CNN purveys Gothic terror, and this is not a good thing

CNN is not good for America. And I’m not talking about their relationship with Trump.

Today’s case in point is this morning’s story: “Missouri police officer is dead after 911 call of women screaming”. That’s the actual headline. Take a look.

Headlines and stories like that are horror tales, simply put. They are about terror and gore. Their producers design them to give readers the delicious thrills that Gothic fiction and dark fairy tales have long instilled in audiences.

As a scholar of Gothic horror, I recognize this kind of thing. I respect it on a formal level. For instance, there’s a nice sparseness and direction in the headline and body prose. The tale begins with a quick jolt that rapidly drags in the reader/viewer. It delicately suggests a domestic space in violation. Well done, #CNNGothic .

But as someone who studies technology, I find this cable news practice appalling. Remember that for *decades* American violent crime has gone steadily down, but most Americans have been convinced we lived under a nightmarish crime siege. We’ve experienced an extraordinary improvement in our lives, yet we remain terrified.

CNN has played, and continues to play, a key role in that. It has continuously celebrated violent crime stories far, far out of their real world proportion. Obviously this is all about ratings. Horror stories can attract eyeballs in every sense, as every horror fan, Netflix or Redbox peruser, and parent of children knows.

But CNN isn’t Shudder. It is for a large number of people an information source. It is a guide to reality. So CNN helped skew Americans’ sense of reality in terms of violent crime. As things got better, CNN took exquisite, persistent care to make sure we thought they were the opposite. Why does this matter?

On the face of it, it’s disturbing to know cable tv news helped generate a fantasy world. (Maybe we need a new term to cover this. I like “CNN Gothic”, personally. How about “fantasy crime,” like fantasy football uses real world events as a basis for engaging stories?)

Beyond the delusion, it’s important to remember that Trump won in 2016 in part by arguing that America was under siege from an epidemic of violent crime. Who do you think convinced 1/4th of American voters of this idea, before Trump even attempted the GOP primary?

Recall, too, the American love of guns. A key driver for gun ownership is self defense. Spook Americans into a state of terror and we react in pretty predictable ways. CNN is the NRA’s best secret friend. The station is a fine pairing with a gun cabinet.

American cable tv news has been an underrecognized problem for years, especially as the rest of tv has entered a golden age. Alas, it’s easy to give those networks a pass when Trump threatens them, and also when many focus on Facebook/Google/Twitter as news purveyors.

Take a closer look at that CNN story, one they prominently featured on their site. It reads well for a scary story. Consider that fine opening line: “A shooting incident that left one police officer dead and two others injured in Missouri started with a 911 phone call punctuated by screams.” Well done! The scene is set, and the horrific note sounded, all in one sentence. “[P]unctuated by screams” is especially moving.

“During the call, two women could be heard screaming in the background at the home in Clinton” — imagine this as a film or tv show. Better yet, think of it as a podcast. (Older readers and media folks can envision it as radio theater, too.) Compelling, isn’t it?

Note the feeble attempt at justifying the story, later on: “This is the second Clinton Police Department officer killed in less than a year.” That certainly sounds like a scary trend! You know what? Maybe #BlueLivesMatter ! (See how this works?) Now, this could well be a coincidence. That’s statistically possible, yet not even considered in the CNN account. Again, see how this works?

To be utterly clear, I’m not dismissing the event’s suffering, in case CNN fans want to offer that response. Obviously. Need I mention there are first responders in my family? And that I’m not a sociopath? This isn’t a question of “was the event bad” or “what kind of heartless bastard ignores human suffering”, but rather: should a national/international network, like CNN, whip it into a major scary story?

Put another way: down the road in Clinton I suspect one or more people died this week of congestive heart failure, or cancer. Those are also stories of terror and suffering — arguably, greater terror and suffering than that police shooting.

Heart disease and cancer kill way, way more people than gun violence in the US. Many, many people have intimate experience with these killers. *And* there’s stuff viewers and readers can do about it right now. It’s funny how CNN doesn’t run these as screaming headlines.

To an extent this publication strategy relies on the way humans perceive risk in terms of novelty. Tom the Dancing Bug has a nice cartoon about this (HT Rob Henderson), about how we respond more to shocking and surprising stories than to tales based on large statistics or continuing trends. Yet I think if CNN is truly possessed of world class storytellers, they could turn heart disease into a gripping narrative. (Might I recommend a certain book on the subject?) They could also choose not to flog a relative handful of crime stories into a national terror wave. Instead they very carefully selected the violent crime horror route.

This could well be an important story for Clinton, Missouri. It’s obviously important for the group of individuals involved, as well as their families and immediate friends, etc. That’s appropriate for local media, including local tv news. But for a national audience, for a country of 327,313,352, at the scale where CNN works, is this attention and fervent style really justified?

No. This is Gothic puffery. It’s a deliberate act of fearmongering. CNN has been doing this for years and, it seems, with consequences. Why aren’t we holding CNN and its ilk accountable?

This is a matter for #informationliteracy and #digitalliteracy .

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Bryan Alexander

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.