The representation of reality is a huge area of representation study and a key aspect of media studies. When we turn to the study of documentary we shall find that realism is a key issue for that genre (it is the most important convention of documentary) and realism plays a central role in some aspects of intertextuality and post-modernism.
Just as everything in the media is a representation (we do not experience the thing itself) everything is also unreal (the process of mediation is artificial and so therefore is everything so mediated); in the media we deal with the representation of reality. Text are therefore always in the situation of
The realism of a media text is a key part of our relationship with it. Some media texts (the news, documentaries, etc) are required to have a very strong sense of realism for us to accept them whereas others (cartoons, comics, computer games, surreal comedy, etc) can be as seemingly unreal as they like and still be accepted by us (most media texts fall some where in between these two poles); it all depends on what the text is doing and claiming. This is the text’s discourse of realism; how realistic it is, why, and how.
The realism of a media text can rest on a variety of different factors and there are many ways of establishing a media text as real (see the appendix below) but what is important is that we, the audience, treat texts as real enough for us. Every text is considered by its audience in terms of should I accept this as realistic and do I accept this as realistic. This is the audience’s modality judgment about the text; is the mode of realism and the type of text appropriate to one another, does the text succeed in seeming real, and ought I accept this?
A final thing to consider is the way in which the process of mediation can lead to hyperreality. Hyperreality, an idea proposed by Jean Baudrillard, is the situation that occurs when the media image of a thing or place replaces the ‘reality’ of that thing or place. Consider the image you posses of the world’s great cities and how that image derives from the media and not from your experience of the city in question and then consider being confronted by the reality of that city. The best example of this process is Las Vegas. Las Vegas is an artificial city in that it was only brought into existence to feed the gambling industry. The media image of this city of vices then became far more powerful than the reality of the city itself and in turn the real city began to make itself into the media image through a process of creative destruction. The Las Vegas of The Rat Pack, Elvis, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, CSI, and Ocean’s Eleven (all four films) is the one that actually exists now. More fearsome still is the hyperreality of Disney (read the entry in links below).