Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Breaking Point

Yesterday, I was on a little errand at the airport that led to me standing in a waiting area for a few minutes, subjected to CNN. I'd nearly forgotten what watching CNN is like. We don't get that channel in our house, and I apparently became spoiled by those several blissful years abroad watching CNN International, which isn't anywhere near as inane or sensationalist. Anyway, there I was, and Wolf Blitzer alerted me to some "breaking news": that in their latest poll, Donald Trump led by more points than ever, and soon he would be holding a rally, for which CNN was "standing by."

Breaking news?  As the kids say, Wolf, I don't think those words mean what you think they mean.

Breaking news refers to an ongoing situation, a story that is developing even as it is being covered. It is not -- I repeat, NOT -- a synonym for "a new story." They are not the same thing. That's what we have the word "news" for. Adding "breaking" is adding another element. Journalists are not reporting "breaking news" when they report "something exciting." The results of a poll, any poll, are in no way on this or any other planet "breaking news." They are in fact the very opposite: poll results are planned, anticipated, and in fact in the case of this CNN-conducted poll, manufactured by the very entity that then "reports" on it. Neither, by the way, is a campaign rally that is about to start breaking news.

Essentially, this ridiculous use of the term made me want to throw things at the TV. Instead, I'm going to throw some actual examples of breaking news out there to help people understand the difference. (Are you reading this, CNN producers??) Let's take a look at some of the recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize in the Breaking News category:

Most recently, the staff of The Seattle Times won the Breaking News Reporting Pulitzer for, and I'm quoting the official Pulitzer web site here, "its digital account of a landslide that killed 43 people and the impressive follow-up reporting that explored whether the calamity could have been avoided."

Contrast that with the most recent winners in other categories, such as Explanatory Reporting (Bloomberg News' Zachary Mider's "clear and entertaining" explanations of how corporations dodge taxes) and Investigative Reporting (shared by The New York Times' Eric Lipton on how lobbyists sway legislators and attorneys general and The Wall Street Journal for their "Medicare Unmasked" project). 

Previous Breaking News Reporting winners include: 

  • The Boston Globe, for its "exhaustive and empathetic coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing"
  • The Denver Post for coverage of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, "using journalistic tools, from Twitter and Facebook to video and written reports, both to capture a breaking story and provide context"
  • The Tuscaloosa News,  for "enterprising coverage of a deadly tornado" even when power interruptions forced them to publish at a plant 50 miles away
  • The Washington Post, for "telling the developing story" of the Virginia Tech shooting in print and online
  • The Times-Picayune of New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina coverage, "overcoming desperate conditions facing the city and the newspaper"
Does this help, CNN, et.al.? Do you see what happens in breaking news coverage?  

If not, could you maybe try reading a few more newspapers until you figure it out?

Come on, even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is excited about journalism these days, having bestowed the Best Picture Oscar on Spotlight the other day. Journalism is great! Get your vocabulary right, everybody.

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