Friday, May 11, 2012

Breaking news is broken

The Post Register doesn’t do a lot of “breaking news.”
This is a studied decision. Most of what passes for breaking news these days amounts to either trivia or a splash of information that turns out to be wrong or, at the very least, incomplete.
When urgent matters of general interest happen in eastern Idaho – a civil disaster, a dangerous criminal on the loose putting people at risk, that sort of thing – we’re the first to go out with a “breaking news” alert. While we regularly update our web site, we’re pretty circumspect when it comes to sending out a breaking news email.
We also don’t cover things like bomb threats, unless there is an obvious public interest to do so. Why? First, people potentially directly affected by a bomb threat already have the information. Usually, it’s a school or some other public facility. Second, publicizing every bomb threat can actually go against the public interest. We believe we’ll encourage the next person inclined to make a threat if they know it’ll hit the Internet and the newspaper.
This is fresh on our minds after a local high school was evacuated recently when a written threat was discovered in the building. A number of local news sites went out with a series of breathless “breaking news” updates. Of course, the threat turned out to be bogus.
"But what if it had been real?” you might reasonably ask. “Wouldn’t you feel a little sheepish then?” The people who need to know about the threat – those inside the building in question – are not likely to see our post, and we’re not helping the situation by sending it. We are, however, sending parents or loved ones into a panic. Schools and other organizations most likely to be the target of these threats are generally in the best position to deal with them.
This policy is not new – we have followed it at the Post Register for many years. We think it has served us, and you, well.
We are making one change – when a threat creates a highly visible event like the total evacuation of a public building, we’ll follow up with a short story in the next day’s paper.
All of this sounds sort of old-fashioned when the world seems to be moving at light speed, quite literally. We continue to believe, however, that inaccurate information received quickly is a bad thing. So, unless there is a compelling and obvious reason to make a post or send a breaking news alert – and determining that is more art than science – we don’t do it. We hope that you’ll know that when we do send one, it’s legitimate. 

(Disclaimer: I stole the idea for this headline from a story on Salon. Or was it Slate?)

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