(Politico) – A casual CNN viewer would have had good reason this morning to think that the rioting, looting and arson that took place yesterday in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray funeral was still happening because the signature airborne shot of the pillaging of that CVS drug store was still airing.
I isolate my criticism on CNN, but it’s not the only cable network to loop scenes of Monday’s violence as video wallpaper for Tuesday’s jabbering anchors—even though the real rioting had ceased. Nor is such looping unusual. Cable news routinely recycles and re-recycles the most striking video from newsworthy accidents, plane crashes, riots, and natural calamities without adding a time/date stamp to indicate that they’re not “live.”
Nor am I the only one complaining. Today, President Barack Obama groused about the practice. “One burning building will be looped on television over and over again,” Obama said, adding his disappointment that the peaceful demonstrations that preceded the uprising were relatively ignored by the press.
Of course, Obama is wrong to think that two days of peaceful demonstrations outrank one day of violence. He’d last five minutes in my profession with news sense like that. In fact, violent and graphic footage is almost always newsworthy in its first dozen airings. If video exists of an unarmed man being repeatedly shot in the back, that’s news. If floodwaters transform New Orleans streets into a river delta, and cameras are there to record the images, that’s news, too. If the trade towers fall, that’s news, as well. But Obama is right to slam cable’s tendency to use yesterday’s clips to bolster viewer interest in stories that have already peaked. TV news reruns and reruns sensational footage because it knows sensational footage, no matter how dated, is an easy way to keep viewers emotionally engaged—and, in turn, keep them tuned in.