"Breaking" or Broken?

In 1972, I spent a summer as a copyboy for The New York Times, working nightside in the newsroom.  Often, after the Late City edition was out, there wouldn’t be that much to do, not unless the bells on the news-service printers at one end of the room started ringing.  They alerted us that something significant had occurred, something important enough that a decision might be made to stop the presses for an update to the edition.  This happened often: we had plane hijackings, the shooting of George Wallace, and a number of other events that (among other things) gained me valuable overtime when they were not resolved until the wee hours of the morning.

Most such events are long forgotten.  The most important story from that time, Watergate, rarely took “breaking” form.  Though the paper was galvanized into action by those ringing bells (or, sometimes, by phone calls from its own reporters), the information immediately added to the paper was generally quite sparse—noting the fact of a disaster, a battle, a death, etc.  Heavy with journalistic experience and tradition, The Times was loathe to make claims it wasn’t sure of, having seen too often headlines of the “Dewey Defeats Truman” ilk.

The need for quick action when something did break stemmed from the fact of the running presses four floors below us on 43rd Street.  Papers without the new story would be worthless, people turning to competitors.  “Stop the presses” was an important economic demand.

News distribution has changed since then.  The Times doesn’t have to worry so about its print edition, but can use its online nytimes.com for breaking news.  Plus, there are bloggers and tweeters who are going to get word out even more quickly, as happened yesterday, when tweets of the earthquake started to appear from Virginia even before the tremor was felt in New York.

The culture of emphasis on “breaking,” however, is still with us.  Though there is no real economic value in it any longer, many people, including amateur journalists (who are, on the other hand, doing some of the best journalism around, these days), still get caught up in wanting to be first with something, often to their own eventual detriment.

The rush the other day, by professional journalists, to bring news that two of Gaddafi’s sons had been captured by rebels, should be a lesson to amateur and citizen journalists.  With no proof, simply assertions by rebel leaders, news venues trumpeted the captures.  They rushed headlong into something that was, quite frankly, a sideshow—and they thereby allowed one of those sons to create his own sideshow, a bit of grandstanding that provided nothing, ultimately, for anyone.

What was the point of reporting so quickly on the “captures”?  Was this really so significant that it needed to be reported without verification?  Would it have been a course-changing event?

Bloggers love to be able to use “breaking” in their headlines, but is there really any reason for it?  Sometimes it can even lead to distraction, as happened yesterday concerning the earthquake along the east coast.  For a small quake causing little damage and fewer injuries, the coverage was excessive.  Reporters rushed to Mineral, VA to report news that wasn’t even news, but that was quickly so pervasive that it seemed like news. “Breaking” had given immediacy to what was really nothing, not much of a story at all, to the point where the earthquake became the major story of the day.

I felt the tremor, and wondered as I bounced up and down if the building would soon be falling on top of me.  It didn’t, so I got back to what I had been doing.  It wasn’t a story, by then.  It was only made a story by those so rushed to be “breaking” something that they forgot to check and see if that something were worth “breaking” at all.

Had they waited, they might have discovered that the story was only broken.

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