What 'Breaking News' Really Means In Today's World

Just about every time I tune in to an all-news TV channel, a bright red banner announces: BREAKING NEWS. At first I thought, there's so much fluff filling those 24-hour cycles, they post a banner when they're about to report an actual news item.
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Just about every time I tune in to an all-news TV channel, a bright red banner announces: BREAKING NEWS. At first I thought, there's so much fluff filling those 24-hour cycles, they post a banner when they're about to report an actual news item. Maybe that's how it started, but these days BREAKING NEWS pops up when two beer companies merge or a star quarterback is sidelined.

DEVELOPING NOW is another attention-seeking news show favorite. What? Is the Mississippi reaching flood level? A world leader at death's door? Oh, nothing like that. The first family is about to leave for Camp David.

Instead of listening to the banter among so-called news show hosts and their pride of pundits, try reading the banner streaming at the bottom of the screen. See a real news item? Google it.

Don't bother changing the channel. Like teenagers wearing slight variations on the same "in" look -- abandoning body paint for face flowers as if pulled by the same string -- every station gloms on to the same big story. So what if that story is more sensational than serious? No all-news all-day-and-night show could ignore the demise of Brangelina.

Note to producers of those 24/7 shows: your audience is on to you. Like the boy who cried wolf, how are you going to get our attention when there IS news, on the order of one NATO power invading another, or a tsunami threatening Hawaii?

Cable news is fading fast. Tweets spread the word instantly. Texts ping our phones with alerts. By the time we turn on a TV news show -- for those who still do -- there's little or no "breaking news" to learn that we don't already know. So the hosts chat with their like-minded guest panelists (a new gig for old pols), spew off-the-cuff opinions, and pander to our political persuasions: Fox for red, MSNBC for blue. They also show us weather trends in glorious graphics that never seem to answer "umbrella or no?"

My Dad trusted Edward R. Murrow's weekly news analysis like it came down from the mount. Mom? She watched too, while planning tomorrow's grocery list or wondering why cousin Gladys hadn't called all week. When we visited Grandpa and Grandma, I remember them shushing us when Walter Cronkite was on.

When Martin Luther King was shot, we hung on every word of non-partisan newscasters like Mr. Cronkite or his competitors, Huntley and Brinkley. Dr. King's assassination was breaking news. Back then when they interrupted regular broadcasting the banner read: "Special Report," because the bearers of news were reporters first, TV personalities a distant second.

My parents' jaws would have dropped to see today's "news shows" serve up a mélange of fact and opinion hot off the newsfeed, dishing it out to fill our voracious appetites for non-stop "infotainment." Fact-checking and filtering? Sacrificed on the altar of speed.

Speaking of fact-checking, we've come to rely on information obtained via crowdsourcing. Planning a trip? Consult TripAdvisor's user reviews. Going out to eat? Check YELP. Think those reviewers are just folks like you and me? Think again. Legislation pending in Congress aims to stop businesses from screening out negative reviews. What? They do that? Yup. Until the Consumer Review Freedom Act becomes law, restaurants and other rankings-sensitive businesses can go on doing what they have been all along: putting clauses in those "user agreements" that nobody reads that make it illegal to rain on their parade. So take those 4 and 5 star ratings with a grain of salt -- who knows how many 1 star reviews will never see the light of day?

Ever notice an Amazon reviewer who has a little "Vine Voice" badge under their name? Amazon invites certain customers to preview products; in return, they receive freebies of the products they review. Well, at least these Amazon reviewers identify themselves as such. Not so for many other sites. Many online vendors pay for positive reviews. Best bet? Heed the ancient warning: Caveat Emptor (let the buyer beware). But try telling that to today's "trending now" junkies!

And there's the rub. Ratings-driven TV and traffic-hungry websites must sacrifice their scruples to survive. Consumers of biased news and reviews? We're like players in a giant game of Telephone. But this isn't the game we played as kids; we're not playing with trusted friends and neighbors. Someone in the group may be deliberately distorting the message. Consider the source.

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