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When cable networks break in and why
By Andrea Miller, LSU

All three cable news networks have strayed from the traditional definition of "breaking news" but Fox News Channel uses the label far more liberally than the others. The definition has changed so much that a breaking news label is no longer helpful to viewers trying to determine the relative importance of what's on the news. That's the conclusion of our study, which sought to determine if breaking news means something different in today's 24-hour news world.

Breaking or non-routine news is defined as hard, unplanned news that takes the newsroom by surprise, such as a plane crash or earthquake. Breaking news cannot be predicted. However the industry is using breaking news as a label for more than just unplanned, hard news.

A content analysis of two constructed weeks of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC was used to explore how often the networks “break in” and what types of stories are labeled “breaking.” The networks were videotaped 24-hours a day for two weeks in 2004. The days of the week were randomly selected from the months of February (ratings period) and September (non-ratings period) for a total of 1008 hours of news coverage. Each cable network labels its breaking news differently: Fox News uses “News Alert,” MSNBC uses “Flash News,” and CNN uses “Just In.”

Of the 474 breaking news stories aired on all three cable networks over the two weeks, 19.8 percent were planned events that do not fit under the current definition of non-routine news. Fox News was the most frequent violator, breaking in three times as often with stories it deems as important and unplanned.

In one 24-hour period in February, Fox News flashed the “News Alert” 48 times or an average of at least twice every hour. In September, when four Hurricanes hit Florida in as many weeks, Fox News even changed its standard “News Alert” graphic and verbiage to say and read “Hurricane Alert.” CNN and MSNBC did air significantly less breaking news. However, all of the networks were guilty of trying to elicit attention from viewers by passing off planned news events as newly discovered breaking events.

A major finding of this study is the difference in the number of breaking news stories aired in a sweeps month (309) compared to a non-sweeps month (165). The amount of news labeled as breaking almost doubled between the two weeks and was consistent across networks.

Weather and politics were the most frequent breaking news stories. Celebrity news also made a strong appearance in both the sweeps and non-sweeps weeks, accounting for 7% of breaking news stories. Fox News appears to be the spoiler: What is breaking news to Fox News may not be breaking news to CNN or MSNBC. For example, President Bush or presidential candidate John Kerry speaking to a group of people during a campaign visit warranted “News Alerts” from Fox News, but they were labeled live news events by MSNBC and CNN.

There appear to be some constants among categories that fit the traditional definition. Terrorism and the war in Iraq were consistently in the top five categories for all the networks’ breaking news coverage across both months. All of these events were surprise events – fitting the traditional definition of a breaking news story. However, another traditional category, crime, did not rank at the top in September. More breaking crime news aired in sweeps than in non-sweeps. An examination of the pattern of categories for news in February shows the networks had a similar idea of what breaking news was that month – as opposed to September where there was no consistent pattern of stories across networks.

Based on these findings and a growing body of evidence, we believe television news has redefined breaking news. Television breaking news can be either planned and unplanned, hard or soft news that crosses a newsworthiness threshold based on new content and/or live visuals. Breaking news 1) is reported immediately, 2) contains new information (expected or unexpected) and 3) is most often market-based (chosen to increase ratings).

This study shows that breaking news stories do not have to be surprising or even important – but they do need to include new information. If this is the case, any story can be breaking news at any time when new information is introduced. Thus, labeling a story as breaking raises a question of credibility for the individual news outlets. Can viewers trust news outlets to emphasize the stories that are immediately important to them? If the practitioners cannot define breaking news for viewers consistently, viewers are sent conflicting messages. The difficulty lies then in viewers trying to establish for themselves what stories are important and relevant.

When disaster strikes, it rarely comes with its meaning branded on its forehead. Broadcasters must determine, as quickly as possible, what has happened, what it means, and its magnitude or importance (Scannell, 2004). Viewers must rely on the news outlets to make these decisions for them and in their best interest. This evaluation period is part of the journalists’ job: It is part of their duty. In this “go, go, go,” “now, now, now” world of television news, this evaluative period is often foregone and replaced with a “run it now live and see what happens” attitude. The prevailing belief is not that this story is important enough to report now, but that this story comes with an anticipation or possibility of new information. Networks may now feel that all new information must be presented as breaking for fear of being scooped by the competition.

In a news world saturated with cable outlets and tickers, animated opens and squeezeboxes, attention-getting news is ratings gold. The industry knows that ratings rise in times of crisis. Yet attempts to gain attention with breaking news may backfire as viewers’ tire of the constant, yet often-false stimulation.

Andrea Miller is an assistant professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. She was a producer at KTVT-TV in Fort Worth, Texas, for five years and has also worked at stations in Dallas and Amarillo. A version of this research paper, written with Lesa Hatley-Major, was presented at the 2005 AEJMC convention in San Antonio.



Page Last Updated
January 15, 2009

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