In four and a half minutes, Saturday Night Live perfectly captured the way I’ve always felt about 24-hour news channels. In a sketch mocking CNN, actors exaggerate the ridiculous interviews, reenactments and graphics that are frequently used by these channels to report the news. Understandably, plenty of Americans have expressed frustration with the journalistic effects of a 24-hour news cycle, but I’m going to take a break from being cynical and play devil’s advocate for a moment.
The CNN effect is a theory that applies not only to CNN but to all organizations creating media in real time. The term comes from CNN’s live coverage of events like the Gulf War, during which the news channel brought photos, video and commentary to the American public that may not otherwise have been seen. This consistent coverage increases public awareness and potentially leads to quicker and increased action by the government, policymakers and even the general public.
On the other hand, 24-hour news coverage has become a competition for viewers, leading channels to resort to entertainment and bias in order to retain audience attention. Journalistic values of accuracy and objectivity can quickly be abandoned in the attempt to keep up current coverage directed at a specific audience.
Understanding the pros and cons, I think there is a time and place for 24-hour coverage. While the metaphor comparing Ebola to ISIS was overdone on every channel, during an event like 9/11 in which everyone is glued to their TV for ongoing coverage, 24-hour news is appreciated. Perhaps the advent of Twitter and its ability to relay real-time news in 140 characters or less makes the more dramatic elements of broadcast news channels seem ridiculous. It’s even possible that Twitter and other social media platforms will make CNN irrelevant in the next decade, but that’s a topic for another blog post.