At CNN, breaking news might be broken.
In a memo sent to staffers Thursday, the news outlet’s new chief indicated he felt the too-frequent use of “breaking news” graphics on air had rendered the technique useless, and vowed CNN would scale back use of the phrase on screen. In doing so, CNN will tamp down use of a tactic that has become all but ubiquitous in the realm of cable news.
“Something I have heard from both people inside and outside the organization is complaints we overuse the ‘Breaking News’ banner. I agree,” said Chris Licht, who was recently named chairman and CEO of CNN. “It has become such a fixture on every channel and network that its impact has become lost on the audience.”
While the new policy is likely to be tweaked, Licht said, “This is a great starting point to try and make ‘Breaking News’ mean something BIG is happening!”
Licht’s concern about use of the phrase reflects just how much some traditional journalism nomenclature has changed as the industry continues to navigate the new speed of social media. Terms like “breaking news” and “scoop” — one used to show that a particular outlet had gained access to information ahead of competitors — bear less relevance in an era when rivals are able to match reports more quickly. CNN has in recent years put “breaking news” banners on air to reflect that its anchors are talking about a trending topic, even if the actual news of the discussion is hours old. But the amount of time they get on screen suggests that nearly everything the network shows is breaking news — and that simply can’t be accuarte.
Will CNN really be able to resist using the phrase? Others have noted its heightened prevalence. “We way overuse ‘breaking news.’ All television networks do that,” said Jeff Zucker, Licht’s predecessor at CNN, during an interview in 2019. MSNBC declined to comment on whether Licht’s new policy might change the way that network views use of “breaking news”
Some news-industry aficionados think it’s time to send ‘breaking news” to the TV archives. “In my opinion, it undermines CNN’s credibility to sensationalize routine news coverage with dramatic graphics and music. Perhaps one reason CNN and other news outlets have wrongly been accused of being “fake news” is because the audience picks up on this kind of hype and distrusts it. So maybe this change will help restore viewers’ trust,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of the broadcast journalism department at the University of Maryland. He added: “I think news executives used the ‘breaking news’ banner a lot because they think the more dramatic presentation will get more viewers to watch. But viewers quickly pick up on such hype and learn to tune it out.”
Licht’s memo shows the executive working gradually to put his imprint on the massive news operation, now part of Warner Bros. Discovery. Unlike Zucker, who maintained an office in the middle of CNN’s New York newsgathering operation, Licht has opted to survey the business from a few floors above in the network’s headquarters at New York’s Hudson Yards complex. He has expressed plans to experiment with CNN’s 9 p.m. news hour before finding a permanent host for it, the first since the hour’s previous occupant, Chris Cuomo, parted ways with CNN in acrimonious fashion. Licht has also indicated that he’s eager to revamp CNN’s morning program, “New Day,” and build a new Sunday block of premium programming that will include an interview show led by Chris Wallace and a new program that has been made to sound like a newsmagazine with segments that will allow for longer-form enterprise reporting.
The network’s new corporate parent has long been expected to tamp down on some of the opinion and hard-nosed analysts that became a key element of CNN’s identity under Zucker. For a time, under the Trump administration and during the 2020 election, the policies lent CNN new momentum and got people talking about it again during times other than when big stories were breaking, But there has also been some recognition that the network may have veered too far outside its previous bounds.
Dialing back on use of on-screen signs about “breaking news” may be part of an effort to self-correct. “We are truth-tellers, focused on informing, not alarming our viewers, ” Licht added in his note. “You’ve already seen far less of the ‘Breaking News’ banner across our programming. The tenor of our voice holistically has to reflect that. As I have said, we must be vital, relevant, and respected — and how we show up for our audiences, in every story, in every part of the country, and around the world, matters.”
Separately, Licht said CNN was creating a beat devoted to examining the business of guns in America. ” In the wake of the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, the role of guns – who buys and sells them, who makes them, and who regulates them are central to understanding all sides of this complex and divisive issue, he said. “CNN is uniquely positioned to foster informed policy discussions in this space and help illuminate possible solutions to America’s epidemic of gun violence. More details to come soon on this unit.”
He also noted that he had not changed the company’s executive structure and was being very deliberate and methodical about studying CNN’s operations before deciding what changes, if any, might be required. “You heard me say in my first town hall that I am going to make decisions slower than some would like. I know this organization has been through tremendous change over the last four months, which is why I am approaching this process slowly and thoughtfully as we look at all parts of the operation,: he added. “We will realign where it makes sense to best serve our people and the business.”