Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Breaking news ain't what it used to be

Not all breaking news is created equal.

Usually, in fact, it’s nearly all “breaking” and nearly no “news.”

Because the media outlets (particularly local media) have the technology to do it, they like to take whatever information is fed to them by local law enforcement, or even information gleaned over police scanners, package it as “breaking news” and send out an e-mail blast.

While this might create the impression that a news organization has its finger on the pulse of a community, the truth is that it results in a lot of e-mail traffic that is less than newsworthy. The favorite thing lately is to send out breathless breaking news updates whenever someone is reported missing.

The result very often is a follow-up e-mail -- often within a matter of minutes -- saying that person has been found. This is what happens within law enforcement agencies 24/7. Reports are received, a good share of which turn out to be nothing at all -- maybe something like a dude walking around in a bunny costume.
Increasingly, news organizations make no attempt to vet this information -- to commit journalism. Because the technology allows it, they put it out there.

It’s no big deal, right? Isn’t more information a good thing? To be fair, I’ve talked to some cops who do like the idea that every, single missing person report becomes a breaking news, because sometimes that leads to tips. But there’s a problem here, too.

At what point do we stop paying attention to breaking news alerts after finding that the last two dozen were either nothing at all or were followed almost immediately with a “they’ve found her” e-mail. (Most recently, the time between the “missing” e-mail and the “found” e-mail was 19 minutes.)

Police reports, even when released through a trained information officer, are almost always incomplete at best. Journalists are trained to take the information and begin asking questions, getting answers and making decisions -- is this information that needs to go public right now, or do we need additional details? Is putting this information out now going to do more harm than good?

You might say that we should leave those decisions to the police, to which I’d respond that they have their areas of expertise and we have ours. We want to have a track record that allows our readers to trust that we’ll do some legwork before sending them a “breaking news” e-mail.

So, the Post Register releases precious few local “breaking news” reports on its web site and sends out even fewer breaking news e-mails. I can’t tell you how often, during our routine review of information, we learn that the details have changed or the person has been found. That’s just how it happens.

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