By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]
Show of hands. Whoever heard of a news source complaining of inaccuracy in a TV news crawler or canned laughter accompanying a comment in a radio talk show?
Not many hands are up, I’m sure.
A crawler (or ticker or slide) is a line of text running at the bottom of the TV screen, showing headlines or minor news, while the broadcast is going on. BBC uses white text on grey while Sky News uses white text on black. Our country’s three national network channels use colorful background for the “crawling” text.
Canned laughter is recorded laughter, often boisterous but infectious. It aims to support a remark of the commentator. Most local radio talk programs use them to project a lively and seemingly interactive show.
Those are broadcast devices that are relatively new. Decided libel cases have still to include a complaint involving any of them.
A July 3, 2012 news story in “The Freeman” said Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma denied he said he was satisfied with President Aquino’s performance in the first two years of his term, which a TV crawler reported in effect. Palma clarified that what he said was that he was praying for PNoy “because of so many concerns.”
Mistakes are rarely made in news crawlers, surely not as often as in newspaper headlines. A crawler gives the gist of the story like a news headline but it’s a sentence just lifted from the text and not crafted to fit space, which makes headline writing tricky and prone to errors.
Archbishop Palma’s lament would probably be the first complaint against a crawler in a Cebu TV station. Or there were errors before but they were not noticed and not reported in print.
Media is obliged to make a correction in a crawler or a headline, especially if it is a major mistake. And many viewers would consider the Palma report as one, since it changed the archbishop’s rating of PNoy’s first two years in office, from “unsatisfactory” to “satisfactory.” Performance that drew a bishop’s prayer for divine help must have earned much less than the reported grade.
Presence of malice
The canned laughter wouldn’t be an error, except when the radio commentator slips in pushing the button. A piece of comment that’s sad or angry is laughed at–or is that still part of the fun the show strives for?
The commentator must know that canned laughter adds malice to a slander or a potentially libelous comment. Brilliant libel lawyers like Angelo Fornolles would tell you that the laughter, canned or not, that accompanies or follows a defamatory comment would be proof of malice, an essential element of the crime.
Explaining that the laughter was unintentional, being the result of misplaced or excited fingers, would sound lame before a prosecutor or a judge.
That the laughter tape is repeatedly played, after every verbal jab at the target of attack, would even prove meanness and ill-will.
Short of risking a libel suit, which can be scary if the journalist cannot set up the defense of good faith and absence of malice, is the danger of annoying the listener by drowning out what is said by the shrieks of someone laughing out loud-–and of losing a big chunk of one’s public.