Why do cable news shows exist? They don’t break news, but once they find a story they like—the Reverend Wright kerfuffle or the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth for example—the talking heads will bang on the controversy like a child with a saucepan and a metal spoon. And the problems with cable news don’t stay quarantined inside of Fox News or CNN. A recent article for the American Journalism Review (AJR) scrutinizes the "cable news effect" on the rest of the mainstream media. Most journalists understandably recoil at the notion of the 24-hour news networks influencing editorial decisions, but cable news’ ability to keep a story on the media agenda is undeniable.
Cable news viewership is eclipsed by that of network news, according to research by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), but its influence is not to be underestimated. One reason, according to AJR, is that most mainstream newsrooms have at least one television constantly tuned to a 24 hour news network. Some editors have spoken of an “osmosis” effect, where the cable news ideas tend to seep into the minds of the rest of the media.
It must be difficult for cable news programmers to fill some 18 hours of programming each day. But instead of focusing on important issues, PEJ research shows that, “tabloid-tinged crime and celebrity” stories and bombastic pundits tend to dominate the airwaves. The repetitive, formulaic coverage offered by the 24-hour news networks doesn’t always serve to elevate public discourse, but it gets the point across.
The problem is that the cable news formula has been working. The AJR reports that cable news has been gaining in popularity and prestige over recent years, and so far there’s no reason to think that trend won’t continue. So long as cable news continue to influence the rest of the media, those talking heads won’t go away any time soon.