The Ethics of Chyrons ( /ˈkīrän/ )

With all the improvements in technology over the last few decades a new challenge has arisen in the newsroom. That challenge is how, and what for, do we use chyrons. Even over the last few years this question has increased in difficulty, and gained higher stakes, due to the viral nature of our society. So in this post I am going to ask how we can best utilize chyrons to share accurate information.

Over the course of the election we saw a few interesting uses of chyrons – one of the most notable being first CNN, and later MSNBC’s use of chyrons as a means for fact checking.

In early June of this year CNN aired a clip of Donald Trump, who was the presumptive republican nominee at the time. In the clip Trump denied previously saying that Japan should have nuclear weapons. Of course, this sort of flip flopping happens all the time during elections, and while candidates should be held accountable, that isn’t what makes this a newsworthy story. Along with the clip CNN aired a chyron that read, “Trump: I never said Japan should have nukes (he did).”cnn-fact-check

This form of fact checking received a wide response throughout the internet – specifically the ‘twittersphere’ where lots of viral images take off. Lots of people were happy with this decision by CNN and even went so far as to give CNN a virtual high five.

As the election continued, and truth telling seemed to rise on most networks list of ethical priorities CNN continued to fact check Trump in this fashion. MSNBS also jumped on board.

It’s also worth noting that, as stated before, CNN got a little pat on the back for their fact checks, but MSNBC was much more heavily criticized. Their criticisms came largely from conservatives who believed that their language was more biased than CNN’s – particularly with a chyron reading, “Trump: Clinton is in hiding (speaking next hour)” Now, MSNBC was trying to show their viewers that Clinton would be having a public speech that would be aired next, but you can see why people felt annoyed by it. Mediaite described it as, “more sass than fact check.”

This has all raised a lot of questions about if this form of fact checking is okay, and if it is then how do we continue to fact check in this way? What is the standard for fact checking these types of chyrons before we air them? How do we provide enough information to educate our audience with our brief space to do so? Where do we draw the line between appropriate fact-checking, and sassy? And how do we protect ourselves, our viewers, and our ultimate goal of truth telling from the harm and misrepresentation that comes from the screen grabbing, viral nature of our society?

Alexios Mantzarlis of Poynter came up with three guidelines that, “if this is going to become a regular feature in the networks’ coverage of the 2016 elections…should probably apply.” Mantzarlis’ three points were that everyone should be checked, the fact check should be properly weighed and explained, and that the networks using this system should openly and publicly explain their process.

cnn-f-c-2
In this case, CNN offered an explanation of their fact check within the chyron.

Mantzarlis’ guidelines provide an answer to the question of how to honor our goal of truth telling (in the terms of sharing enough, and accurate information) by offering a way to allow for fact checking, but also encouraging networks to set a standard for this type of fact check.

The biggest question, to me, though is how to protect ourselves, our viewers, and truth-telling from the viral nature of today. If you look at my personal ethics code you can see that I believe in holding strongly onto my few main rules two of which are minimizing harm, and truth telling. Within the viral nature of today both of these goals are put in danger, within the context of chyrons. The clearest case of this happening through chyrons was in just before Thanksgiving, in November when CNN aired a chyron that read, “Alt-Right founder questions if Jews are people.”

While the chyron itself poses some ethical issues, (the use of the term ‘alt-right’ has been under question for normalizing, and humanizing the white supremacist that it usually represents) the reason this chyron went viral was due to a screenshot that entered the previously mentioned twittersphere. The image really began circulating when Alanna Vagianos of the Huffington Post (retweeted more than 5,000 times), and George Takei (who has almost two million followers) both tweeted it.

cnn-chyron-matt-viser
For the sake of Matt Viser, I want to clarify on this image that he is NOT the founder of the ‘alt-right’ movement, and he DOES believe that Jews are people. 

Many people who saw this image making it’s way around the internet saw it and were angry at any of these three things. First people were angry at the use of the term ‘alt-right’ and – tagging off that – the second reason people were angry was because by seeing just this image it appeared that CNN was giving the movement a platform to speak. Ultimately, this one image took away from the critique that was part of a larger segment, and here we are now discussing the ethics of chyrons instead of the content of the actual news story (or any of the stories in this post for that matter) – but I digress.

The third thing people were angry at was Matt Viser because it looked as though he was the ‘alt-right’ founding, anti-Semitic being mentioned in the chyron. This lead to Viser being sent waves of hate-filled tweets. He received such a strong response that he actually wrote an article for The Boston Globe about it.

When I brought this case up in a phone interview I did with Julie Moos, a former chyron operator and graphics coordinator of WRAL (a locally owned network affiliate for CBS at the time) for seven years, she said, “that was such an incredibly frustrating thing… part of what is challenging about the viral nature of news is that it’s often reductive.”

I later asked Moos if she faced any tough ethical choices during her time as a chyron operator and graphics coordinator to which she said,

“For me, I guess, in some ways I would say yes because I took it very seriously as a gate keeper role. I wanted to make sure that anything I put onto the air was accurate and to me that was an ethical issue. I took care to ensure the accuracy of everything that … I checked the spelling of county names.. sports scores.. team names.. coaches names… anything that was checkable and verifiable by me I verified. And to me that was more my job than making sure everything was ready when the director wanted it – which of course was a requirement.”

In the terms of ethical theories I see the ethical issues of chyrons falling on a lot of places on the scale.

First off, one could argue that these issues would be quite easily solved if you simply follow rule based ethics in your reporting. If you do then you will always declare the truth, and your problem is solved. But by simply telling the truth you are simplifying the complexities involved in fact checking. This logic leads to believing that perhaps the golden mean is the correct code to follow, because by allowing yourself some leeway you can expand, or simplify what seems appropriate – but isn’t our job to inform our followers entirely? Now we’re back to rule based ethics.

Now, both of those points being heard, neither of them take into account the accidental virality of  news media and the harm it can cause. Story’s like Viser’s, and incidents like MSNBC’s, “Do you think the WTC jumpers are heroes or zeroes?” Push us to think about the ethics of chyrons through the golden rule.

msnbc-chyron

It will be interesting to see how chyrons continue to evolve, and how networks continue to respond to the virality of news media, but for the time being is there a clear ethical theory to follow? Do you see a way to protect ourselves, our viewers, and truth-telling? Where is the line between fact-checking, and biased sass?

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