Who are these people and why are they on TV? As cable TV gears up for Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address, it’s a reasonable question for any viewer to ask.
To keep news programs flowing around the clock, cable networks rely heavily on former officials and political advisers who are typically under contract to share their views during the day’s news updates.
For most viewers, it’s hard to recognize all those vaguely familiar names and faces, and the networks rarely say very much about who these commentators are—or used to be. The problem is especially apparent on big news days, such as the recent government shutdown or tonight’s speech by President Trump.
CNN’s live reporting of the results of the December 12 special Senate election in Alabama was a recent case in point. In addition to nearly a dozen of its own reporters, analysts, and anchors, CNN regularly cut to commentary from its bipartisan panel of paid political insiders, including six former someones of note—little of which was actually noted during the four hours of coverage we reviewed. Instead, they were mainly identified in on-screen captions as “CNN political commentators” or “CNN senior political commentators,” which appeared briefly on screen amid 10 other titles flung around that particular Tuesday night, including:
lead political anchor,
senior political reporter,
senior political analyst,
chief political correspondent,
chief national correspondent,
senior White House correspondent,
senior national correspondent,
and plain old correspondent
These distinctions matter inside newsrooms and in contract negotiations between the network and talent agents. But they make little sense to viewers.
Other TV news networks aren’t any clearer. The frequent use of “contributor” and “analyst” on Fox and MSNBC is even less precise than CNN’s “commentator.”
Sometimes networks like CNN will briefly rotate their “commentator” captions at the bottom of the screen with ones that include a past title, such as “former White House spokesman” or “former Senator,” and perhaps even a helpful “D” or “R.” But that doesn’t begin to give the information viewers might want, such as the commentator’s views and more recent political activities and sources of income.
There’s a payoff for explaining more about the commentators who populate their on-air panels. It’s an investment in trust.
TV producers would say there’s too little time in a fast-moving news broadcast for hosts to pause and read their experts’ resumes each time someone speaks. And the space for labeling people at the bottom of the picture is limited by short character counts.
But any of us who’ve ever watched a sports event on TV know that’s a thin excuse.
A quarterback’s bio box during any college football game can offer more than a dozen lines of background, such as hometown, high school, past accomplishments, current averages – up to two full screens of information that might appear back-to-back for as long as 10 seconds. That’s an eternity in TV time, and yet hardly disruptive or distracting. These boxes are still fewer characters than a tweet, and can even be presented with the talking head still talking, picture-in-picture.
So we challenged ourselves to create similar bio boxes for CNN’s night of Alabama coverage: short informational screens that can serve as nutrition labels for the discerning media consumer.
On the night of the Alabama vote, one of the commentators on CNN’s panel was Democrat Jennifer Granholm. When she joined the live coverage just before 10 pm EST, host Anderson Cooper identified her once by her past title, “former governor of Michigan.” An on-screen caption at the bottom of the screen, which appeared twice that night for a total of 16 seconds, also identified Granholm as “(D) Former Michigan Governor,” adding her party affiliation. But neither Cooper nor the chyrons said anything else about her background—like what she’s done in the nearly seven years since she held that title.
If we extended that fleeting caption into a Twitter-length nutrition label, it might look something like this:
Key roles in Clinton super PACs
Democratic convention speaker, 2012, 2016
Hosted The War Room with Jennifer Granholm (Current TV)
Other income: Consulting; paid speeches; UC Berkeley; financial stakes in clean energy, manufacturing and autonomous vehicles
Former Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania also appeared during CNN’s special election coverage. Santorum’s former title appeared in a caption only once that night for 10 seconds. Cooper also referred to him several times by his old title (“Senator Santorum, Roy Moore was not on the campaign trail”).
Cooper did not mention Santorum’s two unsuccessful campaigns for national office and his past statements on CNN suggesting that Republican Roy Moore drop out of the Alabama Senate race in the interest of the party, though Santorum eventually mentioned that himself. An on-screen label could cover all that quickly:
Ex-U.S. Sen, R-PA
Presidential runs, 2012, 2016
Urged Moore to drop out of AL race
Republican convention speaker, 2012, 2016
Endorsed Rubio, then Trump for president
Founded a super PAC
Other income: Financial stakes in energy, cybersecurity
The same night, Cooper had the awkward task of noting that commentator Bakari Sellers had campaigned for Democratic Senate nominee Doug Jones.
“I mean, the raw emotion of victory on election night is something that Democrats haven’t felt for a long time on a night like this…” Sellers said late in the evening. “And so you just exude this joy.” At that moment, not long after CNN and others projected Jones’ victory, the caption at the bottom of the screen identified Sellers simply as “CNN Political Commentator”—not a Democratic politician. At three other points in the broadcast, the chyron flashed, “(D) Former South Carolina State Representative,” with no reference to his campaign work on behalf of Alabama’s Democratic candidate.
An on-screen nutrition label would have been more helpful to viewers:
Ex-state House, D-SC
Campaigned for Jones in AL
Ran for SC Lt. Gov., 2014
Democratic convention speaker, 2016
Son of civil rights leader Cleveland Sellers, Jr.
Other income: Law practice; paid speeches; weekly podcast
Sellers’s Republican counterpart was Amanda Carpenter—whose background and affiliations were never referenced in an on-screen caption. Cooper did give viewers a clue about Carpenter’s background when he asked whether the Senate would investigate the allegations of sexual misconduct by Moore if the Republican candidate won. “I mean, Amanda, you know Capitol Hill well,” Cooper said, without telling viewers anything else about what she actually did in the Capitol.
Carpenter’s nutrition box would reveal past work for two prominent congressional Republicans and, before that, several media outlets popular among readers who would describe themselves as conservative. It also would reveal her distaste for the president:
Ex-communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX
Ex-speechwriter/advisor for Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC
Vocal anti-Trump conservative
Political writer for Washington Times, Townhall.com, Glamour, Human Events
Other income: Freelance writer
For CNN and any other news network, there’s a payoff for explaining more about the commentators who populate their on-air panels. It’s an investment in trust. Consistently and accurately identifying commentators tells viewers why the news networks have decided to rely on those people, and even showcases the range of views they represent—assuming the networks have, in fact, cast commentators with a wide range of views. It also clearly draws a line between the networks’ commentators and their reporters and correspondents—much more clearly than the current labels and subtle set differences the networks use now to try make those distinctions.