Breaking News!

Okay, now that I have your attention, let me tell you what's wrong with Philadelphia's local newscasts

What exactly is “Breaking News?”

We hear the phrase all of the time. It has become an attention-getting mainstay of local newscasts. News managers live for the moment that they can use the bold graphic with the “stinger,” a sound effect designed to get you to stop whatever you are doing and watch.

The “stinger” is a quick way of saying, “I know we’ve been boring you with recalls of products you don’t own, medical procedures not available in this area and car accident video from 10 hours ago, but this is really important. Really, we’re not kidding.” [SIGNUP]

And so you stop making dinner for a second to watch a live picture from a helicopter of smoke coming from a house and an anchor struggling to say something relevant with limited information. Many times it is just, “There is smoke coming from a home in Blahblah, New Jersey.”  Sometimes the name of the location is the only piece of real information that the anchor has, which forces him or her into the role of a bad play-by-play announcer and every sentence seems to start with the phrase “You can see…” As in, “You can see firefighters on the scene.”

Let’s break down the real meaning of that sentence, shall we?

“You can see” is really an apology. It might as well be, “I know you can see, but I have to say something here.” And the “firefighters on the scene” means, “There really is a fire. I know there are no flames, but look there are firefighters.”

This is an example of how “Breaking News” is given a completely different standard than “Real News.” When you choose a news story for air, you weigh public interest and/or effect, proximity, timeliness, the video and the fame or prominence of the people involved. Human interest and offbeat stories have a criteria of their own. “Breaking News” necessarily must put timing over all other criteria. However, in an addictive lust for ratings, news managers have all but forgotten the other important elements of newsworthiness.

Take the fire I used as an example. Would that story have made the local newscast if it didn’t happen between 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.?  Probably not.

The story has the same appeal as a car crash you happen to drive by on the road, you slow down and look and then forget about it. But you look and that is all that is important. “Eyeballs” is a term you hear a lot in television, as in “How do we get eyeballs for our show?”  reaking news is meant to get eyeballs, no other organ is necessary, certainly not a brain or heart.

“Breaking News” is over used because it works. The “stinger” has become Pavlov’s whistle in the second phase of his testing. In Pavlov’s famous experiment the treat was taken away and yet the dog still salivated when he heard the audio cue; in local news, the audience still watches even though the news has been taken away.

That Pavlovian “audience training” also has some long-term promotional value.  When something important does happen, the viewers are now programmed to believe that the “Breaking News” station is the place to go.  It is those big news moments that create long-term viewer loyalty.  Much as the Gulf War gave us Wolf Blitzer and made CNN a news giant, a Fat Tuesday riot on South Street or a Major snowstorm can do the same for a Philadelphia TV station.

Finally, “Breaking News” justifies the news managers putting the helicopter up in the air and paying for the pilot, the fuel and the leased air time.  Often “Breaking News” makes a newscast just because the chopper is in the air and must be used.  Stations will even go to the aerial shot and say, “Our chopper is in the air looking for breaking news.”  They might as well say, “Our chopper is in the air trying to justify its existence.”

So that is the long answer to my original question. “Breaking News” is far too often an eyeball attracting TV stunt, a promotional tool that justifies the cost of a helicopter and unfortunately has little do with news.

And when it really is news, they need not call it breaking.  They can just report it as news.

LARRY MENDTE writes for The Philly Post every Monday and Thursday. See his video commentaries at