When does a breaking news story stop breaking?

Just before six am on Wednesday morning (UK time) Mitt Romney, the Republican former Governor of Massachusetts, took to a stage in Boston to concede defeat in the 2012 US Presidential election. Pictures from that event were carried live around the World with rolling news channels slapping a “Breaking News” banner across their screens reading “Obama wins US election”.

Just after five pm that afternoon I walked past a TV screen showing the BBC News Channel which was, quite rightly, still covering the result of the US election and still with the breaking news banner announcing “Obama wins US election.”

Later still that same evening – around 9.30 pm – I flicked onto the BBC News Channel again to be confronted with the same breaking news banner still reading “Obama wins US election.” Having learned this news many hours earlier I couldn’t help but wonder: when does a breaking news story stop breaking?

24 hour rolling news channels are still a relatively new thing in the UK. 15 years ago this very day the BBC launched its first digital channel: BBC News 24 with Gavin Esler as lead anchor (happy birthday News Channel). The BBC was, admittedly, late to the game behind other rolling channels – most notably – Sky News. Collectively they have all become much slicker operations since those early days however, they still suffer from the basic problem that if you watch them for more than about 30 minutes they are repetitive and rather dull.

Enter “Breaking News” in an effort to bring a little pazzazz to the coverage.

Breaking News is exciting – it adds drama to news output that can otherwise be quite mundane. However, Breaking News seems to have become less an alert to viewers that they’re about to get some new information and more a tool in a competitive race among broadcasters to be the first with the story, with the most comprehensive analysis – on the scene – with the best location to provide rolling coverage of events.

Critics of this race to be first point out that when a story breaks it often means that details are sketchy mainly due to the fact that facts are thin on the ground (how many times have we seen rolling news coverage of natural disasters where guesses have been made about the death toll?), and frequently it is used by rolling news channels to fill time. Others say that breaking news has become so commonly used that it has devalued genuinely important events as they happen.

Breaking news tags are now frequently used when there are new developments within stories that have become a little whiskery. Which brings me back to my original question; when does genuinely breaking news stop breaking?

BBC news editors may well argue that even by 9:30 pm on Wednesday evening some of the audience would not have known that Barack Obama had been re-elected President of the United States. But is it still breaking news? Had the story not moved on by then to be something like Obama returns to Washington after securing victory in US election – or, as was the case when I tuned in, Obama gets on a plane after victory in US election?

It seems to me that slugging a story as breaking news more than 15 hours after it first broke is stretching it a little, particularly now that we all live in a global 24 hour, social media fuelled news environment.

Back in the days when breaking news was delivered by an embarrassed producer sneaking onto set with a few important words scribbled on a piece of paper, followed by the presenter saying “news just in..” breaking news was short, sharp and to the point. I am not advocating that we return to that but perhaps it’s time for news editors to reassess just how long a breaking story can last?

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