The Washington Post
The constant scroll of headlines stokes a perpetual sense of potential crisis
The “crawl” that fed our need for news on 9/11 never went away, stoking a perpetual sense of potential crisis.
The shock and panic of Sept. 11, 2001, faded with time. But the crawl endured. Fox News was the first that day. Some 50 minutes after the first tower collapsed, it cranked up a whizzing scroll of text across the bottom of the screen, summarizing the horror of the morning for those still catching up.
A day of terror in the United States . . . it began. Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York . . . WTC towers collapsed . . . Manhattan is sealed off . . .
CNN and MSNBC launched their crawls minutes later. NBC and CBS jumped in briefly. Local stations did so, too.
“It was an overwhelming story, and people were desperate to know more,” said Jonathan Glenn, a vice president at Fox News who oversees the network’s news writing.
Faced with a traumatized public that sought news and community in the hours and days after the attacks, the national broadcast and cable news networks dispensed with commercials and reported round-the-clock for days on end. The
crawls were an improvisational addition.
The crawl introduced viewers to a new, busier visual landscape long before there were smartphones, Twitter and Facebook, and “second screens” to distract from the first screen. Bewildering as 9/11 was, TV news became even more frenetic and cluttered in its wake.
In the years after the terrorist attacks, the crawls remained, becoming little conveyor belts of doom and dread: Airstrikes resume Wednesday in Afghanistan ... Two Washington postal workers die of anthrax . . . Shoe bomb suspect to remain in custody . . . Washington area on edge as sniper manhunt continues . . .
But long after the worst was over, the crawl wasn’t convinced. During the long stretches when the news slowed (to a crawl), the crawl acted as a kind of vestigial reminder that something terrible could be happening somewhere — even when there clearly wasn’t much going on.
In the middle of the day in mid-june, for example, CNN’S crawl was a hash of the mundane and far from urgent: “U.S. and European Union resolve longrunning trade dispute over subsidies to Airbus and Boeing . . . Feud escalated when Trump Adm. imposed tariffs on European goods, including Parmesan cheese . . .”
The modern TV news crawl, also known as the ticker, is the descendant of the mechanical ticker-tape machine that conveyed stock market prices to brokerage houses and investors in the late 1800s on paper printouts that resembled endless CVS receipts. It is also the great-grandchild of the moving “zipper” bulletin that flashed headlines across the facade of the New York Times building in Times Square starting in the late 1920s, as well as the clattering teletype machines of old newsrooms.
During its first broadcast in 1952, the “Today” show on NBC attempted to deploy a crude ticker of typed headlines superimposed on the bottom of the screen. The words were barely legible on the small TVS of the time, and the feature soon was dropped.
But as broadcast technology improved in the 1980s and ’ 90s, crawls took root in the form of stock quotes flying by on financial-news cable programs, and traffic updates and weather emergencies on local news stations. CNN’S “Headline News” introduced the first 24/7 crawl (the “HLN Sports Ticker”) in 1992. A nation that had long resisted subtitles in foreign films became accustomed to reading and watching TV.
“Viewers are used to getting a lot of information at once,” a CNN vice president told the Associated Press in 2001, hailing the crawl as a useful tool for the multitasking era. A Fox News editor explained, “It was hard to get to all the aspects of the story with just one screen.”
Yet, some experts have challenged the idea that the crawl helped viewers absorb more information.
In 2007, Michael Keefe-feldman, a graduate student in communication at Georgetown University at the time, noted that cable networks’ tickers pushed as many as 112 news items an hour at viewers and set out to answer a basic question: Did this information stream enhance viewers’ understanding of the news?
He showed one group of test subjects a 10-minute report on Fox News that included a crawl and a second group the same clip with the crawl blacked out. He then asked each subject questions about what they had just seen. The group that watched the news clip without the crawl scored consistently higher, recalling more details of the report.
Now a writer in Massachusetts, Keefe-feldman said his finding was consistent with social-science research on human perception and comprehension: There’s a limit to how much information people can process before they get confused, distracted or simply overwhelmed.
“If I gave you a series of three numbers — say, seven, eight, five — you’d have very little trouble remembering them” in sequence, he said. “But if I gave you 12 numbers, you’d be much less likely to remember them, including the first three numbers.”
Keefe-feldman published his paper in 2007, which now seems a quieter age of news. Many households still lacked the speedy Wifi connections that would soon allow people to watch TV and scan the Internet simultaneously. They also lacked the devices that made it easy to do so. That year, a new gadget, the iphone, had just been introduced.
Perhaps viewers weaned on second screens have since trained themselves to take in more information?
Actually, no, said Earl K. Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT. “Humans have a very small capacity for processing multiple things simultaneously,” he said. “When we think we are multitasking, we instead are [task]-switching and thus processing less of each. . . . Multiple information streams like the crawl will always come at a cost. Multitasking will never be as good as focusing on one thing at a time.”
In fact, the era of the crawl may be crawling to a close. Fox stopped crawls altogether in April. MSNBC did the same in 2018, only to revive its crawl during the protests that began after the murder of George Floyd last year, before dropping it again. CNN is the lone crawl loyalist, though it cuts off the scroll during documentaries and weekly series.
The rationale each time was telling: MSNBC said three years ago it wanted “a cleaner view that puts our reporting more front and center.” Glenn of Fox News said his network stopped its crawl because viewers can now get the same information on their phones or laptops. (MSNBC and CNN declined to comment.)
A more revealing commentary about the crawl may have been embedded in the moments after 9/11, when the networks temporarily removed it from the screen. Presidential speeches and major sporting events were exempt from crawls, as were documentaries, special programs — and commercials. Explaining why CNN dropped the crawl during ads, a network marketing executive once noted: “We want to keep it an advertiser environment and not detract from the message.”
No ticker, no distraction. And maybe no air of crisis and frenzy. A world without crawls might make the world seem like a little calmer place.