Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Broken News

By Michael AlterPublished November 9, 2014

After last months' Ottawa shooting, Canadian and American television media outlets covered the event very differently. Due to recent trends in American news media towards more sensationalist headlines and prioritizing speed rather than accuracy in their reportage more than their Canadian compatriots, American media can better perform the functions they must if this country's democracy is to flourish.

By Michael Alter, 11/9/2014

            Last week, Canada suffered a tragedy at the center of its government when a gunman attacked the Parliament Building in Ottawa after fatally shooting a solider serving as an honor guard at the National War Memorial nearby. Although the building was occupied with MPs, their staff, and others, the Sergeant-at-Arms and the Mounties were able to stop him from continuing his attack and to keep an already bad situation from becoming worse. In the hours and days that followed, people from across Canada and the world expressed sympathy for the deceased Cpl Nathan Cirillo, PM Harper gave a few speeches striking both mournful and strong tones, and tributes were given to Cpl. Cirillo, the RCMP, and to the S.A.A. Kevin Vickers.

            They were not the only ones to garner support or respect, however. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and its main anchor, Peter Mansbridge, both during the coverage of the shooting and lockdown and in the days after the attack, were lauded with how they covered the situation and reported on it — with some even summing up their praise of said coverage by simply describing how un-American it was.

            What many people praised about CBC's coverage was its reluctance to speculate about the situation, its choice not to utilize large or flashy graphics or intimidating sound effects, and its willingness to put more emphasis on the story than the anchor. In fact, for most of the coverage, Mansbridge was off-screen and live feeds of the scene or interviews with reporters or eyewitnesses were on-screen. Mansbridge himself received praise for his calm delivery of the tragic events, and his explanation of the necessary facts and their context without resorting to constant speculation or overemphasis on simple, nonessential observations.

            American coverage of the Parliament Hill Shooting was bit different from CBC's. Take CNN: much hay was made over the comparison of the two headlines posted on their websites, with CBC stating "Live: Soldier dies after Parliament Hill attack; gunman also shot dead" and CNN posting, in a much larger font and all caps, "Breaking News: Terrified Capital." NBC ran a headline that said "Ottawa Locked Down After a Soldier is Shot Dead in Parliament," and Fox News tried to make a connection to ISIS. This is not to say that CBC got everything right during its coverage, because it didn't, and it is not to say that CBC did not use old tricks like looping police movements to keep viewers tuned it, because it did, but the overall quality of the broadcast was significantly superior to what the average American has come to expect. Even a chief correspondent for CNN tweeted praise.

            The rise of cable news in recent years has created a new media climate in the U.S. The traditional nightly broadcasts from the Big Three networks have been overshadowed by the likes of first CNN, then Fox, MSNBC, and others. The phenomenon of twenty-four-hour news has not led to more in-depth reporting that a longer time slot with the public might have entailed. Instead, the various media companies compete with each other in a ratings game much more intense than the old one between the Three. This entails more sensationalist headlines, a greater desire to just "get the story out" instead of taking the time to develop some nuanced take on it before putting it in front of the public for consumption. My favorite example of this was when the cable news media was reporting on the Obamacare decision; the networks were so eager to pre-empt their competitors that they did not read through the decision enough, and only realized they had the wrong ruling after almost ten minutes of inaccurate reporting. Oops.

            I used a word that is important in this context: consumption. The major media companies in America (and cable companies in other countries that have followed America's example, like in India) view news as yet another commodity to be consumed by the public. While this concept might fit nicely into a business model, it fails to account for an essential part of news: it has to be presented in a context, it has to be meaningful and thoughtful, and it has to be well-researched for it to have its intended effect on the "consumer", i.e. informing and educating. News is not supposed to be just another thing we consume without thinking; news, free, accountable, investigative news, is something a democratic society cannot function without.

            Americans deserve better news media. Congress should pass laws regulating airtime for advertisements on news networks. News networks should focus less on punditry and creating conflict for people to be entertained with — news isn't supposed to have entertainment as its primary objective. Finally, funding for PBS should increase so that it can compete with the majors, although the amount of money required to make PBS anywhere near similar to CBC, BBC, or other government sponsored news corporations is likely unrealistically large. However, if the American public continues to see foreign media outlets outperform their domestic alternatives, perhaps they will start demanding more from their domestic news media. If American news corporations really are only concerned with business, then they should know how quickly "consumers" dump a product when they find something better.