There's been much discussion in the local-TV-news business and by those who watch it about the proliferation of “breaking news” on stations. As Audrey Shelton, a viewer, complained to the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal TV columnist Tom Dorsey last month, “Most of the breaking-news stories are way overblown, incomplete and lack depth. Every station does it.” Two other Louisville viewers complained to Dorsey that “every story aired is BREAKING NEWS!” (Their caps, not mine).
And it's not just viewers in Louisville who are recognizing that breaking news very often is not news in the first place.
“I am so sick of 'breaking news,' I have almost quit watching TV. It has been so overused that no one pays attention anymore,” says Debbie Eades, a member of a Cincinnati Enquirer readers' panel for TV polled by that paper's veteran critic, John Kiesewetter.
Why has “breaking news” become an epidemic? I agreed with Bill Lamb, president and general manager of Louisville's WDRB and WFTE, when he wrote on a Website, “This tactic is just hype and trickery designed to fool the audience into thinking their station is on top of more news than the other stations. … breaking news is a disturbing trend in local TV news.”
This overuse of the term “breaking news” is not new. It's just proliferating. In a June 2001 article, Deborah Potter, executive director of non-profit resource center NewsLab.org, quotes former KYW Philadelphia news legend Larry Kane lamenting that, in the race for ratings, stations have adapted the tactics of a carnival barker: Shout louder, and maybe they'll come to your tent.
“Stations call almost any news 'breaking' to hook the viewer, some of whom are getting wise to the scam,” he said.
Mostly, it's not breaking, and it's not even news; it's carefully crafted, manufactured news-like matter.
I remember, once in a market where I worked, our competitor's newscast put up a big, bold “breaking news” graphic and then showed a helicopter shot of a minor fender-bender on the freeway. The accident occurred several hours prior. No one was hurt, and even the police didn't come to the scene. We knew this because we had seen our own helicopter shoot it and our news department deemed it the non-event it was. But to our competition, it was deviously manufactured into “breaking news.”
What's at stake? NewsLab's Potter wrote, “Viewers who feel disappointed or deceived by the way stories are presented might just stop believing what they see. And that seems like far too high a price to pay.”
That's a dangerous practice anywhere that hurts the credibility of local TV news everywhere.