In June 2022, new CNN CEO Chris Licht issued a memo to staffers to reduce the network’s usage of the “breaking news” graphic on air.
“Something I have heard from both people inside and outside the organization is complaints we overuse the ‘Breaking News’ banner,” Licht wrote in a copy of the memo obtained by Variety. “I agree. It has become such a fixture on every channel and network that its impact has become lost on the audience.”
But Licht wasn’t the first person at CNN to notice.
“We way overuse ‘breaking news,’” Licht’s predecessor, Jeff Zucker, noted years earlier. “All television networks do that.”
It isn’t just CNN. Breaking news graphics are also used regularly in local news, online and on the big three evening news programs. While “breaking news” may capture an audiences’ attention, news outlets have to walk a fine line when quickly releasing information.
Being reliable, especially in a moment of breaking news, is the most important thing a news organization can be, said Leigh Munsil, editor-in-chief of the nonprofit San Antonio Report. Audiences know what breaking news isn’t breaking and what is really first or an exclusive. But there isn’t a one size fits all.
“We are always making trades with our audience when it comes to trust versus attention,” Munsil said. “Trust is so fragile that each decision we make with framing could have a short-term positive but long-term negative [effect].”
Munsil recently hired a breaking news reporter and was deliberate on the kind of approach she wanted the role to have. While it provided flexibility to help with the work of her other reporters, she felt like San Antonio had been done a disservice in the realm of local news, especially with television news’ focus on “if it bleeds, it leads.” Munsil wanted the breaking news reporter’s approach to be thoughtful and sensitive, not something done for the sake of clicks.
“We are members of the community first and we should approach breaking news in that sense,” Munsil said. “I love breaking news. I care about it a lot. I’d rather have a responsible, explained tone than a breathless tone.”
Munsil remains concerned about mistrust and misinformation in both breaking news and non-breaking news, particularly if something online turns out to be wrong and needs to be corrected. Because a correction would rarely reach the same people twice, and misinformation may flourish, there is additional pressure when covering breaking news.
“It is a reason to be cautious at the beginning of a breaking news story, for there is the most attention there,” Munsil said. “You can try to fix it but you may never be able to have the same kind of impact.”
Emily Lawler, political editor for the Detroit Free Press, knows what is at stake in an age of misinformation, and has tried to set the Free Press up as a trustworthy source. She’s cognizant about the role breaking news has in her plans, from meaningfully covering campaigns to writing about policy changes.
“I’ve seen people rush to publish what ends up being either not the full story or not completely accurate, but I’ve seen news organizations take pause and be deliberative about what they are putting out there,” Lawler said. “To some extent, news organizations differentiate themselves based on those decisions. It can be a strategic decision. We have worked to be careful and set ourselves apart from sources or social media sources that have created mistrust especially around politics.”
Neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states. Journalists should take responsibility for the accuracy of their work and verify information before releasing it. Setting up a process in advance can help ensure this. Geoff Bennett, co-anchor of PBSNewsHour, says new outlets should be clear about how they source information and when there will be a greenlight to disseminate it — a lesson he learned while covering former President Donald Trump.
“You have to be deliberate about it at the outset and have a plan in place,” Bennett said. “The way people consume reporting has changed dramatically and the way we put information out into the world is not the way it is always received. The antidote to misinformation is reporting and more transparency.”
Ultimately, it comes down to one question – why should people trust you? Lawler maintains getting the facts, and getting it right, will always be crucial in remaining trustworthy sources for people to get essential information, even in a messy landscape.
“We have to be more careful than ever because people are getting news that is hastily published and information that is repeated in an echo-chamber,” Lawler said. “Professionalism sets us apart. I won’t sacrifice it for speed. I’ve passed on stories that ultimately are breaking news but not central to reader interest or not verifiable or able to fact check. Being right is extremely important in this era of deciding what news people trust. I want to be on the list of sources people can trust.”
NOTE: A spokesperson for CNN did not respond to a request for comment about Licht’s memo. A spokesperson for NBC said the network does not publicly discuss its editorial policies. Spokespersons for ABC and CBS did not respond to requests seeking comment about their breaking news policies.
Alex Veeneman, a longtime SPJ member, is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.
Tagged under: Ethics