Sometimes, no explanation is needed when a broadcast TV network or a local affiliate station interrupts programming for breaking news. The 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. A tornado on the ground heading for your city.
These days, there seems to be a glut of breaking news on TV and not always because of emergencies. Even a routine 6 o'clock local newscast is full of breaking news stories that appear to be several hours old.
While technology makes it easier to get information to the public faster, that's not the only reason viewers are pummeled by non-ending breaking news coverage. There are three other reasons it's so rampant in TV news.
The Need for TV News to Stay Relevant
Consider the 12 events that changed news coverage. For many of them, TV was the best way to get information.
Even considering that most people had Internet access during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, TV provided the most compelling look at the horrific drama that the nation witnessed. The Internet only had photos, primitive video, and old-style message boards for sharing thoughts and opinions.
That's all changed. Today, viewers can get everything they need online, including live video. That leaves TV networks and stations trying to catch up with the multitude of websites and social media outlets that are providing the same (if not better) coverage. While networks and stations have their online platforms, they still make the bulk of their revenue through on-air TV advertising.
That means to survive; they need eyeballs watching TV. The best way to compete with instantaneous online news is by mimicking the "right now" aspect of stories. Maybe a murder happened 15 hours ago, but if police haven't made an arrest, the focus of a story can be "Breaking News: Killer Still on the Run," instead of the past-tense "Cleveland Man Found Gunned Down Overnight."
Research Shows People Want News Immediately
In this age of instant gratification, it's no surprise that everyone wants everything right now, from a unique coffee concoction at Starbucks to having the lights come back on during a winter storm power outage. People don't think they should have to wait for news.
Focus group research shows that generally, the station or network that is considered the best at covering breaking news can expect to be number one in the Nielsen ratings.
A top-rated station or network gets bragging rights and can generate more advertising revenue for their larger audience. So, money is on the line, if only more breaking news can be found.
Shrewd viewers can usually spot most of the contrived breaking news. Either the story is too old to be breaking, or it's too unimportant. In the past, a highway fender-bender in a large city that injures no one didn't make it onto the air. Now, you may find a news anchor breathlessly describing the scene, with large text that says "Breaking News: Highway Headache" at the bottom of the screen.
Breaking News Can Be Easy to Cover
There's another reason you see so much breaking news -- it's easy to cover. Sure, someone in the newsroom has to listen to the police scanner. But after that, it's just a fast trip to the scene, and a news reporter has her story for the day.
Many local stations are producing more newscasts than ever before, such as morning shows that last for hours, news in the afternoons in addition to the traditional 6 o'clock and late news time slots. Cable news channels like CNN have a 24/7 news hole to fill.
Finding breaking news is the simplest way to generate content. That's why you see local stations and CNN staying with a story for so long. The tornado may have disappeared hours ago, but as long as you have a live TV camera pointing at the damage, a reporter can stay on the air and talk to survivor after survivor.
Devoting a news department to breaking news is far easier than trying to produce 60 Minutes-style investigative reporting. Those stories can take months to research, write, and produce. Chasing car crashes takes far less effort.