CNN fails young viewers

CNN Headline News, already the MTV of television news, took its platform one step further Monday, and in doing so went one step too far. The AOL Time Warner station changed to a more graphics-enhanced display, adopted a slang and quip-based news delivery a la Fox News Channel and hired actress Andrea Thompson as one of its two prime-time news anchors. Though distracting, the new veneer cannot conceal the station’s poor news coverage.

Many people expect the blatant sensationalism and deviation from basic journalism ethics found in Fox News, the brainchild of Rupert Murdoch’s underlings. Their slogan, “We report. You decide,” is laughable but easily dismissed as coverage orchestrated by the corporation that conjured up “When Animals Attack.” The format switch made by Headline News, however, can’t be dismissed as easily. Instead, the change is almost as puzzling as it is dangerous. Under the guidance of Jamie Kellner, the man who brought “The Simpsons” and “Married … With Children” to the Fox network, Headline News was redesigned to attract a younger audience.

The program now simultaneously displays a visual barrage of headlines, half-sentence story summaries, weather maps, stock quotes, news graphics, video clips and a news anchor in the upper-right corner. Coverage has been refocused in an attempt to become more engaging to people in their mid-20s to early 30s.

During a five-minute respite from commercials yesterday at about noon, the station’s anchorwoman narrated two stories: one focusing on a minor roller-coaster collision resulting in a few broken noses and the other dealing with a toilet designed around a posture more conducive to a healthy colon. Meanwhile, just below her, a headline/story summary focused on Muhammad Ali’s birthday visit to a man with Parkinson’s Disease, while the following two dealt with the next Star Wars movie’s cast and title. On Monday, America West Airlines put two unaccompanied children on the wrong connecting flight after making a similar mistake less than a month earlier. Headline News anchor Chuck Roberts introduced the story with a Britney Spears reference, saying, “Oops, America West did it again.”

Hiring former “NYPD Blue” actress Andrea Thompson as a prime-time anchor has drawn the most criticism, primarily from other media outlets. Thompson left the show and worked as a local TV news anchor for 11 months at a station in New Mexico. With those 11 months standing as her only experience in the field, there can be little doubt Thompson is just another pretty face put in place by the network in what will ultimately prove to be a failed attempt at luring in a younger audience.

The attempt will almost assuredly fail because, instead of addressing the reason young people don’t watch TV news, it exacerbates the problem. Sheldon Rampton, editor of the media watchdog magazine PR Watch, said, “Younger people seem more jaded about the news industry. Hiring actresses to deliver TV news probably won’t do much to combat that.”

The network’s move, while fitting well with the superficial, pop-psychological prejudice that America’s youth still just want their MTV, misses the crux of its ratings woes.

More importantly, the format switch is symptomatic of a snowballing problem in the media industry’s quest for profitability. Media market analysts are mistakenly assuming young consumers’ desires for sensational entertainment translate into a desire for sensational news. Though events like the Columbine shootings and Oklahoma City bombing shock and intrigue people, it is not because of the superficial sensationalism. Once the hard news is covered, inventing more stories only serves to irritate people.

CNN Headline News, by switching to a sensational, irrelevant news source, set itself up for failure because this business operates on trust. The station betrayed viewers’ trust by creatively packaging drivel and pawning it as news. Real journalists can only hope the downward slide stops before it alienates too many people.