Children, race and ratings: CNN sensationalizes its news coverage for better ratings

By Steven Barker
Managing Editor
  Of the three preeminent, nationally-televised news networks (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC), CNN has long presented itself as the most objective news source. However, perhaps because of the network’s struggling television ratings – an October article by medialite.com reported that CNN’s primetime viewership is the lowest among the three networks – a trend has surfaced in their news reporting; CNN has begun sensationalizing race and the death of children in its coverage, possibly for better ratings.
   During the second segment of Friday, Nov. 15’s edition of Erin Burnett’s eponymous show, “Erin Burnett: Outfront,” Burnett discussed a Nov. 2 shooting in Detroit. Before CNN correspondent Susan Candiotti could elaborate on the incident, Burnett introduced the element of race; the shooter was white, while the victim was black. She further prefaced the discussion by stressing the significance of reporting the “whole story,” since “this is a fascinating question of race and justice in America,” Burnett said.
  Candiotti reported that, around 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 2, Renisha McBride was shot and killed by Theodore Wafer, who feared McBride was attempting to break into his house. Wafer told police officers his shotgun accidentally fired when he opened his door. He was charged with second-degree murder.
  From this point onward, CNN’s coverage devolved into sympathetic representations of the victim and her family, representations intended to influence the audience in favor of the victim and against the defendant.
  Family pictures of the 19-year-old McBride, with her hair parted and partly curled, smiling, appearing childlike with the radiance of the camera’s flash reflecting from her cheeks, flashed across the screen, followed by the cold, stoic stare of the defendant as seen in his mug shot. Verbally emphasizing that McBride was shot “in the face” through the “locked screen door” of the defendant’s home, Candiotti’s tone reflected incredulity at the thought that the defendant could have possibly feared for his life, as Wafer suggested.
  Adding to the vitriol, Gerald Thurswell, the McBride’s family lawyer, said Wafer “shot [McBride’s] head off,” an incendiary comment meant to build contempt for the defendant rather than factually represent the shooting. McBride’s mother, her face stricken with sorrow and her eyes fresh with tears, replicated Candiotti’s doubt regarding Wafer’s motive. The father, contemptuous of the defendant, called him a “monster” and said he should “spend the rest of his life in jail.”
  CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin recorded the most outrageous suggestion of the night, implying that Wafer was a racist. Looking into the camera Hostin said that, “to suggest that race does not play a role, and did not play a role in this particular case, I think is ridiculous.”She decried the American legal system, suggesting that its enforcement is a built-in form of segregation.
  Nobody spoke on-air on behalf of the defendant. His lawyers’ and neighbors’ good opinions of the defendant were paraphrased, but no names were provided, nor were they quoted on-camera.
This begs the question: If Wafer was truly well-respected by his neighbors, why would nobody go on-the-record to defend him? Did his neighbors decline CNN’s request for interviews, or did Burnett’s producers not think to include their perspective?
  The exclusion of such a detail, in addition to televising the negative opinions of McBride’s family and legal counsel, casts doubt on the integrity of Candiotti’s coverage.
  At face value, what Burnett’s segment provides is a touching insight into a family devastated by the sudden loss of their daughter. Upon second inspection, however, Candiotti’s coverage is manipulative; her sympathetic representation of McBride and her family encourages the audience to pity – and thus connect with – the victims, a connection that encourages the audience to find the defendant guilty irrespective of the absence of a legal verdict.
  Candiotti’s reporting lacks any semblance of journalistic integrity. Her incredulous tone casts doubt on Wafer’s explanation of the shooting, both impugning the possibility that the defendant was, at any given moment, in danger and compromising the integrity of her coverage. She allows three different people, two of whom arethe victim’s parents, to criticize, on national television, the defendant’s integrity and humanity, a criticism that is later affirmed by the network’s legal analyst. This is not to say that panelists should be censored or a victim’s mother and father should be excluded from news coverage; however, when the only perspectives televised by CNN are inflammatory attacks on an individual character, Burnett’s segment creates an environment in which the only legal possibility for Wafer is guilt.
  On a larger scale, Burnett’s segment is representative of CNN’s devolution into sensationalism. In the 2012 Trayvon Martin shooting, CNN broadcasted pictures of Martin in which he was many years younger than his age at the time of the shooting in an effort to portray him as innocent and thus sympathetic. General discussion centered on the impact of race in Martin’s death; issues of innocence and guilt were subsumed by discussions on racial relations in America.
For days after the April 15 Boston Marathon Bombing, CNN’s headlines read “Three People Dead, Including a Child,” a demarcation that, in giving special mention to the child, prioritizes his death above the others. Extensive coverage was dedicated to both the child and his parents. Sports coverage centered on the first baseball game the child’s Little League team played after his death. His parents, coaches and fellow friends were all interviewed regarding the child’s passing, many of which were re-aired throughout the day.
  Meanwhile, the deaths of Krystle Marie Campbell, a 29-year-old restaurant manager, and Lu Lingzi, a 23-year-old Chinese national and Boston College graduate student, were often mentioned, seldom in detail.
In each example, CNN has descended into venality; it has sold its coverage into the vice of immediacy: immediacy of coverage, immediacy of commentary and immediacy of judgment. CNN transformed the Martin case from a shooting between people of different races to a racially-motivated shooting. The Boston Marathon bombing morphed from a story chronicling the death of three people into coverage about the death of a child and two others. Race and the death of children were all distorted, transformed from substories to premiere headlines for the sakes of ratings.
  Ultimately, CNN has tarnished its news coverage. It has transformed its dissemination of news into a commodity, a product that has by design been compromised to temporarily appease the impatient palates of its audience.

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