Breaking news! (Not really)


When is “breaking news” not “breaking news”? Reader DF of Arlington, Virginia, observes on Facebook:

“How about the overused phrase ‘breaking news’ which seems to have lost all meaning. … Today the breaking news was that Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were campaigning together. Seriously? It’s been planned since last week, that ain’t breaking anything.”

DF, you’re absolutely right. No matter how many flashing red “BREAKING NEWS” graphics the cable news networks paste over scheduled speeches and minor developments, they just aren’t breaking news. Even Donald Trump, despite his propensity to go off-script, isn’t breaking news at his rallies. (Well, usually.) After all, everybody knew they were going to happen.

By definition, “breaking news” is, well, news. It carries with it the whiff of the instantaneous, so if the baseball All-Star Game isn’t breaking news, the score at the moment it’s over is. (4-2 by the Junior Circuit, incidentally. Since I’m writing this at about 11 a.m. Wednesday, this is not breaking news.)

But the term used to be used sparingly. It conveyed importance and surprise. (The only service I subscribe to that called the All-Star Game result “breaking” was ESPN, which has a vested interest in promoting it.) Now it’s routine, thrown up whenever there’s not so much news, but at best a development.

The decline of “breaking news” is no doubt related to the rise of the 24-hour news cycle, when the object is to hold the viewer with phony breathlessness, not so much inform. David Weigel wrote a piece about the situation in 2012; the Huffington Post made fun of my old employer, CNN, for touting the 102nd anniversary of the Titanic sinking as “breaking news.”

Jon Stewart had a good deal of fun with CNN’s breathlessness in 2013.

I’m not sure there’s a solution. The term is now a cliche, practically stripped of meaning. (Yesterday, the BBC called the departure of dancing show judge Len Goodman “breaking news.” Surprising? Perhaps. But important? Maybe to the British equivalent of “Entertainment Tonight,” but coming from the BBC …) I’d argue it’s worse on television than online, because the nature of the Internet is hopping from site to site, whereas the cable TV news networks want to make sure you don’t change the channel. Hence any live development — no matter how scheduled — becomes “breaking news.”

Perhaps a Reddit poster put it best.

“The way they do things now reminds me of the movie ‘Scrooged,’ ” writer Cardo44 said. “Bill Murray’s character says that he doesn’t want people to want to watch his show, he wants everyone to be scared to death to miss it. That’s what the news does anymore.”

Does this mean the terrorists have won? Tune in tomorrow!

(Thanks to AW for also noting this in a Facebook post. Obviously, there’s something in the ether.)




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