(for a solid and still valid underpinning of this last sentence, see:
Dallas W. Smythe, *Communications, Capital, Consciousness
and Canada*, Ablex, New Jersey, 1982).