The Breaking News Epidemic

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in 2015 but is just as timely–perhaps even more timely–today than when it was first released. We are going into a period of extended “breaking news” interruptions due to the chaos in Washington and the 2020 Election Year Cycle, so it’s not a bad idea to revisit the original piece and to inform critical thinking that can differentiate between a news item that is truly important and worth of the “breaking news” tag, or just a blatant attempt to gain clicks or viewers. Sometimes the best way to understand the future is to look at the past.

Paying Attention: No doubt, we know precisely where the current “breaking news” /”breaking alert” epidemic started: September 11th, 2001. On that day, every news channel and every broadcast station was bombarded with news, news feeds, photos, videos, interviews, theories, conflicting reports about the Twin Towers attack. So much information was coming in so fast and from so many different sources, and the market was so hungry for it, that each new story line was branded as one of “breaking news”–a category of news status that is reserved for the highest, latest, most important information. In the past, breaking news stories were those stories big and important enough to “break into” existing broadcasting programming with short segments on the event in focus–one that was frequently in progress even as the news story covering it was running.
One of the most famous such stories in modern history was when CBS News and Walter Cronkite broke the news  with a CBS News Bulletin about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  But, it was 911 that brought the “Breaking News” label back into popular media deployment (along with the bottom headline ticker, introduced so that multiple streams of information could be delivered simultaneously on a television screen) and as news producers, directors and editors learned that the breaking news label had the power to gather more attention (and ratings), “Breaking News” went from something really, really important to a label applied to some rather mundane stuff.  And, of course, as is the case with anything that is over-used, the public gets numb after a while and “Breaking News” as a label of importance suffers importance degradation.
The most egregious promoters of “Breaking News” overuse are–who else–the folks at Fox News, who continuously  run “News Alert” and “Breaking News” labels continuously on their telecasts. Roger Alies, the head of Fox News, is the best in the business but he has a tabloid attitude–one no doubt inherited from his boss, the one-and-only Rupert Murdoch, a tabloid newspaperman without peer in our time.
The problem with “breaking news” and “news alerts” heading is the same problem laid out decades ago in the fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. If you do it too much, do it too often, do it for stories large and stories small, then soon enough your audience (market) becomes numb to the heading and the words and their meaning just become digital wallpaper on the screen, without significance because they are present on every show, and on every screen.
Breaking News works best when it’s important, necessary, urgent. A little restraint on  news producer’s part would salvage the power of this prime communications tool. But–we do not live in an era of restraint and, ultimately, it is up to you–the viewer–to determine whether the item scrolling along the bottom of the screen or cutting into “regularly scheduled program in progress” is really breaking news or just a programming gimmick.