Authority and Information on Vacation

This past week, a couple of good friends of mine were married in Atlanta. My husband was in the wedding, and we decided to make it a vacation and went out 4 days early to spend some time in the city and get some much-needed sleep. While we were there, we visited the CNN Studios and my brain started lesson planning before I could stop it.

We arrived at the CNN Studios around 11:45 am on Wednesday, March 22nd. When you walk into CNN, you’re standing in the food court/shop lobby. It’s an expansive space and your eyes immediately travel upward to the 8-9 story ceiling. There are flags of different states and countries that flank the opening and a huge globe.

The escalator entering the globe is on the 7th floor. It is the longest freestanding escalator in the world. Photo: Jenni Burke

There is a large monitor on one end of the lobby and I immediately noticed the headline: “Attack outside UK Parliament Being Treated as Terror”. I paused and read some of the closed captioning and my heart dropped. Not good.

After recovering from the shock of the lobby and the headlines, we bought VIP Tour tickets for 1:30. This put us in a group that was capped at 12 (instead of 45) and gave us access to a few extra taping areas than a regular tour. While we waited, we ate lunch at the Chick-Fil-A (yes, ironic) and wandered through the Cartoon Network store, the CNN store, and the Braves shop, stopping to talk baseball with the older gentleman who worked there (particularly about how the Rockies management keeps raising prices not because the team is any good but bc they can make money off of the opponent’s fans). On a side note, if you’re a Cardinals fan like myself, go to a Rockies-Cardinals game – it’ll feel like you’re at a home game in St. Louis.

Around 1:15, we went through security and started up the longest freestanding escalator in the world – 7 stories tall and only attached at the top and bottom! We entered the 7th floor through a giant globe, took a quick photo, and went through a set of double doors into a small theatre with a large, three-paneled control screen that showed the different camera angles and teleprompters of all of the the domestic CNN stations and CNN International. The guide would then cut the different audio feeds from what the audience would hear to the Executive Producer’s audio line directing the Breaking News show on the main CNN station. This was infinitely fascinating as he was directing different things all at once like the camera angles, the digital pictures that were coming through live feeds in London, and when different teleprompter segments were to come in to which anchor. On other screens, Wolf Blitzer was filming the Situation Room segment (that would have been playing if it weren’t for the Breaking News) and Robyn Curnow, who was waiting for the main CNN feed to cut to her. Each show has its own Executive Producer who controls every aspect of the show or segment; nothing happens without their approval.

From here, we followed the guide to a small, staged newsroom where she explained the green screen, digital touchscreen, and teleprompting technologies. I asked a few questions like what was on the paper the anchors hold (the hard copy of the teleprompt text) and where the text comes from (the writers, but the anchor can add comments). After seeing the main filming stage for HLN, things got really interesting.  We walked to a two-paneled window with a view into a large room where the writers and copyeditors work. There are normally about 100 staff members present, but during disasters like the OK City Bombing and 9/11, they cram in about 300. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of screens dominate in this room – smartphones, tablets, tv’s, radios, computers, and large digital control panels. There are marker boards with events and names and locations everywhere.

Writers are assigned to different shows and given topics to research and write about. After the initial stories are written, they go to the copy-editors who fact-check, correct grammar errors, and make revisions. From here, they’re sent to the Executive Producers for approval and disseminated to the anchors on paper and the teleprompters before and during the shows. Under normal circumstances, shows/segments are researched, written, edited, and approved in roughly 3-4 hours. Under Breaking News situations, an entirely different team of writers take over and the turnaround time for information is reduced to 5 minutes or less. During this process, every screen, tv, and radio is constantly playing competitor’s news, sister station’s news (ALSO treated as competition!), local news, and…here it comes…social media. These are the places in which writer’s pull their stories. Yes, you read that correctly. They pull stories from social media.

Here’s where my Librarian brain took over before I could help it. There are a few hidden gems in the Framework that seem “obvious” but don’t always sink in, even for librarians: Learners…understand the increasingly social nature of the information ecosystem where authorities actively connect with one another and sources develop over time AND Learners…understand how the commodification of their personal information and online interactions affects the information they receive and the information they produce or disseminate online.

You see, this is important for students to understand – how they interact with the world online has an effect on what is reported! News used to have to travel by mouth and paper. Now, it can pass through thousands of hands before it even reaches the news stations and every station is competing with each other to be the first, the fastest, and the most eye-catching. They even compete with their own networks! What we post, what we like, what we share, what we tweet – it can all directly affect the information that we receive back. We are now ALL contributors to the conversation, whether we like it or not. It’s vital that we build lessons that make our students think about the process in which the information is created and delivered, and even more importantly, where does it originate?

In the food court lobby of CNN, the tile forms a world map (with time zone lines). There is a brass plate for every CNN location. Photo by: ana_feliciano (flickr),hq

On the floor of the lobby, tiles form a map of the world. Embedded into this floor are about 45 brass plates that represent a CNN location. No one can be everywhere at once, even a network this large. They rely on each other and the population for news stories. Unless a reporter is standing on the sidewalk during an event, the news is coming second hand. So we all have to dig a little deeper than we used to find out more. Then, we have to decide how to use it.

Our voices are powerful and it’s a heavy responsibility.


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