MSNBC uses ‘breaking news’ sidebar element during Roe decision coverage

Even as CNN has been cutting back on the term “breaking news,” MSNBC has appeared to add a graphical element that, quite literally, put the phrase on repeat.

During coverage of the key Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade’s constitution protection on abortions, MSNBC began running a line of repeating text reading “Breaking News” on the left side of the screen.

It’s not immediately clear when this started being used, though a review of recent MSNBC hours branded as breaking news did not show it previously.

Each use of the phrase, set in white, was divided with a yellow greater than symbol, a common typographic accent the network has used since redoing its wraparound graphics in 2021 and scrolled slowly from the bottom to the top of the screen.

When the scrolling text appeared on the left side of the screen, the background was filled with red and some subtle accents from the graphics package.

The network also used a tier reading “Breaking News” on its lower third banners as well as related animations in this space during coverage. 

The element appeared on-screen mainly when the network was showing boxed layouts, which is common during both standard and breaking news cable news coverage.

In some cases these boxes were used to show live feeds or B-roll footage as a correspondent or anchor appeared in one box, a common technique to avoid having someone just standing, talking to the camera on screen for long stretches of time. 

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In some cases, when boxed layouts stretched full width rather than leaving small margins on the left and right, much of the scrolling text was covered, which made it a bit hard to read though, again, at least one other “breaking news” label was still on screen most of the time.

Another application, a fullscreen graphic showing pages from the decision recreated as a digital deck with pull quote, the scrolling breaking news line actually appeared to be behind the “sheets” of paper — notice how the upper left corner of the far left sheet covers the “R” and the shadow behind it also interacts with text.

Speaking of the term “breaking news,” there’s been some high profile debate lately about the overuse of the term on cable and other newscasts, with MSNBC competitor CNN pledging to cut back on how often it uses the term.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade certainly warranted a breaking news label, and the network also opted to change its virtual set extensions red from their normal blue during much of the coverage, something that’s been possible since they were introduced in 2021.

It could be argued, however, that the network perhaps could have dropped using the phrase so much as time went by and the time the decision was announced faded into the past, though the release of Clarence Thomas’s later opinion that specifically questioned if landmark cases protecting marriage equality, access to contraception and privacy should also be revisited and, potentially, overturned as well, likely warranted returning to use the phrase.

In fact, this is a great example of how “continuing coverage” doesn’t mean “breaking news” — and how viewers could have been informed of what truly was a new, breaking development, had the network not continued to plaster the “B-word” everywhere for much of the day (it was also by no means the only network guilty of this).

The placement of the text, which means it must be read sideways, was interesting, but also mirrors some other graphics MSNBC has used since the most recent redesign, such as putting “MSNBC Reports” rotated 90-degrees counterclockwise on the video wall behind the Miami-based hour of “MSNBC Reports” anchored by José Díaz-Balart.

In some ways, it also reads as a ticker but, by turning it on its side, it’s likely that many viewers will catch on and realize it’s not meant to actually be read as a constantly updating stream of headlines, but rather to serve more as a way to give the screen an “active” feel and identify an important story being covered. 

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The ability to create graphics that were this close to the edge of the screen wasn’t possible for decades because the curved borders of tube-style TVs made it too hard to predict what might get cut off. With most people viewing on LCD or LED screens, whether on actual television or mobile devices, there’s been more freedom to use fullwidth designs that creep closer to the edges of the screen.

NBC and MSNBC has been a big proponent of this approach, often using it to run banners along the bottom of screens for special coverage and now, apparently, up the left side for breaking news looks.

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