Last week, the method cable news broadcasts use to deliver headlines made headlines. While CNN host Jake Tapper was on vacation, a panel on his show was discussing a speech given by Donald Trump supporter Richard Spencer. The text on the bottom third of the screen read: “Alt-Right Founder Questions If Jews Are People.” This set off a firestorm that quickly got the attention of Tapper himself, who tweeted his disgust at the poor wording choice.
For the uninitiated, the text feature that runs on the lower third of the screen is called a chyron. While the name isn’t familiar to most, the frequent abuse of this feature and the all-too-frequent mistakes associated with it are well-known.This incident, along with some other recent examples, have brought the practice under scrutiny. Would cable news be better off without the chyrons?
- Chyrons allow viewers who have the volume turned down or who are hearing-impaired to see the headline and some details about the story.
- Viewers at airports, crowded restaurants and shopping centers are able to see what is on the news even if they can’t hear every word. The chyrons allow for passive consumption of news.
- Chyrons can be used to give details on a breaking story that is just coming in and that the on-screen reporters may not be talking about at the moment.
- When used responsibly, the chyrons can be used as a form of real-time fact-checking when a political candidate is speaking or during a debate.
- Ratings. The chyrons keep viewers interested and tuned-in. They also grab the attention of viewers who are channel surfing.
- The chyrons are a distraction and add to the clutter and confusion of cable news broadcasts. These broadcasts often include panels of experts and pundits arguing. This coupled with the constantly rotating graphics causes just enough chaos to turn away viewers.
- Chyrons provide another opportunity for mistakes. By associating hastily written headlines and subheads with each story, the chances for mistakes and missteps increases. Print media editors agonize over headlines because of the difficulty in summarizing complex stories in three to six words. In broadcast journalism where the chyrons are produced instantly, this can and has lead to embarrassing mistakes.
- Readers aren’t fooled. CNN in particular has a bad habit of using “Breaking News” in front of its chyrons, even to the point where events that the press was invited to are labeled “breaking news.” This adds to the reputation the media have for being sensationalist.
- While chyrons could be used to fact-check political candidates, in the 2016 election they were used heavily to fact-check Donald Trump, but this use was not extended to Hillary Clinton. This opened the media up for further accusations of bias and had a negative impact on credibility.
With regards to news chyrons, the negatives far outweigh the positives. The bottom line is, the chyrons aren’t being used responsibly. Everything is termed breaking news, including one instance where a network proclaimed it breaking news that the Titanic sunk 100 years ago.
If the chyrons showed up only to identify sources or when there was actually a significant news event, that would be more appropriate and responsible. However, the chyrons are on the screen 24/7, which places immense pressure on the production staff to come up with fresh wording and gives ample opportunity for embarrassing mistakes.
Most importantly, is the overall impact on the media as a whole. When CNN, Fox and MSNBC use chyrons irresponsibly, it harms the reputation of all news organizations. The cable news giants are the go-to sources for news. They are what the average American thinks of when they think of “the news” or “the media.” The risk to the reputation of hard working reporters isn’t worth the momentary ratings benefits of keeping chyrons around.