If networks don't know, they should tell us that

By John Kass

Chicago Tribune

Published: Friday, April 19 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

I'm talking about those infuriating headlines that crawl across the bottom of the screen and tease upcoming news. Some networks run icy white letters in their crawls. Fox runs yellow letters, the color of warning. But I was watching CNN on Wednesday. And that network delivers its crawl on a bed of blazing, ill-omened red.

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Here's an idea for CNN, Fox News and all the other TV news shops running those ominous crawl lines under their breathless broadcasts of the Boston Marathon bombings.

I'm talking about those infuriating headlines that crawl across the bottom of the screen and tease upcoming news. Some networks run icy white letters in their crawls. Fox runs yellow letters, the color of warning. But I was watching CNN on Wednesday. And that network delivers its crawl on a bed of blazing, ill-omened red.

Around midday, CNN trumpeted the news that a bombing suspect had been arrested — a "dark-skinned male." It later corrected itself and reported that in fact there was no such arrest. Pretty darn embarrassing.

So here's the plan. Instead of running crawls that drip with menacing crimson imperative, maybe CNN should try something like this when there's nothing new to report about what happened in Boston:

... WE WANT TO TELL YOU WHAT HAPPENED, BUT GUESS WHAT? ... WE JUST DON'T KNOW YET. ... WE DON'T HAVE THE FACTS ... WE DON'T ACTUALLY KNOW IF THE BOMBER IS A DARK-SKINNED MALE ... YEAH, WE SAID IT ON THE AIR, BUT, WHAT THE HECK? ... IT COULD BE A WHITE MAN ... SOME GUY TOLD US ABOUT 'THE DARK-SKINNED MALE' AND, WELL, OOPS ... OUR BAD. ... FOR NOW, WE JUST DON'T KNOW ... REPEAT ... WE JUST DON'T KNOW ... WHEN WE DO HAVE FACTS ... WHEN WE KNOW, WE'LL TELL YOU ... REALLY ... UNTIL THEN ... WE JUST DON'T KNOW ... WE JUST DON'T ... KNOW.

Wouldn't it be nice? It would be refreshing. There's a certain truthiness about it, no?

I can't speak for the TV networks. I'm a newspaperman. And newspaper editors love it when reporters bring them hot news. Yet there are eight little words that the best newspaper editors also like:

I just don't know. But I'll find out.

Those words aren't easy to say, especially when there's a big story and the competition is boiling like a piranha tank. And in the news business lately, with all the changes going on, such as integration with the Internet and video and tweets and 24-hour news cycles, it seems that we're not only competing against credible and incredible news shops, it seems that we're fighting for our lives.

So with that pressure, it's difficult to say, "I just don't know."

Sometimes young reporters think they've failed when they say it. But I've seen editors, the good ones, give each other a look when they hear it. And in that look, they're making a mental note that says: I just might be able to trust this kid.

Picking on TV news shops may be seen by some as cruel, like picking the wings off flies. Mistakes happen. I know it. I've made my share.

But the Boston bombings were horrific. The death and the carnage were horrific. People want to know what happened. And rushing to blurt out inaccurate information because the other guys may have something juicy is disreputable. It's worthy of a Moutza.

Watching TV news during the day is something I rarely do, because I'm usually out reporting or having lunch or sitting in my office reading deep journals about baseball or soccer. If the office TV is on, it usually shows highly paid men kicking, hitting, dribbling or running with a ball. Or fishing. Sometimes I'll watch CBS' "The Good Wife," my columnist resource for deep legal and political insight and attractive women of a certain age in great suits.

Mostly, though, the office TV is off.

But I happened to be home at midday and turned on the tube to check the Boston bombing story. What bothered me was the volume. The newscasters' voices were loud and full of freaky urgency. In addition to erroneously reporting an arrest, CNN also made the misjudgment of focusing on the alleged skin color of the alleged suspect.

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