Sunday, September 09, 2007

This Just In: There's Breaking News Of A Developing Story That Cable News Has Lost Sight Of The Ability To Prioritize

Hi everybody. Hey, remember when seeing the words "breaking news" pop up on your tv screen used to mean something? You'd see that graphic accompanied by the "breaking news" music, and your heart would do a little jump, because you knew you were about to be told something big. Something that mattered. And you'd stop whatever you were doing to watch. But now? Everything is "breaking news", from the determination of Anna Nicole's baby daddy, to a major terrorist attack.

Oh, and it's not just "breaking news" when the networks first report it. No sir. Sometimes a "breaking news" story likes to savor its time in the spotlight and goes on breaking all day long, leaving one to wonder when exactly a story has become broken, and thus no longer in need of a special graphic. Then we have the not quite as popular twin to "breaking news": "this just in." What's the difference? Is "breaking news" news that's just a bit more aggressive or extroverted about its existence (news with jazz hands perhaps)? Does "this just in" news maybe have a self esteem problem? Inquiring minds want to know.

Of course there's a reason for all of these unnecessary graphics and slogans, and it goes back to the notion that it used to be when you saw the phrase "breaking news," you stopped what you were doing to watch. Because see, the dirty little secret (well a secret to most viewers, anyway) of cable news networks (specifically CNN), is that when big news happens, their ratings go up. So what's a network to do when not much is going on? Well, treat all news as if it's the most important thing in the world, of course - even if all they're reporting is that Rosie O'Donnell is leaving "The View."

And then there's the crawl, that scrolling annoyance of news headlines that you have to train yourself to ignore. Instituted by the cable news networks on September 11, 2001, the crawl provided vital information during a time of chaotic fear and tragedy. But now? Not so much. Reading the crawl lately, you're just as likely to find a tidbit about a celebrity, as you are actual information important to your life. I remember Jon Stewart being quite fond of telling the story of how when CNN was displaying pictures of Saddam's dead sons, on the crawl they were running the life changing news that, "Beyonce doesn't like the word 'bootylicious.'"

So what's the point of all this? Well, the news media are supposed to be gatekeepers of information, and one wonders why over these past few years or so they seem to be letting every little thing through, all the while treating it all the same. I hate to keep harping on the Paris Hilton interview, but at the top of that hour Anderson said, "Well, here we go. There is plenty of news today. And, as always, we will be bringing it to you. But we can't be above the news of the moment either." Why? Isn't that their job? Peter Beinart actually tackled this problem (specifically related to the crawl) back in 2001. While watching an al Qaeda standoff unfold on CNN, he observed that the crawl was informing him of Thanksgiving caloric intake. The big deal here should be pretty obvious:
It implies that the information is equally important. Network executives say they need the crawl to bring people all the other news that the war is blocking out. But given that people have a finite ability to receive information, that blocking-out is precisely what network executives should be doing. They shouldn't tell viewers what to think about the war, but they should absolutely tell them that, support it or abhor it, the war is more important than our Thanksgiving caloric intake.
Exactly. And this relates to not only the crawl, but also to "breaking news" graphics and to the act of spending an hour on a story that should have never made it off of the E! channel. Viewers don't want people in the media to act as elitists, but we do need them to act as editors. Mr. John and Jane Doe don't have time to go through all this news and pick out what's important. They've got their jobs, and the kids have to be at soccer practice, and man, that grass in the backyard is getting high. In other words, people have lives and they don't have time to pick up the slack of the news media. Just because something occurred, doesn't necessarily mean it was important. If it really is just about ratings, perhaps the cable news networks should start hiring their producers out of business school, and not journalism school.

That all being said, Anderson Cooper is in Iraq this week. CNN sometimes still does take risks (and spends a lot of money) trying to bring us the stories we need to hear. Let's just hope that while they're there they remember to use that filter.

Macro by Merry. Cartoon by toothpastefordinner.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The overuse of the breaking news banner just dilutes it's impact. And the crawl is distracting, although I try never to even look at it because it generally contains nothing of substance. But it all brings in ratings and it's not going to stop.

Looking forward to AC360s Iraq coverage.

11:15 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from