How “Breaking News” Broke the News

Breaking news used to be “news of transcendent importance.” Now it’s a joke.

Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. Cable news started overusing the “breaking news” alert after Sept. 11.

TMZ got the news up first, 3:30 p.m. ET. Dick Clark was dead at 82, felled by a “massive heart attack.” Because I follow TMZ on Twitter, I got the newsbreak at 3:31. Because a lot of the people I follow also follow TMZ, Clark’s death was announced, analyzed, and (sorry, this is Twitter) joked about for 20 minutes. At 3:52 pm, the CNN app on my iPhone blurped and announced a message:

Television personality Dick Clark, the longtime host of “American Bandstand,” has died, a publicist says.

Two minutes later my phone shook again, startled by an alert from USA Today.

BREAKING NEWS: Dick Clark legendary TV entertainer, dies at 82.

Twenty-four minutes after the TMZ scoop, and this was breaking? How’s that supposed to work? Does “breaking news” have any meaning anymore?

Nope, almost none. I realize that the universe hardly needs another article about how social networks have Changed Everything. Sorry, universe: Facebook, Twitter, chats, and microblogs have Changed Everything. Anyone who’s online can learn news before national news channels report it. The proprietors of Facebook, Twitter, and microblog accounts know this, and they abuse their power like children suddenly placed into the cockpits of battle droids.

Do not judge these children, because they had terrible teachers. “Breaking news” is an old concept, codified by the Associated Press in 1906 when the wire wanted to designate “news of transcendent importance.” The AP used the term “FLASH.” Other news-breakers used “bulletin,” “alert,” whatever gave off the right “stop editing the crossword and print this” vibe. Something important had just happened. This news service had confirmed it. Now you knew.

This system was abused, obviously, and the misuse of “breaking” ramped up with the birth of cable news. We should cleave TV from the rest of the media—the Internet doesn’t need to be blamed for all the sins of harried 24-hour news merchants. But TV and the Internet got drunk on “breaking” on the same day. It was Sept. 11, 2001. Three cable networks and an evolving blogosphere had a story that changed minute-to-minute, with confusing details and rumors out of nowhere and, eventually, a hot war in central Asia.

Constant “breaking” news alerts made sense in those weeks. And then the news cycle slowed down. The TV channels shrugged and kept using “breaking” and “alerts” at a greater pace than ever. “It got trivialized and people couldn’t unring the bell,” says Craig Allen, a professor at Arizona State and a historian of TV news. “It’s just horrible now. We’ve got TVs on the wall I walk past in the morning. My eye is trained to notice a ‘BREAKING’ alert and pay more attention. So is yours. But half the time I see an alert, and it turns out it’s somebody announcing an announcement of an announcement of a news conference.”

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.

At 9 a.m., the Fox show America’s Newsroom began with an ALERT about “new details in the Secret Service scandal.” The details had been broken by other media hours earlier.  At 9:07 a.m., Fox ALERTED me that something had “just crossed the wires”—a lousy jobless report, 386,000 new claims, coming out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At 9:59 a.m., Fox ALERTED me to the static scene outside the Air and Space Museum, where the space shuttle Discovery would eventually be escorted to its resting place by some astronauts. One minute later, I got an ALERT that “the White House has issued an ultimatum to Paul Ryan.”

Absolutely none of these things were breaking news. Hours later, MSNBC’s Alex Wagner interrupted her show twice with “breaking news here of a plane that went down off the coast of Florida.” This was breaking, sort of, in the sense that NBC’s reporters were getting the details themselves. But it was local Florida news masquerading as national news. And this was all before Fox News gave itself over to a high-speed car chase in Texas. (Disclosure: I’m a paid contributor to MSNBC, but this has no bearing on whether car chases are national news. They are not.)

Why does it matter if cable news alert standards have been watered down into pointlessness? Does the rest of media abide by their rules? No, they don’t, but they copy these rhythms anyway. If you’ve got a Twitter account or a blog, you can add “BREAKING” to news that 1) isn’t new or 2) didn’t actually come from you or 3) both. Yes, some news is uncovered by hard-nosed 24-year old reporters in the Pittsburgh metro area. But you can claim that anything is “breaking,” even if you had nothing to do with “breaking” it. On April 9, ThinkProgress assigned the “BREAKING” tag to a story about George Zimmerman launching a website about his case, even though NBC News noticed it first.

“I try to use BREAKING when something is genuinely new,” explains Judd Legum, who runs ThinkProgress’s Twitter account. “This can sometimes mean that ThinkProgress is first with the story, but can also just indicate that story was recently broken by another outlet. Determining what’s recent I think is more of an art than a science. I do think it has become overused and clichéd and I’ll cop to being part of the problem sometimes.”

Clichés get to be that way because people adore them. “Breaking” is a cliché because it’s fun to sprint up the watchtower and take credit for the news. The new, abused style of “breaking” has been perfected by BreakingNews.com, a startup (part of MSNBC.com, now) that aggregates the news that just broke somewhere else. Nearly 4 million people follow it on Twitter, getting that little hiccup-thrill that comes with BREAKING news based on the decisions of 12 people working in New York, Seattle, and London. On Friday, they got alerts like “Mystery disease kills 19, sickens 171 others in central Vietnam; country asks WHO for help in investigation” and “Mali’s ex-president Amadou Toumani Toure arrives in Senegal nearly 1 month after coup, Senegalese state radio reports,” and “Bahrain’s Crown Prince says canceling Sunday’s Formula 1 Grand Prix ‘would just empower extremists,’ ” all alerts credited to other sources.

“We can’t independently verify everything run by a news organization,” explains BreakingNews general manager Cory Bergman, “but we can cross-reference what’s running on different ones.” Let’s go back to the Dick Clark example. BreakingNews beat the AP to the news. How? “We saw TMZ tweet their news immediately, but we waited for a second source, and we got it when KABC in Los Angeles reported it.” It’s like the old Mr. Show sketch about the station with reporters who find out where other reporters are breaking news, and hold up their microphones to “bring it exclusively to you.”

It probably reads like I’m sitting in judgment, with a portrait of Joseph Pulitzer on my left and a Poynter questionnaire on my right. I’m not. I do the exact same thing as the phony Breakers when I retweet or excerpt some news. Everybody on Twitter does. The only difference—and again, we’re leaving aside honest-to-God scoops—is between the people using “BREAKING” sarcastically and the sources that use it seriously, special sauce to get more clicks and eyeballs. “I do use ‘exclusive’ if I want to stress the point we had something first,” offers Ben Smith, the editor of BuzzFeed. “But ‘breaking’ has always felt redundant to me. Why write something old?”

Well, one reason to do it is to stimulate the lizard brain and get people to think you’ve got some original news. A few weeks ago, in some midpriced hotel in some primary state that Mitt Romney was about to lose, I flipped on the TV and saw a screaming blue chryon: BREAKING NEWS. I braced myself. My reward: Absolutely nothing. Regular programming was over for the night and I was watching an infomercial about some snake oil that would improve my sudoku scores. The full chyron was “BREAKING NEWS: Boost Brain Power and Memory Naturally.” The show was a parody of a real TV show, with an unthreateningly attractive host interviewing an unthreateningly attractive doctor. The “breaking” tag was a joke. As it should be.