CNN Public Editor: tabloid tendencies

Since last year, CNN ratings are down 73 percent. Without the daily spectacle of Donald Trump as president, cable news producers appear to be seeking other dramatic narratives. The network’s exaggerated tone and graphic content increasingly pushes it into the realm of tabloid-like material. 

This trend emerged in September with the death of Gabby Petito, a young woman allegedly killed by her boyfriend. I’ve been told that producers justified that coverage due to the abundance of available Instagram material. But the accessibility of photographs doesn’t make a story newsworthy––it makes it convenient infotainment.

In early November, CNN aired a segment about a Texas family struggling with inflation. A mother of nine complained that  the cost of milk had risen forty percent since June. But a quick fact check shows that the average price of milk in Dallas has increased about ten percent in that timeframe, and inflation overall is up only 1.5 percent. The struggle of the middle class is a worthwhile topic, but it’s incumbent on CNN to catch exaggerations. 

Also recently, in covering Alec Baldwin’s involvement in the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, CNN relied on paparazzi to get their story. Photographers had been stalking the actor for over a week when he finally capitulated. On a roadside near the small town where he’s been trying to hide away, Baldwin stopped his car to talk to the cameras. The most cringeworthy—and telling—moment came when a cameraman admitted he didn’t remember the name of the woman killed. Still, CNN aired that video.

That is not ethical journalism. TV news producers didn’t stop to think about the lives that are at stake in their race to get their video on the air. What’s more, by airing that material, reputable outlets like CNN encourage and enable similar tactics in the future. 

We may be living in an era where we’ve lost an understanding of what makes good journalism, not gossip, in TV news. As a reminder, the Society of Professional Journalists provides useful guidance: “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

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SPJ states that journalists should:

– Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness. 

– Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.

— Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.

CNN should use their ample resources to report information responsibly and chase stories that actually matter to the public. 

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Ariana Pekary is the CJR public editor for CNN. She was an award-winning public radio and MSNBC journalist for two decades. Now she focuses on the systemic flaws of commercial broadcast news. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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