News Flash: Anything This Graphic Should Never Have a Logo

TV Coverage of the Massacre at Virginia Tech Took Insta-Branding to a Grotesque and Appalling Low

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At one point during the wall-to-wall TV news coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre, before the news broke that the gunman had positioned himself to serve as his own post-mortem publicist, I briefly took a call and muted the TV. When I got off the phone and started to reach for the remote, I saw a shot of a red, wax-paper Coca-Cola cup being held aloft. It was lit from within, and it glowed against a dusky sky -- and for a moment it seemed like a bit of typical Coca-Cola product-shot triumphalism. Then another shot revealed that the glowing Coke cup was part of a sea of candles at the candlelight vigil held on the Virginia Tech Drillfield last Tuesday. (There were, it turned out, Pepsi cups in the mix too.)
Photo:Rick Wilking

New Coke spot? Guess again. It's a candlelight vigil at Virginia Tech.

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The wires in my brain crossed as I realized that what at first seemed, in my TV's muted silence, like a new Coke spot was actually an unfortunate, inadvertent product placement. But I really became unnerved as I surfed the network and cable-news-channel coverage, keeping the sound on mute. Without the somber intonations of news readers and anchors, the true nature of the coverage began to emerge.

Every news outlet was doing exactly the same thing: marketing the massacre with graphics. We're all used to -- inured to -- the graphical dumbing down of major events by news outfits, but last week's insta-branding was out of control. Particularly at CNN.

During "Anderson Cooper 360" on Tuesday night, for instance, CNN's animated MASSACRE AT VIRGINIA TECH logo throbbed and twirled with all the subtlety of an "American Idol" bumper. MASSACRE was in a stark typewriter font (a transparent attempt, of course, at evoking the gravitas of gritty old-school journalism) in white against a blood-red background, with AT VIRGINIA TECH in black typewriter type just below it. A gaudy, twitchy animation effect caused the MASSACRE type to briefly explode outside of its red box, as did the AT VIRGINA TECH type a moment later. It took me a couple of rewind passes on my DVR to realize that the grainy gray background behind the twitching type showed a gun sight's crosshairs floating in slow motion across the screen.

Almost as grotesque was the bug placed on the lower right corner of the screen throughout CNN's coverage: the word DEADLIEST stacked over the word SHOOTING -- both, again, in typewriter type -- because what's a news event without superlatives?

Other news outlets, of course, engaged in their own branding of the tragedy: Fox News had the Virginia Tech VT logo rotating with CAMPUS MASSACRE (in, yes, typewriter type) during the first couple of days of its coverage. For "The Early Show," CBS graphic artists assembled a montage of sepia-toned shots of the candlelight vigil, anchored by that omnipresent, sweaty color headshot of the gunman and overlayed with MASSACRE AT VIRGINIA TECH (thankfully not in a typewriter font). ABC, in a minimalist mood, tagged its on-site reporting for "Good Morning America" with the words BLACKSBURG, VIRGINIA, and, in the lower left-hand corner, appallingly, a stand-alone graphic of a gun sight's crosshairs in white against a blood-red background.

Only "Today" had no custom graphic bug for its massacre coverage, but of course Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera ostentatiously staked out the best real estate on campus: an indoor space with a wall of windows amidst some of Virginia Tech's more stately stone buildings. Other nets' anchors, such as CNN's John Roberts and Kiran Chetry, were bundled up, outdoors, relegated to hills overlooking Virginia Tech. But the location-scouting pros at "Today," it seems, can turn even the site of a historic mass murder into a cheery, camera-ready quad worthy of Rockefeller Center.

At least the underlying visual of NBC's real-estate grab -- Virginia Tech's bucolic greens -- was subdued. The problem with CNN's Virginia Tech logo-ization was that it was not only tacky and hyperactive, it was inconsistent. The massacre bug on Larry King's show, for instance, was the VT logo superimposed on a black ribbon, whereas CNN's morning-show coverage featured a chipper LIVE FROM VIRGINIA TECH typographic logo in rotation with a VIRGINIA TECH TRAGEDY (more typewriter font) bug.

Even worse, CNN's main, twitchy MASSACRE AT VIRGINIA TECH logo, I found out when I resumed watching with the sound on, had its own mini soundtrack: an ominous whooshing noise that was reminiscent of the cheesy signature sound effect of the old syndicated tabloid TV news show "A Current Affair." By random chance, I heard a very similar ominous woosh noise during a promo for Rachael Ray's syndicated show ("Next Rach: More mother-daughter wars -- and this time Mom's playing favorites! Plus: stuffed eggplant. This morning at 10!" Woosh!) But the CNN tragedy-logo soundtrack, if you listened closely, had the subtle overlay of a heartbeat. (Does CNN think its competition is "Grey's Anatomy"? Or "House"?)

In watching CNN's broadcast primarily as a visual spectacle, a lot of questions kept popping up in my mind, such as: Do viewers really want this kind of condescending garishness? And are CNN's graphic artists really convinced they're doing something useful and necessary?

In the end, CNN got beat at its own game when NBC executives made the week's most macabre packaging decision: They slapped a big NBC News logo on the images and videos sent in by the gunman in an attempt to spin his legacy as a martyr to other deranged loners ("I die like Jesus Christ"). The logo -- positioned so as to prevent cropping by other news organizations -- couldn't have been more blatant if it had been superimposed on the killer's khaki ammo vest.

We've come to the point at which murderous psychopaths and TV news executives are of the same mind when it comes to human tragedy: It's a branding opportunity.
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