How “Breaking News” Broke the News

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April 20 2012 3:59 PM

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.
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:

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

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.

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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.