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Saturation Coverage: With the Cruise Story, Is CNN Charting a New Course?

The network was on the Carnival Triumph story like flies on, um, the Carnival Triumph.

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Thursday, the stinky, disabled Carnival cruise ship Triumph was crawling back into port in Alabama, its power and sewage systems knocked out by a fire on board. And CNN made no secret that it was going to be on this story like flies on–um, the Carnival cruise ship Triumph. Mid-morning, the network sent out a press release detailing its coverage plans:

The squalid, smelly, steamy cruise ship, which has been without power for days with 4,000 people aboard, is expected to finally limp into port later today. CNN’s Erin Burnett will anchor Erin Burnett OutFront from Mobile, Alabama, where the ship will dock.  Sandra Endo covers the ship’s arrival by helicopter; Victor Blackwell monitors by boat; and David Mattingly and Martin Savidge report from the dock in Mobile. CNN.com/live and the CNN apps will live stream the docking. CNN International will simulcast the arrival later tonight.

On Saturday at 7:30pmET and 10:30pmET, CNN will broadcast “Cruise from Hell: Stranded at Sea,” a 30 minute special reported by Martin Savidge.

CNN (usual disclosure, TIME’s sister company in Time Warner) was good as its word. Thursday afternoon, while competitors MSNBC and Fox were cycling through the other news of the day (they did join coverage when the ship make port at night), newshounds began to notice that CNN was virtually all Poop Cruise, all the time. The details were certainly, shall we say, ripe. There was live video from helicopter, cell phone interviews with passengers, virtual reunions by phone between passengers and their loved ones on shore, running commentary on the legal and business aspects of the disaster for Carnival.

And then there were the pictures. Oh God, the pictures. Brooke Baldwin cut in mid-interview at one point to announce, “We’re finally getting some of the first photographs from inside this cruise”—and the network popped a snapshot of a red bag reportedly containing human waste. From there, the, er, floodgates opened. Baldwin interviewed a passenger who sent video of sewage dripping down the ship’s walls. (“Let me know when we roll. Let’s roll the sewage video.”) The pictures cycled all day, through The Situation Room and into primetime, even staying on picture-in-picture when the network cut to a story about the President’s preschool initiative.

However unappetizing, the Triumph disaster was absolutely a legitimate news story. There was human suffering–in a vacation setting, something all viewers can relate to–there was drama on the high seas, there was health concern, there was corporate scandal. There was, let’s be frank, poop. It wasn’t the only news story, though, and it’s fair to look at the network’s coverage as a hint of how it may change under new head Jeff Zucker, who has made the case that the network needs to broaden its definition of news. CNN’s eternal problem has been that it does well when there’s big news, but there isn’t big news all the time.

One possible answer: take sorta-big news and make it bigger, particularly if you can draw on live footage and exclusive images in an ongoing story. Put another way, the strategy may be that CNN is a TV news network, and therefore its best bet is to go all in on whatever the best TV news story is—the story that best lends itself to arresting images, access and on-the-spot reporting.

This itself is not an entirely new approach. It’s reminiscent of what the cable news networks were doing, say, in the pre-9/11 days of round-the-clock Chandra Levy and shark-attack coverage. It’s a little like what CNN’s sister network HLN has been more successful doing, albeit in the more limited category of seizing on sensational crime cases and making them the top item of news.

And, after all, it was all-in coverage of a big news story, with remarkable visuals and the leveraging of exclusive access, that established CNN as a force in TV news to begin with. That story happened to be the Gulf War, which current anchor Wolf Blitzer covered as a Pentagon correspondent. Yesterday, he was on The Situation Room, talking to cruise passengers about their smelly ordeal, over pictures of a urinal and buckets.

Sometimes you capture the world’s notice covering an air war. And sometimes, the battle is at sea.

11 comments
mrbomb13
mrbomb13

As indicated by other networks, CNN experienced a ratings spike as a result of its "Cruise Coverage."

That 'spike' is a noteworthy data point, but hardly suggestive of a 'trend' (a.k.a. Poniewozik's titular "New Course").  For a trend to emerge, the spike would have to last for longer than a mere couple of hours, as CNN's did.

TerriPersicoRimmer
TerriPersicoRimmer

Yellow journalism has been around forever. I was just thinking before reading this story that if anyone had shoved a microphone in my face after disembarking off of that ship I would've said, "Leave me alone! I just want to get home!" I don't think the story was blown out of proportion, however. I saw it on "20/20" the other night and the reporter interviewed a doctor who made a very good point. These passengers had no way to clean up after themselves after going to the bathroom several times over the course of days. That in itself is a health hazard for the person. Plus they were being exposed to all kinds of germs due to the sewage and the combination of being in close quarters with other passengers coupled with the exposure to all kinds of hazardous waste. Not to mention all the other things they were up against.   

Lucelucy
Lucelucy like.author.displayName 1 Like

Live from the Senate floor, where the Chuck Hagel nomination is .................... Squirrel!

Salsadog
Salsadog

Sorry to admit I knew a few of those people and ashamed that they did everything they could to get their faces under the CNN microphones.  The more Drama, the better for them.

vrcplou
vrcplou like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Honestly, I think the "saturation" approach to news coverage has been the downfall of our culture.  It exaggerates the story, makes mountains out of mole hills or at least moderate hills and perpetuates a cycle of fear and overemphasis on things that really don't amount to much.  Every event is "extreme", every occurrence cause for alarm.  Outside of the people on the cruise ship, their families and enterprising tort attorneys, does anyone need wall-to-wall coverage of this unfortunate (but by no means disastrous) event?

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

Spare me the ongoing "big news" stories.  Every time I see break what will be "big news" I cringe for the fact that we will hear maybe 5 minuets of facts repeated again and again and again at the expense of other news.  I will not bother with CNN if they not only smother me with real big news story repetition  but also ones they manufacture.   

twocee
twocee like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

With all of that coverage devoted to this, did they even once remark on the fact that despite the fact that the ship had a FIRE in the engine room that the fire was immediately contained and the ship was still intact?

Yes, the passengers were miserable for 4 days.  They could've easily all had to have been evacuated to life boats, watching their cruise ship sink.  Instead we got wall-to-wall coverage of people whining that they had to sleep outside, there was no air conditioning, and they had to p** into plastic bags.  Welcome to camping!!  If the ship didn't have excellent fire suppression equipment and procedures, the ship could've sank and they all could've died.  

The Costa Concordia was a real cruise ship tragedy where people died.  The Triumph was a vacation from hell for a bunch of people who had to live without modern conveniences for 4 days.  A little perspective might be nice.

travellinbob1
travellinbob1

@twocee   But the Costa Concordia was not an American cruise ship, and therefore of little interest to an American audience.

But you're absolutely right - this is a very minor story blown out of all proportion.

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

@travellinbob1 @twocee 

Costa is American and British owned and is part of Carnival Corporation and many American sail on those ships.

travellinbob1
travellinbob1

@formerlyjames @travellinbob1 @twocee Quite possibly.  But at the time it capsized with tragic loss of loss, I don't recall many Americans on board.  It was crewed largely by Italians, and the passengers were Europeran (mainly German and Italians I think).


TimHaugen
TimHaugen like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

While working a night shift in a nursing home, I saw the coverage of this story. They managed to turn a two-minute human interest trifle into this night-long ordeal that was every bit as excruciating as the experience of those unfortunate cruise passengers themselves. It seems to me that 24/7 news coverage should afford those outlets the opportunity to offer serious investigative stories in-depth. I want to see Woodward and Bernstein/Watergate-level seriousness. Instead, the 24/7 outlets offer nothing but cotton candy for the mind. The cruise-ship story... pathetic.