Sky News, famously “never wrong for long”
(pic courtesy of google images).
Last week Professor Justin Lewis was talking to us about a research project Cardiff University did on breaking news.

In the lecture Lewis observed:

“The obsession with breaking news threatens to impoverish the quality of journalism generally.”

What was his foundation for this?
Basically, the study undertaken by Lewis and his team looked at the percentage of news stories BBC News 24 and Sky News branded as “breaking news” and what effect this may have on the way such news is received.

The team found on both channels the percentage of breaking news had gone up more than threefold between 2004 and 2006. The BBC breaking news coverage went up from three per cent to eleven per cent and on Sky News the percentage increased from 4.5 per cent to 14.5 per cent.

Lewis made the point that since “the world has not rearranged itself”, there should not be such a dramatic increase in breaking news. Therefore, the threshold for what is considered to be breaking news must have been lowered.

What is the problem with this?
Because of this, viewers are in danger of becoming increasingly cynical towards the concept of breaking news. One of the precepts of the phenomena is that it should be unpredictable. However, in the two year period studied the percentage of breaking news which could be considered to be truly so fell by almost half. In other words, we are misbranding what is actually just “news” in the interest of hooking people in.

Ok, so we believe him, breaking news quality has decreased which is bad because the public will get bored of it and thus bored of news in general, and then we will be out of a job.

So what can we do about it?
Exploring blogs and forums as a medium for breaking news may be one way of addressing the problem. Journalists can use the web to get their first draft out quickly, for mass consumption, and once it is out there they can re-draft it as more information becomes available, whether this is through comment or as the story develops.

This would allow broadcast journalism to focus more on analysis and comment, something which Lewis found to be lacking on both 24 hour news channels. It would also mean that when the breaking news graphic came scrolling along the bottom of the TV screen, viewers may be more inclined to respond to it in the way intended.

Antony Mayfield, head of social media at icrossing discussed different treatments of journalistic material with our class last week. He talked about how originally on the web journalists were, “operating on the business model imported from print. But what has happened in recent years is that people have started to realise it’s not a newspaper and it’s not a TV programme, it’s something better.”

In some ways, the use of new multimedia methods for breaking news has already begun to proliferate. Classmates of mine recently used twitter as a way of breaking news while at the PTC New Journalist Awards 2008 and the Society of Editors Conference 2008. Press Gazette was also using twitter as a way of providing links to articles covering both of these events.

Is the web a better place to break news then?
It can be. As Mayfield said, “search is the starting point for most people’s use of the web.” If an individual wants to know about a topic they will, eight times out of ten, go to the google home page and type in what they would like some information on. Since google puts the user first, rather than the advertiser, users consistently get the results they want.

In a way then, the consumer is choosing the breaking news. Whatever is more relevant and interesting to them will gain more hits and thus move its way up the popularity ratings.

According to Mayfield, change like this has the potential not just to destroy companies but also entire countries. It is our job as journalists to make sure we straddle the fault line as best we can. We certainly don’t want to be left behind as the individual rampages over the net, and that is why we had better get to grips with digital forms of media, for breaking news and beyond.

This article discusses many of the same innovation ideas as Antony Mayfield. I’m glad to see the big guns are being told to shake up their ideas as well. The good news? They tend to have entrenched practices and predjudices to work around while as fledgling journalists we can learn it all from the get go.