In recent weeks, Italian talk shows have been heavily criticized for the way in which they followed the events of the war in Ukraine, hosting in many cases controversial positions and versions of the facts, when not completely discredited and proved to be false.
The most frequent responses to these criticisms by those who design and conduct talk shows generally allude to the need to guarantee a plurality of opinions in the debate, and to “give the opportunity to express and possibly refute them”: according to many, however, in this attitude there would be an attempt to purposely construct a sterile theatrical contradictory useful to the controversy and the audience, but at the cost of making room for falsehoods on arguments for which the truth has already been widely ascertained.
«The debate is normal, it is normal to disagree. The problem is when the level of knowledge of the subject by some guests is not sufficient to establish one », says Olga Tokariuk, a Ukrainian journalist who has collaborated extensively with the Italian media and who has recently refused many invitations on television broadcasts. According to Tokariuk, in Italian television debates often “facts and lies are on the same level” and the conductors “should not give the microphone to everyone, but moderate and distinguish”.
The director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome Nathalie Tocci, who is participating in various programs in this period, wrote on the Press that the Italian public debate on war “certainly holds high the name of diversity of opinion, but not of a diversity that emanates from different competences all pertaining to the topic under discussion”. Tocci’s impression is that we are looking for “divergent opinions and that’s it.”
Experts and experts such as Tokariuk and Tocci, who recently found themselves deciding whether or not to participate in a talk show, have from time to time had to deal with a dilemma that has existed for some time, and that the war has put highlight: is their presence useful to deny any falsifications of other guests, or rather does it legitimize them and contribute only to the circus effect sought by the authors of the programs?
These discussions are part of a broader debate on how talk show content should be considered: whether their priority is that of information and a public service or whether they are to be considered as spectacle and entertainment on a par with other programs made of artificial content. This is a relevant issue, because television is seen every day by millions of people, and the way in which they perceive its contents influences their opinions and their knowledge of current events.
In a recent interview with Fanpage Corrado Formigli, presenter of the program on La7 A clean sweep, answered a question on the need to have as a guest a commentator who recently provided distorted and problematic reconstructions on the war in Ukraine: “The critics make peace with this thing, the talk shows must guarantee plurality and do it in a lively way . The genre, until proven otherwise, is made up of two words: talk and show ».
“Talk show” is a somewhat generic way of defining television programs that are based on interviews made by a host to one or more guests, or on conversations between the same guests moderated by a host. Usually we talk about topics of interest and topicality. It is a type of program that exists a little all over the world, but often carried out in different ways: in Italy a format has imposed itself which in most cases involves a confrontation between guests with very different political or ideological positions, and which sometimes leads to chaotic overlapping of voices and more or less heated quarrels.
These broadcasts are often included in the radio-television genre called infotainmentwhich was born more or less in the 1980s from the belief that it was necessary to insert informative contents in an entertainment context, to meet the limited attention of a part of the public. The results of this operation are highly variable and can pose ethical problems in journalistic work, when there is an excessive imbalance on the entertainment side.
According to several authors of Italian talk shows heard by the Post, there is no direct correlation between the spectacularization of the contents (clashes between guests, unpopular positions, etc.) and an increase in the audience of the program: in the long run it would not be a winning strategy to keep the audience loyal, even if some individual episodes could benefit from it in terms of ratings. However, there are guests who are more capable than others of attracting the audience – the following of viewers – and therefore much disputed.
An author of an important Italian talk show, who has worked extensively on several other talk shows, told the Post that in the construction of programs one often thinks of “the prestigious guest”, but it is not easy to convince him to participate, given that in on any given day there are always “three or four other competing programs doing the same job as you.” Hence the need to pay some recurring guests, in order to ensure their presence: when these mechanisms are revealed, they generally always create great controversy, but not all talk shows do, and not all guests accept or ask for compensation. On the one hand, that of television guests is a form of work that derives from their skills and competences, and which generates profits for the television networks, and therefore is worthy of being paid; on the other hand, the credibility of the theses expressed is questioned, if we consider that the guest is paid by a program to say things that contribute to his audience objectives.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on February 24th, the ratings of Italian talk shows have increased considerably, but also those of television news and information programs in general, which are much less linked to guests and entertainment. According to an investigation conducted for Tv Smiles and songs from Studio Frasi (which deals with content analysis and media audiences), in the first 15 days of the war, audience ratings for news programs and talk shows increased by 7.8 per cent. Some networks have changed their programming to focus more on what is happening in Ukraine.
In Italy there are many programs that can be included in the generic category of talk shows. Considering only the evening and early evening slots (from 20 onwards, more or less), in the first seven channels of generalist TV – the three of RAI, the three of Mediaset and La7 – around twenty different talk shows alternate in a week, some of which air almost every day. There are also many others that are broadcast in the morning or afternoon, and still others on channels that reach a smaller audience. The first obvious consequence is that they serve a lot of guests every day.
In a context that requires the greatest possible clarity and seriousness such as that of the war in Ukraine, the format of Italian talk shows in the last period has led more people than usual to decline invitations to participate, and there are now several names that when they emerge in the meetings of television writers are greeted with a “don’t go on TV”. Tokariuk is playing from Ukraine a valuable work in the dissemination of verified news on the war, also in the televised debates of many international TV channels. In Italy, however, he prefers not to participate, because “the debates are very emotional, priority is given to scandal, and the exchange is not based on facts but on opinions”. A few weeks ago another Ukrainian journalist, Iryna Matviyishyn, she said surprised that she had to intervene in an Italian broadcast to clarify that another guest’s arguments were a “reiteration of Putin’s propaganda” and that they had no basis.
A few days ago Vittorio Emanuele Parsi, professor of international relations at the Catholic University of Milan, cut off the connection with a television program he was participating in, after being asked to comment on the opinions of other guests. “I wanted to avoid acting as a sounding board for bizarre theses,” he says. “The main problem of some talk shows, even if not all – continues Parsi -, is that the subject of discussion becomes the thesis of the people who are there to discuss”, while we lose sight of what is really happening.
On the issue of the predominance of opinions on facts in the Italian media intervened critically a few days ago the founder of Censis Giuseppe De Rita, sul Corriere della Sera: «There are no truths that cannot be doubted: you think so, but I think the other way around and we are equal. There are no saints, dogmas, decrees, laboratory research, statistical tables; the primacy of personal opinion holds and remains dominant “.
The overwhelming opinion De Rita talks about, which affects not only television and talk shows but the media in general, was shown more clearly as a problem with the pandemic, when the medical-scientific context made it clear that the positions of an expert and those of any other columnist do not have the same authority.
Those who work in talk shows say they had an initial period of disorientation, in identifying useful guests to talk about what was happening: in the newsrooms the names of very few virology experts were known, and in any case it was not clear if they were available to talk on TV. After a certain amount of research and convincing, and after the first appearances in broadcasts, a group of assiduous talk show virologists quickly established themselves, each of which was then more specifically linked to certain broadcasts.
Many people have complained about the excessive media exposure of virologists, accused in some cases of being dragged into television times and ways that have damaged their professional credibility in the long run. Among those who have decided to systematically refuse participation in talk shows is Andrea Gori, director of the infectious diseases department at the Milan Polyclinic. Even today he happens to decline many invitations and to be occasionally accused of failing in his duty to disclose him. “At the most, I have a duty to inform, to give precise data and information,” says Gori. “Opinions are given there, I’m not a showman: doctors must be very loyal to scientific data, which is not an opinion.”
According to Gori, there is a misunderstanding in considering talk shows as places where information is made, and this would cause a series of problems in the way the public perceives the things that are said: “In the beginning I participated in interviews at the inside the news programs, because I thought it appropriate to provide information for my institutional and technical role. That’s the place where information is given, talk shows do something else ».
The chemist and science writer Dario Bressanini also expressed a similar position, telling on Twitter an invitation in a broadcast received a few months ago: «The mistake of us audience is to consider talk shows as information. They are not. They are entertainment disguised as information ». And again: “Presenting false information knowing that it is false is not being pluralist”.
Vittorio Emanuele Parsi believes that it is still important for a professor like him not to shy away from public debate, when it concerns topics of which he is an expert: «The question that can be asked is whether talks are the place for public debate. Certainly they lend themselves to greater risks of trivialization and spectacle, but some still manage to make information seriously ».