Thursday, August 2, 2007

When Breaking News Isn't

Our top story tonight: Generallissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.
- Chevy Chase during "Weekend Update" on the Dec. 13, 1975 episode of "Saturday Night Live"

Last night, before I went to bed, I turned on CNN for a second and a "Breaking News" on-screen super caught my attention. I then noted that the breaking news in question was the bridge collapse in Minnesota that had happened earlier that day. I figured that there must have been some update, some new news about the cause or aftermath of the tragedy. I figured wrong.

What was "breaking" about the news? Nothing. It was more than five hours old.

This morning, I woke up and put on CNN and, once again, was taken in by the "Breaking News" graphic. Failing to heed the well-known "fool me once" rule, I again figured that some big piece of news from the collapse had emerged. Nope. The bridge collapse's existence a day earlier was still the "breaking" news.

Didn't the fine individuals who run the CNN newscasts take Intro to Journalism in college? Sadly, I suspect they know full well what breaking news is, but they choose to ignore it to suck in viewers. That's not much better.

While the definition of "breaking news" should be obvious, I felt like maybe I was missing something. So, I Googled the term "breaking news," and I found the following definition in an article posted on, "an online resource center for television and radio newsrooms, focused on improving journalism" (according to the website):

"Breaking or non-routine news is defined as hard, unplanned news that takes the newsroom by surprise, such as a plane crash or earthquake. Breaking news cannot be predicted."

So, when the bridge collapsed yesterday, it was breaking news. If investigators announce the reason for the collapse, that will be breaking news. Talking about a day-old news event? Not so much.

In fairness, it's not just CNN. The article looked at CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, and, not surprisingly, found President Bush's propaganda arm to be the biggest offender. But, since I watch CNN and not Fox News, and since CNN was the offender in this case, I am taking them to task.

As I said, the use of a "Breaking News" on-screen super is meant to get people's attention and keep them watching. In and of itself, CNN's decision to hype up the timeliness of a story to get viewers is not the absolute worst thing in the world. What bothers me about this issue is that it is part of a bigger problem, namely that since the bridge collapsed, virtually all CNN seems to be covering is this one tragedy. They have company, as most of the network morning shows seemed to be locked in on the collapse.

There is no doubt that the events in Minnesota constitute a real news story that should be addressed in depth. But, it is not the only important news going on. Instead, it is the kind of "it could have been me" tragedy that gets viewers' attention. And CNN and the other news organizations are all too happy to latch onto the story with a ferocity only matched by an arrest of a young celebrity party girl (Lindsay, Britney, Paris and Nicole, mainly) or the disappearance and/or murder of a young attractive white woman, especially if she is pregnant.

As I write this, four people are confirmed dead and up to 30 more are missing in Minnesota. Absolutely a true tragedy. But, in Iraq today, at least 13 people were killed in a suicide bombing, and yet it barely gets a mention amidst the Minnesota coverage. Two South Koreans have been killed by the Taliban, with 21 more being held, and the U.S. and South Korea announced today that no force will be used to free the hostages. Again, an important story involving the potential loss of multiple lives, but you wouldn't know it from watching CNN. We have stories about the Bush administration failing to live up to promises to award Katrina-related contracts to small Gulf Coast businesses, the Secretary of Defense admitting that the U.S. miscalculated the ability of the Iraqi government to pass reforms, and the flap over Sen. Barak Obama's statements about attacking Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, but all of it has taken a back seat to the Minnesota tragedy.

The press is an important piece of the democratic system, assigned the responsibility of overseeing the work of the government, both to inform the electorate and expose wrongdoing. When the news is dedicated for an entire day to one tragic story like the bridge collapse, the news outlets are not doing their jobs. Updating the Minnesota situation for five minutes once an hour? Great. Updating the rest of the world's news in a five-minute break while the rest of the hour is dedicated to one tragic bridge collapse? An irresponsible grab for ratings.

When I see the "Breaking News" graphic on CNN attached to a day-old news event, I can't help but think of the classic "Franco is still dead" bit Chevy Chase employed on "Saturday Night Live" more than 30 years ago. That "Weekend Update" segment should be required viewing for all CNN executives. At a time when John Stewart and Bill Maher seem to have a better idea of what is important than the "real" news providers, it shouldn't be so shocking to think that CNN could learn something from a classic moment in television comedy. At the very least, the executives would get a laugh. Unfortunately, not much CNN does now leaves me in laughing mood.