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
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
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.
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.