In TV news, looks can be deceiving — especially if they’re designed to do exactly that.
Some critics have been puzzled by the recent ratings rise for far-right news channels Newsmax and OANN, insisting viewers who buy into the absurdity on display might not be very smart.
But that rough judgement ignores an unnerving reality: Those channels, and others sure to follow in the post-Trump media universe, have worked hard to intentionally make their products look “real.” Viewers almost unconsciously get drawn in because, if it looks like news and sounds like news, well, it must be news.
There are reasons why most mainstream television journalism looks similar: Those production cues carry a message to the viewer beyond merely what the anchor is reporting. For example, the color blue dominates nearly every news studio. Research shows that, to most of us, blue conveys trustworthiness and dependability. Some newscasts add a dash of red, which we view as energetic and aggressive. Together, those colors send a message: Something urgent and important is going on (red), but don’t worry — you can trust our reporters to get it right (blue).
The anchors themselves are part of that message: They’re usually not too old or too young. They dress seriously, not extravagantly. Unusual hair styles are rare — no green dye or mohawks for these people. Their televised image is, like the studio colors surrounding them, dependable, reliable and middle-of-the-road.
Along with color, those anchors are also surrounded by information. Over the years, the cable news screen has become increasingly crowded with data: stock market numbers or vote totals on the right side of your picture, a “news-crawl” of headlines along the bottom, another bolder headline layer above that. All these graphics keep the viewer engaged: If you’re not interested in what the reporter is saying, you can read the other material on your screen. But those info-bits also serve an image-building purpose: Look how active we are, they say, gathering all this news for you from around the world. You can count on us.
The far-right channels take that tried-and-true imagery and transport it into a world of alternative facts and conspiracy theories. Years ago, it was easy to spot extreme material — it looked out of the mainstream, often on purpose. No one confused mimeographed John Birch Society broadsides with their hometown newspaper; counter-culture media in the 1960s went out of their way to look nothing like the establishment.
But Newsmax and OANN understand that mimicking conventional programming helps their dire and drastic stories seem acceptable and reasonable. Greg Kelly, the rising star of Newsmax, was himself once a reliable, chatty mainstream morning news show personality on local TV in New York.
And these relatively small operations can look big time on a budget. No need any longer for down-market mimeographs. Thanks to the digital revolution, putting together a sophisticated news studio doesn’t cost much at all.
That’s a red flag for what may be coming. As more extreme parts of the post-Trump audience break off from outlets like Fox News in search of an info-bubble better suited to their needs, radical outlets can easily pose as reliable, researched, fact-based news and lure them in.
Just go online and you can find free (or royalty free) templates for creating your own virtual news set in minutes. You can download free high-tech news graphics, along with just the right music score. There’s even an instructional video on how to build all this in your very own basement.
The last four years have shown that it’s very easy to spread this kind of material on social media — no full-fledged cable channel required. You can simply create short clips that look as if they came from a major news operation and send those out into the internet’s atmosphere. Algorithms will do the rest, planting that product unbidden inside unsuspecting social media profiles.
In this potential world-to-come, it will take even more hard work for viewers to honestly understand what’s being fed to them on their Facebook page. They’ll need to be hyper-vigilant about images that signal truth, trust and authenticity — but deliver something quite different. They can’t instantly accept the deception, even if they may want to.
When Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE leaves the White House in January, yes, one “fake news” megaphone will be gone. But, given what’s already happening, a much more complicated and insidious fake may very well take its place.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.