CLUTTERING THE VIEW
TV news overwhelms the audience with labels and graphics
by Deborah Potter
The "Newsforce" skit on Saturday Night Live a while back
was supposed to be a joke. Mocking the overuse of graphics in television
news, the producers crowded the screen with so much extraneous information
that, by the end of the sketch, you could hardly see the "newscasters."
Funny? You bet. But it's no longer a joke.
It's getting to the point where everything in TV news has an on-screen
tag, and the packaging is so thick you can hardly find the content.
Logos and labels, scores and statistics, headlines and hyperlinks-the
clutter is out of control.
What started as an effort to help viewers tell stations apart by
adding an ever-present identifying "bug" has wound up
overwhelming viewers with TMI, too much information. It's one thing
for specialized channels like all-business and all-sports networks
to run on-screen tickers: their viewers often tune in just to check
a particular stock or score. But the effect of adding multiple lines
of ticker-style text to the average newscast is that many viewers
are simply unable to process it all.
Researchers know that when words appear on screen most people read
them. The "always on" time and temperature bug may be
easy to ignore, but that doesn't hold true for story slugs, name
ID's, and local headlines that change throughout the newscast. Each
new line of text is a potential distraction, pulling the viewer's
attention away from the substance of the newscast.
That's not the only reason graphics overload is so pernicious.
A lot of graphics now in use are fundamentally misleading. Take
my local TV weather report, which always originates in the StormCenter
no matter how pleasant it is outside. Or take the "breaking
news" label stations regularly slap on just about any story
you can name. One cable network kept its "breaking news"
banner up for almost a month last year, throughout the Florida recount,
while reporters vamped for hours telling viewers that nothing much
In many local newsrooms, "breaking news" has become just
another franchise, to be doled out during the daily rundown meetings
at mid-afternoon. "What's our breaking news at 5:00?"
a producer will ask, more than an hour before airtime. If people
challenge the use of the label they're told it's legitimate, because
when five o'clock rolls around they'll be telling their audience
about that story for the first time. Excuse me? That makes it breaking
It's hard to imagine that anyone could truly buy that justification-it's
breaking news because we say it is-in today's media environment.
You'd have to believe that your audience is made up of Luddites
who don't have a clue about what's happening in their world until
you tell them. That shows either a total lack of understanding about
how people get information these days-most of us are swimming in
it all day long-or it shows a serious lack of respect for the people
you're trying to reach.
Philadelphia anchor Larry Kane of KYW-TV knows what's really going
on. In the race for ratings, stations have adopted the tactics of
a carnival barker: shout louder, and maybe they'll come into your
tent. "[S]tations call almost any news 'breaking' to hook the
audience," Kane wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "some
of whom are getting wise to the scam."
Television news has become a prisoner of its own packaging. You
can almost hear it: We bought those expensive graphics, and by golly,
we're going to use them!
It may seem like a little thing--calling something breaking news
when it's several hours old--but it's part of a detrimental pattern
in many local newsrooms. Telling viewers a story can be seen "Only
on Channel X" when half the sound bites come from a news conference
every other station covered too. Touting a story as "New at
11" when there's not a single new development to report, not
even a frame of fresh video.
At a minimum, using these kinds of labels amounts to baseless boasting,
and viewers don't like it. "They take points away from you
for doing that," says John Cardenas, news director at WBNS-TV
in Columbus, OH.
At least one consulting firm, Frank N. Magid Associates, has begun
warning clients against "over-bundling" stories, saying
viewers have become increasingly skeptical about "special reports"
on health or education that aren't special. "Over-franchising
can get you in trouble because it can make people think your news
is all come-on and not enough news," says John Quarderer, Magid's
vice president for North American television.
But there's even more at stake. Viewers who feel disappointed or
deceived by the way stories are presented might just stop believing
what they see. And that seems like far too high a price to pay.
(This article was originally
published in the American Journalism Review, June 2001)