CNN produces Gothic horror, and this is a problem

CNN is not good for America.  And I’m not talking about their relationship with Trump.

A few weeks ago they ran a story very prominently on their site: “Missouri police officer is dead after 911 call of women screaming”.  That’s the actual headline.  Take a look.

I’d like to dive into this story as an example of one way CNN and other cable news outlets have gone badly astray.

Headlines and stories like this are horror tales, simply put. They are about terror and gore.  They are designed to give readers the delicious thrills that Gothic fiction and dark fairy tales have long instilled in audiences.

As a scholar of Gothic horror, I recognize this kind of thing. I respect it on a formal level. There’s a nice sparseness and direction in the headline and body prose.  The tale begins with a quick, effective jolt that rapidly drags in the reader/viewer. Well done, .

But as someone who studies technology, I find it appalling. Remember that for *decades* American violent crime has gone steadily down, but most Americans have been convinced we lived under a nightmarish crime siege.

CNN plays a key role in that, as I and others have shown. CNN has continuously celebrated violent crime stories far, far out of proportion to their reality.

Obviously this is about ratings.  Remember that “if it bleeds, it leads” is both a publishing maxim and a fine assertion of the power of horror stories.  Scary stories can attract eyeballs in every sense, as every horror fan – and every parent of children – knows.

As an information source, CNN helped skew Americans’ sense of reality in terms of violent crime. As things got better, they took exquisite care to make sure we thought they were the opposite. Why does this matter?

On the face of it, it’s disturbing to know cable tv news helped generate a fantasy world. (Maybe we need a new term to cover this. Using reality to make fantastic visions… sounds like fantasy football. “Fantasy crime”? )

But remember that Trump won in 2016 in part by arguing that America was under siege from violent crime. Who do you think convinced about 1/4th of American voters of this idea?  Social media played some role, which is in the public eye now, but tv’s huge role is underappreciated.

Recall, too, the American love of guns. A key driver for gun ownership is self defense. CNN teaches viewers that they live in a dangerous hellscape, with terror about to attack at any moment.  Put another way, CNN is the NRA’s best secret friend.

American cable tv news has been an underrecognized problem for years, now. Alas, it’s easy to give those networks a pass when Trump threatens them, and when many focus on Facebook/Google/Twitter as news purveyors. This is a matter for and .  (I’ll have more to say about this later on.)

Let’s return to that CNN story, and look at it closely. Here’s the opening line: “A shooting incident that left one police officer dead and two others injured in Missouri started with a 911 phone call punctuated by screams.” Well done, horror authors! The scene is set, and the horrific note sounded, all in one brisk sentence.  “During the call, two women could be heard screaming in the background at the home in Clinton” – imagine this as a film. Better yet, as podcast. (Radio theater, in fact, was always the theater of the mind.)

Note the feeble attempt at justifying the story, later on: “This is the second Clinton Police Department officer killed in less than a year.” Hmmmm…. sounds like a scary trend! You know what? Maybe ! (See how this works?)

To be utterly clear, I’m not dismissing the suffering that actually occurred, in case CNN fans want to offer that response.  Obviously.  Need I mention there are first responders in my family?  And that I’m not a sociopath?  This isn’t a question of “was the event bad”, but rather: should a national/international network, like CNN, whip it into a major scary story? Put another way: down the road in Clinton I suspect one or more people died this week of congestive heart failure, or cancer. Those are also stories of terror and suffering – arguably, greater terror and suffering than that police shooting.

In fact, heart disease and cancer kill far more people than gun violence in the US.   Many, many people have intimate experience with these killers.  *And* there’s stuff viewers and readers can do about it right now. It’s funny how CNN doesn’t run these as screaming headlines.

To an extent this publication strategy relies on the way humans perceive risk in terms of novelty.  Tom the Dancing Bug has a nice cartoon about this (HT Rob Henderson), about how we respond more to shocking and surprising stories than to tales based on large statistics or continuing trends.   Yet I think if CNN is truly possessed of world class storytellers, they could turn heart disease into a gripping narrative.  (Might I recommend a certain book on the subject?)  They could also choose not to flog a relative handful of crime stories into a national terror wave.  Instead they very carefully selected the violent crime horror route.

This could well be an important story for Clinton, Missouri. (Or two related shootings might be a coincidence, a possibility CNN leaves unexplained. Again, see how this works?) But for a national and international audience, where CNN works? This is Gothic puffery, a deliberate act of fearmongering, with consequences. And we’re not holding CNN and its ilk accountable.  It’s time we should.

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3 Responses to CNN produces Gothic horror, and this is a problem

  1. David Soliday says:

    And don’t forget local radio–public radio at that!

    I listen to the Columbus public station with the most variety in music and other programming, WCBE, almost exclusively in the car, (which is not very often.) And I’ve come to know the local and state news stories that punctuate NPR’s more calm national stories follow this same formula. The segments only last a few minutes, but nine times out of ten, within the first 30 seconds will be a headline of death and destruction or murder and mayhem. I’ve actually gotten into the habit of turning the radio off for a few minutes to avoid the nastiness. I’ve complained about this to others (mainly my wife,) who counter, if that’s what’s happening in our community, we should be aware of it. I, on the other hand, learned of this tendency in news reporting in an Ethics class in seminary, and agree with you that there are some deliberate editorial choices being made to stir the emotions, primarily fear.

  2. Joe Essid says:

    Climate Change, Cancer, and Heart Disease do not “bleed.” Rule one of journalism: If it bleeds, it leads.

    That needs to change, but good luck with that.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      They all do bleed, though. We know how to tell convincing stories – check 350.org or Bruce Sterling or Atul Gawande. Heck, consider the cult of medical fiction, from the tv show ER on.

      I think they just don’t bleed as easily, as it were. And they don’t scare the target audience – seniors – the right way.

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