Since September 11, the "crawl" has helped news networks like CNN
provide viewers with breaking news more quickly. But, as Julia Hood
discovers, critics have noted serious flaws in the new technology
It first appeared on CNN on September 11, when the terrorist attacks
brought a new sense of urgency to the news. Viewers - especially those
with missing friends or relatives, or those stuck in strange cities as
the airspace over the US was closed - needed updated information faster
than CNN's on-air reporters could get it out. On that day, the "crawl"
CNN was not alone in introducing the crawl in response to the
extraordinary events. Fox News and MSNBC both added the scrolling news
briefs on the bottom of the screen, also on the day of the attacks. Now,
more than three months later, the crawl is still running on all three
Even in the midst of a national crisis, when the country's attention is
focusing on continuing conflict in Afghanistan, the media has still
found time to discuss, and criticize, the crawl. The New York Times
reported on the phenomenon last month by declaring, "Television has
become a print medium ... Typically the crawl consists of about 80
items, which take 10 minutes to cycle through," reports the Times.
"There's a simple rationale: in the past two months, news has become
impossible to channel through a single televised human."
Some critics have branded the crawl "McNuggeted information," and say it
is distracting for viewers. But CNN spokesperson Megan Mahoney says
criticism is to be expected with any new feature. "Feedback on the crawl
has mainly been very positive," she says.
According to Mahoney, the crawl is "used as a supplemental source of
information for our viewers." The cable news channel also says it had
been planning to introduce streaming news before the attacks even
"It was being developed because we saw it as a vehicle to give viewers
more information at once," she says. "The original concept called for
the crawl to include a variety of stories."
"When the tragic events of September 11 occurred, everything focused on
that one story," she continues. "As we move forward, we are
transitioning into the original thought, which is headlines on a variety
of stories." CNN will not disclose the names of those responsible for
the crawl's content, only saying that it is "maintained by senior
While it is not a great vehicle for a targeted media relations effort -
CNN says it never gets pitched stories specifically for the crawl -
those in PR have a compelling reason to pay close attention to the
crawl. Because of its speed, and the brevity of the blurbs, content can
sometimes be inaccurate, causing problems for companies.
"We see misinformation all the time, especially on CNN," says Tim Doke,
VP of corporate communications with American Airlines. "They reported in
the first half-hour after the crash of Flight 587, via the crawl, that
it was a 767 inbound to JFK, when we knew, in fact, that it was an
Doke's team managed to get the information changed on the screen, but it
was not easy. "It took about 20 minutes to get through to somebody who
would acknowledge that we might know more about the situation than they
Much of the scrolling news these days concerns the military efforts in
Afghanistan. Lt. Col. David Lapan, a Department of Defense spokesman,
says his office monitors each of the crawls all day. When an error is
spotted, a PR team member talks to one of the reporters posted in the
Pentagon to get a correction. "I tend to find more misinformation and
mistakes on the crawl because of how it's done," Lapan says. "We've
talked about how having the crawl when you have a news event going on is
very confusing and disconcerting."
Not everyone dislikes the crawl. "We have paid a lot of attention to the
crawl," says Melanie Jones, PR creative manager for Southwest
"It is a great tool. However, we have to watch it carefully." Jones says
the speed of the crawl is useful, with some of the airline's news
appearing on screen about 45 minutes after being released.
In spite of critics, the crawl isn't going away. "CNN plans to keep the
crawl permanently," Mahoney claims. "We'll use it for news headlines,
weather, cnn. com promos, and, of course, promos for upcoming CNN shows
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