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CNN’s ‘key race alerts’ are out of control

At 9:32 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday, Wolf Blitzer interrupted coverage of what CNN (and pretty much no one else) called "Super Tuesday 4" to deliver a "key race alert." The news? The Democratic presidential primary in Connecticut was extremely close. Bernie Sanders led Hillary Clinton by 1.4 points with 39 percent of the vote counted.

At 9:40 p.m., Blitzer and his dramatic music were back, straight out of a commercial break. What urgent news demanded another key race alert just eight minutes after the last one? Connecticut was still very close, but now 41 percent of the vote was in, and Sanders's lead was down to 1.3 points.

This was CNN's eighth key race alert in the 100 minutes since polls had closed in five states at 8 p.m. — an impressive feat of chyron craziness but well short of what I believe to be the cable channel's record. That record? According to my calculations, there were a total of 13 key race alerts in a single hour as results in five states rolled in on March 15. That's one key race alert every four minutes, give or take.

Yes, I counted. I counted because these key race alerts are out of control.

They might not be so bad if they included projections of winners. A victory that pushes a candidate closer to a major-party nomination for president of the United States is, indeed, a "key" development in the race to which viewers would like to be "alerted." But, no, projections and key race alerts are separate categories with separate graphics.

There is also a third category — and another graphic — for breaking news. Ted Cruz is digging through Carly Fiorina's tax returns as part of the vice presidential vetting process? Apparently that's not a key race alert; that's breaking news.

Vox's Libby Nelson tried to figure out the hierarchy on Twitter:

So if a key race alert isn't a projection, and it isn't breaking news, then what the heck is it? Most often, it seems to be an incremental update on the vote count in a given contest (or contests). Such updates can be interesting — especially if a primary is close or the lead changes — but CNN doesn't reserve key race alert status for these occasions. Often, key race alerts simply don't live up to their billing. For example, the first wave of results from any state — sometimes less than 1 percent of the vote — almost always seems to qualify, however little it might say about the eventual winner.

It almost feels, at times, like a key race alert is a made-up thing meant to make a small thing sound like a much bigger thing than it really is, grabbing your attention with that jingle and a sense of immediacy, then quickly disappointing you.

A CNN executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, sought to clarify one point: Key race alerts, which are sponsored by Audi, are not an advertising gimmick.

"There is no pressure and no set numbers from the advertisers when it comes to CNN's key race alerts on election night," the executive said. "The sponsorship is unrelated to how often CNN uses the key race alert tool each election night."

CNN national correspondent Dianne Gallagher tweeted  Tuesday that she actually wants more key race alerts in her life.

But she might be the only one. All over Twitter on Tuesday, much like on previous primary nights, journalists and other viewers were grumbling about and/or mocking CNN's gratuitous hype.

Of course, CNN is hardly the only TV network to ever get carried away with splashy graphics and exciting bump music. During the last presidential election, The Washington Post's David Weigel took a hard look at overuse of "breaking news" in an article for Slate.

On Thursday morning, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., I engaged in a random test of the modern cable news "breaking" regime. You've probably already forgotten about Thursday morning. There were no surprises or celebrity deaths or arrests of bathroom-prowling senators. And yet between Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, I watched 19 news ALERTS explode across my Vizio.

Weigel concluded that "cable news alert standards have been watered down into pointlessness." He's right. And that's a problem because, at some point, all these alerts designed to grab viewers' attention start to have the opposite effect.

The risk for CNN, in this case, is that viewers will become desensitized and stop believing that key race alerts are anything of the kind. It's a credibility issue — probably not one that will erode trust in the fundamental accuracy of reporting but one that could eat away at faith in the cable channel's ability to triage the news.

That's not to say we should summarily do away with key race alerts. Just save that designation for truly significant developments.