The tyranny of breaking news

Posted by Richard Sambrook


You know how it is. You don’t visit Norway for forty years and then along come two conferences in two days – both in Oslo. Talking first to the Norwegian Online News Association and, the next day, to Norway’s public broadcaster NRK both conversations seemed to overlap in discussing the perils and challenges of breaking news in a real-time, highly competitive environment. We talked about the lessons of covering the Boston bombings and subsequent manhunt for mainstream news organisations and for social media.

For too long the narrative around breaking news is that social media is the place to go – its’ dynamism, openness and ability to network information leaving traditional media flat-footed in its wake.

Besides the well documented errors, I think Boston marked a point where that changed. Social media realised the virtues of verification before publishing and I think mainstream news showed it was learning to integrate the virtues of social media.

The pressure to be first trips up many people however – whatever the platform. I found myself saying – and I believe it – that in many ways being first is the least interesting thing about breaking news these days. Yet it is the principle criteria newsrooms seem to care about.

For breaking developments on a public event, being first only lasts about 30 seconds – after that, competitor channels or social media will also have picked it up. And most viewers or readers don’t know who has been first because, unlike newsrooms, they only watch one thing at a time. Far more interesting than an obsession with being first, would be an obsession with being right, or with context, analysis, explanation, or background.

I’m not naive enough to suppose newsrooms will wean themselves off their obsession with speed, so I offered three maxims to help:

“If you’re first and wrong, you’re not first”– It’s better to be second and right than first and wrong.

“Assume nothing” – most errors in breaking news come by assuming too much.

“Attribution is your friend” – saying what you know, and what you don’t know, and where it came from is the best way to navigate the fog of a highly confusing situation. It’s also being honest and open with the viewer.

Both conferences were good – at NRK’s conference we also heard from Michael Keller of Newsweek and the Daily Beast on the best practise for interactive design. His slides are here.

And at the end of the day, Steve Van Zandt of The Sopranos and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band was interviewed about his NRK co-produced series Lilyhammer. It’s distributed as part of Netflix original content strategy. But that’s another story.

(Update: if you are interested in how social media reported the Boston Bombings the latest edition of Nieman Reports covers in depth)