Local TV news and the rush of breaking news
NEW YORK (AP) — This just in! Some breaking news from Louisville, Ky.!
Well, not really. It "broke" a couple of weeks ago, but honestly has been kicking around at local television stations for awhile now. It took a Kentucky station manager to bring a bubbling issue into the open: is a relentless need by newscasts to promote the urgency and "nowness" of their work costing them credibility?
The Fox affiliate in Louisville, WDRB-TV, recently began running an advertisement telling viewers that stations constantly touting "breaking news" reports are deceiving viewers with a marketing ploy. "Breaking news is seldom actually breaking," the ad said, "and quite often isn't actually news."
WDRB offered a 10-point "Contract with Our Viewers" promising bias- and hype-free news programs that strive to beat rivals to a story but never at the expense of being right.
The station will use the phrases "news alert" or "this is a developing story" when merited, said Bill Lamb, president and general manager of WDRB. But it has avoided "breaking news" for a few years now. Lamb said he sees it so often elsewhere that it was time to speak up.
"They're saying you need to create this sense of urgency to make people think you're on top of everything going on right now, whether you are or not," Lamb said. "It's an illusion."
A story lifted from another news source isn't breaking, nor is a relatively timeless government report. Anyone who has followed local news can recall reporters doing live shots from the scene of an accident or crime that happened so long ago that the location is already empty.
News blogs run by Mervin Block and Jim Romenesko recently got ahold of a list of phrases recommended to television stations by SmithGeiger, a California consultant group. People who write news stories at TV stations need to find the right words to capture a sense of immediacy that viewers demand, the consultants said.
Here are some examples:
—"Breaking news just coming in to our newsroom."
—"We are going to be covering this live for you."
—"Breaking as we go on air."
—"We are going to stay on this story every step of the way."
—"We have new information for you as soon as anything happens."
—"This is a rapidly developing situation."
"Many stations — not all — spend what I think is an inordinate amount of time emphasizing the kinds of things like 'breaking news,' 'live' or 'latest development,'" said Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, and a longtime local news executive. "Some of it may be true, but a lot of it is not so true."
Cavender, who has sat through many focus groups in his career, said viewers can see right through this. He believes that hype where it's not warranted contributes to the negative view that many people have of journalists.
Lamb sees peer pressure at work.
"If I don't call something 'breaking news,' I'm out of step with the times," he said. "If everyone else is doing it, then I must do it. If I don't lead, I must follow."
Across Louisville at the city's top-rated station for news, the CBS affiliate WLKY-TV, General Manager and President Glenn Haygood recognizes a good marketing plan when he sees one. His rival, Lamb, has gotten plenty of publicity for the contract with viewers, Haygood said.
"It may be a smart ratings move for him," he said. "Only time will tell."
For more than a decade, WLKY-TV has used a slogan that's common in television news: "Live. Local. Late-breaking." And, yes, WLKY is not afraid to promote breaking news.
"If you abuse something like that, viewers are very smart and they will catch on and you will lose your credibility," Haygood said. "If you only do it when it's appropriate, if you only do it when it makes sense and people say, 'that truly is breaking news, that is something I'm interested in,' you never run afoul of the sensitivity of the viewer."
It's important, at a time when people are accustomed to keeping up with news on their smartphones, for television stations to stay competitive, he said. The number of people who have signed on with the station for emails with news bulletins or notifications is evidence to Haygood that there is a desire for a responsive news organization.
Lamb said he's not afraid to go against the grain. He enforces a dress code in the office. When many news organizations were laying people off a few years ago, he was hiring. He has brought on some popular former newspaper columnists to help draw traffic to his station's website.