Toy airplanes and broadcast journalism

If you’ve tuned in to CNN recently, it’s likely that you witnessed a grown man or woman playing with a toy airplane.

This isn’t a joke. At some point during the network’s nonstop coverage of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 over the past week and a half, CNN picked up a toy-sized model of a Boeing 777 in an effort to explain certain details of the plane.

Is CNN’s toy plane necessary? No, let’s not make jokes. Is it helpful? Maybe to the newscasters. (Maybe.) Is it entertaining to watch? Absolutely.

In reality, the landmark news network has done a very thorough (maybe too thorough) of a job covering the missing flight and touching on all the what-ifs. And they’re not completely wrong to do so, because it is an important story that’s garnered attention from every major news outlet in the U.S. Between this and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, CNN has no shortage of content.

Nevertheless, the Twitter reaction to CNN’s toy has been critical, to put it delicately.
It sounds like Americans are looking for hard-hitting, honest-to-god, well-reported news without any fluff thrown in, and they’re not afraid to call out a major network like CNN when it drifts away from such reporting, right? Not exactly?

News networks don’t exist in a bubble where their only goal is to tickle their own fancy. What they’re doing with model airplanes isn’t self-masturbatory–it’s to keep and win over viewers. And despite what critics say, CNN is getting exactly what they want (i.e. viewers’ time and attention), and viewers are getting exactly what they want (i.e. entertainment while still receiving information).

According to a Gallup poll conducted last year, 55 percent of American adults consider television their main source of news, trumping the 9 percent of Americans who still turn to newspapers. So what can be gleaned from this is, regardless of what critics are saying about news networks, people are still watching.

Admittedly, 24-hour news networks have taken on a daunting task: Continuously reporting on current events with few gaps in between stories, while still maintaining a somewhat descent production value. But most people would agree that this is no excuse to purchase a model airplane to play around with under the guise that it’s to “report the news.”

This is the inherent flaw of the 24-hour all-news network; reporters and producers are forced to find a balance between good journalism and entertainment, simplicity and flashiness. When a major story breaks (like the disappearance of Flight 370), networks jump in an effort to capitalize on it. But too often these stories are beaten to death, leaving networks few options to maintain their momentum, and in CNN’s case, this, for some reason, involved bringing a toy airplane on the air.

Ultimately, we can’t place all the blame on the broadcast journalism and the networks.

If it sounds like I’m picking on CNN, that’s not my intention. CNN is a fine network with some seasoned and dedicated journalists who actually care about gathering and reporting the news in a respectable and honest way. It’s the first network of its kind and has operated continuously for more than 30 years.

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