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Tuesday, 19 January 2010

What is breaking news?

Sounds like an easy question to answer, not least because we're always being told we are receiving breaking news, but it seems like a little bit more conceptualisation might help move forward some debates.

On the Online Journalism Blog, I implicitly defined breaking news as: the first publication of news material to a significantly sized potential audience.

I ignored the issue of whether 6 people read it or 6 million people read the breaking news and focussed on it being published first through a medium which could potentially reach a significant number of people.

I went for 'potential audience' because in theory only one or two people could listen to a radio news bulletin. Would it then be right to say that the news wasn't published?

Nevertheless, one problem with my approach is that there probably needs to be some sort of numerical threshold by which an audience could be described as 'significantly sized', even if it could perhaps vary depending on context.

Another problem, as Tom Calver rightly pointed out, is that most people still get their 'breaking news' from traditional media regardless of whether they might have been able to, (but probably didn't), access it elsewhere.

Here Tom's similarly implicit definition focuses on where people actually first receive news which is breaking for them. This leads us more easily to a more accurate representation of how audiences consume breaking news than if you start with my definition.

The theoretical difficulty with this approach is that we might have to introduce some sort of time frame by which a person would have to discover the news for it to be understood as 'breaking news'.

Somebody who reads a two-week old newspaper after being on holiday is not receiving 'breaking news' are they? You might argue that they are.

But if we extrapolate further you would have to argue that when I read a primary source in Christopher Haigh's English Reformations I am receiving breaking news about the 16th Century.

And if we do introduce a time frame for breaking news where should that end - after a few minutes, a few hours, a day, a week? (Presumably it has changed over time - for example 'breaking news' from battles in the American Civil War took several days to arrive)

Maybe the idea of 'breaking news' is simply a construct of journalists and, to a lesser extent, audiences. So another way of tackling the issue would be to ask audiences or journalists how they define breaking news and use their answers to formulate a definition.

All of these approaches have value but I think it's worth thinking about which definition you are using and what impact that has on your conclusions. I've certainly found it useful.

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