By Tim Wolff, VP, TV and Digital Publishing Innovation, Futuri
You may have seen the news in the past week that CNN is reconsidering its decades-long use of the term “Breaking News” in on-air graphics. For me, this could mean a change in how I teach local news producers–after all, CNN”s “Breaking News” banner has been on my list of things for them NOT to do for years.
It’s about audience trust
The message to CNN staff came from Chris Licht, the new CEO. He says exactly what I’ve taught journalists: As quoted in The Hollywood Reporter, “We are truth-tellers, focused on informing, not alarming our viewers.”
It’s one thing for a viewer to watch a newscast and see newsworthy stories that they don’t happen to care about. They might change the channel, but they won’t hold it against the station. But when you start claiming something is newsworthy when it is not, or when you lie to them about the urgency or importance of a story, they will hold it against the station. They will be skeptical when you tell them something is important; they will ignore you when you tell them something is breaking.
They will find you less credible.
That is the biggest harm that can happen to journalists. Once viewers doubt your credibility, it is incredibly hard to get them to trust you again.
So how did we get here?
For decades, CNN has made a habit of calling something “Breaking News” not just for hours, but for days–and sometimes even weeks. In the nature of news, especially cable news, some stories last several days, even when nothing new is happening. For example, the Gabby Petito story was in the news for weeks, but only on some of those days were there actual developments. But every day, even when nothing changed, it was “breaking news.”
The root cause of this happens not just at CNN, but with anyone who is faced with live ratings. The temptation is to drive as much interest and as much viewership right now…and worry about tomorrow tomorrow. This is the trap local newsrooms fall into, too.
Our instinct is to make everything as exciting as possible, even more exciting than it is. Over time, this leads to the awful stereotype of “breathless” news reporters showing too much excitement over mundane stories. The reporters (who sometimes get “energy” and “excitement” confused) are doing what we are naturally tempted to do: try to make this moment bigger than it is. It is a powerful temptation with terrible consequences for our credibility.
Building viewership starts first and foremost with building trust with the viewers. When it is breaking, tell them it is. When it is just information they need, present it that way. Tone is so critical with news; whether it’s a breaking news story or a severe weather situation. You have to get the tone right with them every day so viewers know they can trust the news from you.
CNN’s tone on breaking news has been wrong for decades. But now they are working on fixing it, and it’s something all viewers and journalists can applaud.