Within an hour of hearing that a balding white man had opened fire on children at a Los Angeles Jewish Community Center day camp, Fox News Channel had slapped a logo on the air to graphically anchor the cable station's extensive coverage of the attack.
"L.A. Shooting Rampage," the logo shrieked against a background image of a gun scope. "We used a generic animation of the scope to let people know there was an assault or gunfire," said assistant art director Brian Matthews. "Generally to the public, a scope does portray there has been a shooting."
Duh. Such logos, also known as titles, have become a fixture in the celebrity, death and violence megastories, lasting days or even weeks, that increasingly seem to be capturing the attention of TV news. Never mind that the titles often rely on clichi, inflate events (do five woundings a rampage or shooting spree make?) and trivialize suffering by tying it up in a tidy slogan. The so-called 24/7s -- the cable-news channels -- experience 200 and 300 percent ratings jumps when an all-day tragedy hits the screen; many local stations have followed their example in trying to capitalize with blanket coverage. In an age when viewers zap through the dial looking for an arresting image, the logo, however cheesy or tarted up, is an essential tool to grab ratings, says longtime news executive Av Weston.
"It's form of brand marketing," said Westin, a longtime CBS and ABC news executive currently ensconced as a Freedom Forum fellow in New York. "The stations benefit dramatically when there is a story of continuing coverage, and each tries to brand it with a logo that's intriguing and attractive."
The shrill tone of Fox News Channel's logo was picked up by many of the L.A. stations: "Terror in the Valley", brayed KTLA; "Children Under Fire," intoned KCAL. Local network affiliate KNBC went with "Shooting Spree" over an image of an automatic weapon. KCBS used "Granada Hills Rampage" (reflecting the L.A. suburb where the center was located).
An exception was KABC in Los Angeles, which adopted the relatively deadpan "Jewish Center Shooting." "It was a very brief attack, over in a matter of seconds -- not like Columbine, where gunmen went door-to-door and spent time doing it," said KABC's Cheryl Fair during a telephone interview Wednesday. "The events were sensational enough all by themselves. They didn't need us to make bigger than it was."
Other 24/7 stations were more circumspect than Fox News. "Community Center Shooting" was the dispassionate choice of both CNN and MSNBC, perhaps stung by criticism of their relentless wallpaper coverage of the deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and her sister.
Executives at the channels, however, said this had nothing to do with their subdued logos. MSNBC media spokesman Cory Shields said his station has a policy of selecting generic logos -- the tag for the Columbine High shootings, for example, was "Tragedy in Littleton" -- and then getting more specific in the bottom-right caption, also called a chyron. "Everyone's fighting to come up with a look to grab viewers," agreed CNN graphic art supervisor Warren Dent. "There's a lot involved."
"In some newsrooms there has been a concern that the story was running past the journalism," Westin noted. "Those news directors probably decided, Let's play this a little more calmly." A strange twist in the TV logo wars was how the stations handled the religious affiliation of the school. Many stations chose "Community Center" over "Jewish Community Center" or even "Jewish center." Clearly, space wasn't the issue. And it's difficult to imagine the religious affiliation being dropped were it "Islamic" rather than Jewish. Of course, the alleged anti-Semitic admissions and emerging ties of suspect Buford Oneal Furrow to white supremacists make the omission appear more significant than it was at the time. With hate crimes spewing forth from every corner of the U.S., there may have been a reluctance to jump the gun on a snippet of evidence when the attack could as easily have erupted out of a domestic or employment conflict. Shields says using the word "Jewish" just never came up at MSNBC.
However, several media critics don't buy those arguments. "They don't want to encourage anti-Semitic groups, and there is some fear of copycat crimes, but the media always dramatizes whatever it can to get ratings," said Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.
Again, KABC was the sole station, L.A. or national, that used the word Jewish in its logo. "It was important for us to get Jewish in, in that it was a Jewish Community Center, and there was a possibility this had some religious implications," Fair said. "The fact that it was a Jewish Community Center was an integral part of the story, even if it had been random," agreed Bagdikian. "It's always a matter of suspicion; some of the wildest militias and Aryan groups are very anti-Semitic."