For sheer emotional impact, nothing rivaled the pictures. Few people who were anywhere near a television set a year ago this month will ever forget the sight of a commercial jet slamming into the World Trade Center, live. Television has the power to take viewers where they cannot go, telling stories with pictures and sound that viewers can feel, understand and remember. But in too many television newsrooms these days, especially at the cable networks, that power has been deliberately crowded out.
It would be wrong to blame September 11 alone for the crawls and tickers that have swallowed our television screens. The truth is the revolution really started last summer when CNN debuted its revamped Headline News format. What had been the network's primary visuals-anchors, reporters and video -were squeezed into the upper right-hand corner of the screen to make room for layer upon layer of text and graphic information.
CNN's motive was simple: to draw desirable younger viewers known to the network as "time warriors," who are believed to want more information more quickly. To generate what it calls "real news, real fast," the network appointed a "data wrangler" to whip out fact boxes and graphics around the clock. The executive in charge of launching the new Headline News image, Mary Lynn Ryan, said in April that the redesign was based mainly on gut feelings and staff suggestions. "Believe it or not," she said at a Radio-Television News Directors Association panel discussion, "no real audience research was done."
Actually, that's not hard to believe at all. Researchers say the Headline News format looks as if it were designed to make it harder for viewers to understand the main content of the news programs. "Viewers are comfortable with crowding," says Paul Traudt, media studies professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, "if the elements are all related to the same topic." But Headline News has "multiple, incongruent elements" like weather conditions, a stock ticker, sports scores and headlines unrelated to the main topic. Says Traudt, "The result can be information overload."
That's not merely theory A new study at Kansas State University has found that the visual elements of the Headline News format take an enormous amount of effort to process. "The results are clearer than anything I've ever done before," says K-State journalism …