News Channel Chyrons Signal Diverging Narratives

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In an era when Americans increasingly perceive a fractured Fourth Estate, television news has nonetheless largely focused on the same people and stories over the past decade, no matter whether one watches CNN, MSNBC or Fox News. While the election of Donald Trump (and Barack Obama before him) has seen Fox News diverge from its peers, a viewer of all three stations will largely see the same stories, though often from different angles. One way to measure these differences is by looking closely at the text overlays (called “chyrons”) displayed on-screen. Examining three years of chyrons offers evidence of how media narratives can diverge in coverage of major news events such as the impeachment hearings.   

An ever-present feature of cable news is the bold textual overlay toward the bottom of the screen that ostensibly provides a succinct summary of the story of the moment. These summaries can vary dramatically by channel, however, with the chyrons at one moment on Nov. 19 offering parallel narratives: CNN opined that “Republicans use impeachment hearings to question loyalty of decorated Army veteran speaking out against Trump,” while MSNBC announced that EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland “will face questions about previously unknown call to Trump from restaurant in Ukraine.” Fox News, meanwhile, offered: “Chick-Fil-A caves to liberal mob.”

Since August 2017 the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive has been cataloging these overlays once per second, which the GDELT Project reprocesses into a searchable archive. The totality of chyron text on each station each day is split into words, with analysis applied only to those appearing at least once during at least 10 different minute-long segments.

The timeline below shows the similarity of these word lists by day over the last three years, using a seven-day rolling average to smooth the results. The gap in early 2018 is due to missing data. Immediately clear is that the on-screen chyron text of CNN and MSNBC are highly similar, as is the text of MSNBC and Fox News. In contrast, the chyrons of CNN and Fox News are significantly less correlated. (Click to enlarge.)

The chart below shows the median similarity of the three channels over the last three years and additionally compares them to BBC News. Unsurprisingly, BBC’s coverage is very different from that of its U.S. counterparts, though it is more similar to Fox News, which in turn is less similar to CNN and MSNBC. (The comparisons use a Pearson correlation, which measures similarity on a 0 to 1 scale — with the closeness to 1 indicating the greatest similarity.)

What about the sharp dips in the timeline above, where the three channels’ chyrons sharply diverge on a given day or set of days?

The graph below shows the November 2019 portion of the timeline.

The sharp divergence on Nov. 6 reflected a day of major updates in the impeachment process, while Nov. 19, 20 and 21 captured three days of high-profile impeachment testimony. During the rest of the month the three channels maintained consistent levels of similarity.

Putting this all together, the on-screen text of television news chyrons show greater divergence than the channels’ spoken-word transcripts. Fox News’ chyrons are noticeably different from those of CNN and MSNBC, while all three sharply diverged last month during major impeachment news days, suggesting that measuring chyron similarity (and dissimilarity) can offer another way of identifying diverging media narratives.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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