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The Negative Effects of Breaking News Television

An iconic image of a breaking news broadcast is displayed on the smartphone.

An iconic image of a breaking news broadcast is displayed on the smartphone.

What is Breaking News?

According to Wikipedia, "Breaking news is a special report or news bulletin that is a current event that the broadcasters feel warrant the interruption of scheduled programming and/or current news in order to report its details."

Interesting, huh? How many times have you heard a newscaster say, "We don't have any details right now but we will update you as soon as we have more." So why are they reporting on it? We'll cover that later.

Story of the Moment

Wikipedia goes on to say that, "Many times, the phrase 'breaking news' is used after the news network has already reported the story. When a story hasn't been previously reported, the phrase, 'just in' is sometimes used instead.

'Breaking news' is often loosely assigned to the most significant story of the moment or a story that is coming in live. It could also be a story that is simply of wide interest to viewers and has little impact otherwise."

In our constant state of American frenzy, waiting for the next building to topple upon us, the hairs on our necks salute to the phrase, "BREAKING NEWS." Since the 1990s, it seems that our perpetual wait for bad things to happen, increased exponentially.

The frenzy to get the story first can overshadow the story itself.

The frenzy to get the story first can overshadow the story itself.

We have become obsessed with the news, what's trending, and what's breaking. However, it seems that our attention easily shifts from significant events such as hostages being held and wars being declared to more sensational events such as DUI arrests of celebrities and animals getting stuck in holes, which nowadays rate as breaking news.

Unfortunately, we are frequently reminded of the real life-and-death breaking news stories that change our lives forever. These are the unexpected and horrific events that impact us psychologically and emotionally.

Breaking News . . . Really?

Why then, are the networks at national and local levels using the breaking news phrase more often now than 20 years ago? The term used to be "news bulletin" or simply "special report" primarily used by networks and occasionally by local stations.

Well, we know that it's really about being the first reporter, news organization, or network station to say, "You heard it here first." They want to ensure that they are the first to report the most intriguing and sensational story for ratings.

High Ratings = Happy Advertisers

High ratings translate into happy advertisers who pay hefty fees to the networks and whose products sell. So stories of significance that would occur on occasion back in the day now seem to generate around the clock. This makes for big business, particularly for the all-news networks.

Everyone wants to be the first on the scene to cover anything that's happening now. Secondarily, 24-hour news networks have to fill all that time with something. Stories that aren't that urgent become urgent and significant enough to rate as "breaking."

Many times I've heard newscasters say, "We don't have a reporter on the scene yet, but as soon as we get some footage, we'll bring it to you. And if you have a video, please send it to us."

The President of the United States often has to be the bearer of bad news.

The President of the United States often has to be the bearer of bad news.

A related element of the "breaking news" frenzy is the competition among media outlets to be the first to report a story, seen as a major coup in the business of journalism. However, the consequence of rushing to press is that sometimes inaccurate reporting occurs.

The Race to Be First

In his 2019 article, "What Is a Breaking News Story?" Tony Rogers says, "Media outlets rush too quickly to be first on a breaking story and end up reporting things that turn out to be wrong." He cites the recent faux pas by several major news organizations that reported that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had died in a mass shooting in Tucson, AZ.

He added that this erroneous story had also gone out on twitter. This is an unfortunate example of what can happen when the details and truth of a story are sacrificed in order to air, print, or tweet the dramatic "breaking story."

Breaking News in the Modern Era

The following stories come closest to fitting the criteria for what I believe the intended definition of "breaking news" was meant to encompass:

  • Coverage in real time; event happening as we are watching.
  • Events are rapidly changing and/or developing right before our eyes.
  • The story impacts the majority of viewers either politically, socially, or personally.
  • A reporter/news team is physically on the scene with a microphone, a video camera, Skype, iPhone, Facebook live, or livestreaming channel and has access to a credible information source.
  • The story involves some type of significant tragedy, death, serious accident, trauma, or major political/social announcement that would create a turn-of-event moment impacting history.
Iconic CBS News broadcaster Walter Cronkite broke the story of President John F. Kennedy's assassination on live television.

Iconic CBS News broadcaster Walter Cronkite broke the story of President John F. Kennedy's assassination on live television.

Breaking News Milestones (Chronological)

Assassination of President John F. Kennedy: The first time a sitting president had been murdered in modern times, witnessed by many during a presidential motorcade ride through Dallas, Texas. [11/22/63]

Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: This news ripped through the soul of our nation, particularly the African-American community, some of whom regarded Dr. King as a spiritual leader and savior who would alter the conscience of the American people. [4/4/68]

Iran Hostage Crisis: At that point in time, the story had more extensive coverage on television and in the press than had any other event since WWII; 52 American were taken hostage at the US Embassy in Tehran; the ordeal lasted for 444 days. [11/4/79–1/20/81]

The Persian Gulf War aka Operation Desert Storm: The first US war since the Vietnam War ended in 1972 produces images of war battle that were seen by a generation for the first time. [2/28/91]

The OJ Simpson Bronco Chase: Speeding down the highways of Los Angeles, it was Hollywood theater at its best, as camera shots were close enough to have captured live, the suicide of OJ in the moving truck, had he pulled the trigger. [6/17/94]

9/11: Terrorist Attacks of the World Trade Center in NYC, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, PA - Iconic images of the falling towers are forever etched in our minds, revealing a vulnerability never seen in American culture. [9/11/01]

Beltway Snipers: Random Shootings of 13 people in the Washington, DC metro area over a 21-day period - The case broke in the wee hour of the morning when a picture of one of the suspects was aired for the first time, revealing an African-American former Army marksman. [10/20/02]

Iraq War II (aka "Shock-n-Awe" Bombing of Baghdad): Never before seen compelling and spectacular video feed of the bombing of Baghdad in real time, resembling a light show. [5/20/03]

A house in New Orleans' Ninth Ward destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

A house in New Orleans' Ninth Ward destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina: The mix of shock and anger over the massiveness of the hurricane, race and class implications, lawlessness, and inept government response elevated the significance of this television event to heights never before witnessed, even by the reporters on the scene; 1,833 were killed. [8/28/05]

Sago Mine Disaster in West Virginia: 13 dead, one survivor; over a two-day period it was an edge-of-your-seat ordeal not knowing if they were alive or dead. [1/2/06]

Virginia Tech Massacre: The largest mass murder at a school in American history; for 2 hours, it was unknown that two scenes were connected to a lone gunman who killed 32 people then himself; the tragedy heightened to controversy over gun laws, access, and mental health stability. [4/16/07]

Death of Michael Jackson: The confirmation of his death by family members at a press conference a few hours later, put to rest all denial that his death wasn't true, ranking as one of the most shocking moments in media history around the world. [6/28/10]

Uprising in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt: The witnessing of the birth of democracy, bravery, and determination of a people in real time was a very emotional and moving moment in world history. [2/2/11]

Death of Whitney Houston: The juxtaposition of her dead body laying in the same hotel where a party in her honor was to be held that same evening stunned viewers, creating a conflict about appropriately grieving, yet honoring the dead; the speculation around cause of death further sensationalized this tragic story. [2/14/12]

After hearing the shocking news, viewers anxiously wait for facts.

After hearing the shocking news, viewers anxiously wait for facts.

Media as Psychological Manipulator

I can't help but feel manipulated by the media to look for and anticipate the next breaking news story. I admit that I'm a news junkie, always looking for the latest crisis or catastrophe that could devastate us. Of course I have free will to cut it off or change the channel but it does become intriguing and, at times, addictive. And they know it. So the media continues to feed our insatiable addiction to what's breaking and what will happen next.

There are buzz words that condition us to keep watching, e.g., "News Alert," "Just In," "More To Come," or "This Is A Special Report." Urgency is created by the visual itself, seeing the graphic "BREAKING NEWS" at the bottom of your television screen, sometimes accompanied by a staccato jingle. The jingles were (and in some areas, still are) very effective in the in the era of news radio.

These visual and auditory triggers enhance our anticipation of the worse and make us want the details as soon as possible.

Tragic news is often followed by news teams exploiting raw emotions.

Tragic news is often followed by news teams exploiting raw emotions.

Breaking News and Anxiety

On a psychological level, we are certainly being conditioned by the media, whether it's their blatant intention or not.

Breaking news creates anticipatory anxiety about what has happened and what is to come. It is also linked to our pre-existing and unresolved anxieties about what has happened in the past and the extent to which it could happen again.

One example of this is the traumatic events surrounding the fears created by the "Beltway Sniper Attacks" in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Thirteen people were shot, 10 died by the hands of two men who terrorized the area for 3 weeks in October of 2002, shooting people at random in DC, MD, and VA.

Initial thought was that the crimes were being committed by Al Qaeda terrorists carrying out the next attack a year after the September 11th attacks, which gave the phrase, "BREAKING NEWS" a whole new meaning and effect on the American psyche.

Up to that point, there had been no other event since the coverage of the Iraq War in 2003 that had so defined the meaning of breaking news. Because of the unspeakable events of September 11th, its coverage was the last truly organic use of the "breaking news" phrase.

Breaking News and PTSD

I think we have all been traumatized, broadcasters and viewers alike, by the anticipation of something really bad happening, having to report on it and having to watch it, respectively. The excessive use of the media tool "BREAKING NEWS" is actually an extension of that trauma, coupled with the need to create and report on sensational news.

Networks anticipate the next great story and the benefits it brings. Those benefits include emotionally-charged interviews with victims, high ratings, monetary gain for advertisers and accolades from peers for best coverage.

Constantly dealing with breaking news leaves viewers with anxiety and PTSD.

Constantly dealing with breaking news leaves viewers with anxiety and PTSD.

In Conclusion

I would argue that watching the news has never been the same since September 11th. The only change is that the "BREAKING NEWS" graphic is no longer about September 11th. But we anticipate that it might be. So we watch ... and wait ... with anxiety and anticipation, only to find that "the heralded astronaut Neil Armstrong died this morning at his home at the age of 82."

We are saddened and recall his significant contributions to American society, as we breathe a sigh of relief that a building didn't topple down and kill a bunch of people after it was hit by an airplane.

And now, as we add to our mind's file the more recent traumatic events like the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre, the Bombings at the Boston Marathon, and the shooting massacre at the Washington Navy Yard, we start over again, reliving all of the tragedies as if they happened yesterday.

The Impact of Watching Breaking News

© 2012 Janis Leslie Evans


Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on September 23, 2019:

Hi Kathleen, thank you so much for your thoughtful observations. Your points are well-taken. You are so right about the moon landing. The entire country was riveted. I appreciate your visit.

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on September 21, 2019:

I challenge your placement of the JFK assassination. It was the first tragedy this country literally watched on TV, including the murder of the suspect and the executive funeral.

I would also add the 1969 moon landing. Just think. We watched a man step onto the moon and watched it on our black and white televisions.

But this is one of the most interesting hubs I've read in a long time. They are rare any more.

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on February 20, 2018:

I did not come across any for this article. It would make interesting research. Thank you for reading.

Kenny Andrews on February 20, 2018:

I find the concept of the buzz words that play a role in our psyche to make us pay attention to the news interesting. Do you know if there has been any study or research tat has been conducted in this field.

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on May 12, 2016:

If it's true breaking news, viewers/listeners are given the advantage of getting up to the minute or real time reporting of the news, unedited, as it occurs. But this rarely happens anymore with an actual reporter on the scene sending in actual footage of a significant event.

Muzaffar Gujjar on May 11, 2016:

Can you plz share the positive aspects of breaking news,plz give me detail on favour of breaking news

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on April 29, 2015:

Hi StayPros, so glad you stopped by to read this article. I appreciate the votes. I think that's a great idea to have "breaking news" about stories of compassion and achievement. Can you imagine? That would be awesome indeed. Thanks for your comment.

StayPos from Florida, USA on April 29, 2015:


Thanks for sharing this well written hub :-)

It’s a powerful message about how news has become less about real news and more about chatter, social buzz and the race for ratings.

Perhaps if some organization would show "breaking news" about amazing stories of human compassion and achievement that inspire people they could corner the market! Voted Up and Awesome!

All the Best

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on March 30, 2015:

You hit the nail on the head, Susan. Well-stated about being "first" for the sake of it. Thank you so much for taking the time to visit, read, and comment on this hub.

Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on March 30, 2015:

The "breaking news" overuse syndrome also bubbles over into weather coverage, which can cause problems when trying to convey important information to viewers/listeners. The "boy who cried wolf" effect often starts taking over mid-tornado season after too many false alarms and that's a very worrisome consequence of trying to be first. I think being best at covering an event is a better choice than being first when "first" often just means "most sensational."

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on January 30, 2015:

Glad you liked it, JPac1. I appreciate hearing the thoughts of a media person. I agree with you wholeheartedly that the big three continue to hold true to the traditional reporting without all the unnecessary bells and whistles. I'm old-school so I have much respect for evening/nightly news anchors like Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer, and the like. There are anchors on CNN who make me cringe when they infuse their personalities and opinions into their broadcasting. They appear to have totally lost their objectivity. Don Lemon and Ashleigh Banfield are the worst offenders. And you are so right about CNN being the worst offender in making every event "BREAKING NEWS," when it isn't new, nor breaking.

I've noticed a change in local morning news as well, JPAC1, that has really gotten under my skin with the increase in chatty banter which has nothing to do with news reporting. I guess they have to do that to keep up the the internet and social media but it's the respectability of industry. There are more casual conversations and social/human interest stories on the "news" than I've ever seen. I'm a news junkie so I'm always searching for what's happening, not what the anchors think. I don't care!

Anyway, I was supposed to be doing another hub about this but you got me started. :) Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate your visit.

James Packard from Columbia, Missouri on January 30, 2015:

Some interesting points here. Speaking from the perspective of being inside the "media bubble", I think it's interesting to see what people like you have to say about the news. I certainly see a lot of sensational "you heard it here first" in my business, but I think most of us (pardon CNN, Fox, MSNBC) try to break what's really important, what really matters. You'll see that manifest best on the big three (NBC, CBS, ABC), where regular programming is only interrupted if something BIG is happening. On the contrary, CNN in particular has become the worst offender of the "BREAKING NEWS" overuse. Absolutely obsessive on their part. Sad to see that.

rahul from India on December 01, 2014:

Breaking news is bad thing in the media world.They sometimes don't care for human life also

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on December 01, 2014:

Oh, thank you so much for reading, colorfulone. This is one of my favorite hubs, written from my personal experience of being a news junkie. Sometimes, when it gets too graphic or emotional, I have to turn it off. I appreciate your comments and visit.

Susie Lehto from Minnesota on November 30, 2014:

Jan, this is truly a remarkable article, and you are spot on. I have not watched the news on TV for well over a year. I do miss it at times, but I do not miss the tears of grief that I use to shed often.

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on August 11, 2014:


Audrey Selig from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on August 11, 2014:

Hi Jan It is so sad, and I read he suffered deep depression. He was so funny, but maybe the constant expectations of humor got him down. Whatever happened, the world will miss him. Audrey

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on August 11, 2014:

Audrey, thank you for finding your way to this hub, as I sit here riveted by the breaking news of the death of yet another talented Hollywood actor/comedian. There is certainly power in breaking news which compels us to watch. Thank you for your visit and comments. Blessing to you, too.

Audrey Selig from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on August 11, 2014:

Hi Jan - Thank you for giving us a good look at the media at its worst. I seldom watch the news, and keep up with my mobile phone and the Wall Street Journal. Your hub gives a lot of detail about how news changed over the years. It used to be calmer, and now it panics the public. A weatherman panicked people so much in my city over a storm, that people wanted him fired. Your hub points out a real problem in society that needs a good answer or to just turn off the TV now. Sharing, Blessings, Audrey

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on July 14, 2013:

Thank you so much for reading this hub, KT Banks. I appreciate your comments and that you took the time to read it. I'm the same with the way I watch. Thanks for the votes and more. :-)

KT Banks from Texas on July 14, 2013:

This is beautifully written and well thought out. I have noticed that lately they even seem to start off a regular days newscast by saying the words, Breaking News. I am put off every time they stress that, "We were the First to bring this to you." Big Deal! The other network probably had it one minute later.

I watch a particular network, because I like certain personalities more than others. I really think they pretty much all cover the same events.

Voted Up and more!

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on June 16, 2013:

I really appreciate that, Nathan. Your observations are so true. I'm glad you read this one because I think it's an important topic that barely gets any play. Thank you so much for your visit.

Nathan Sickman from Ohio on June 16, 2013:

I enjoyed this article, and how you were able to lay out "real breaking news"with specific events influencing people's perceptions all over world. It is important to consider what so many alarmists do to impact psyches of 24 hour news viewers. A worst case scenario, a person could become so immobilized by all that they have seen--afraid to leave the house, stop socializing, etc., yet continue to tune in so they will be constantly in-the-know.

Thanks for sharing,


Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on May 01, 2013:

Good for you, rasta1. It can cause ptsd symptoms, especially for victims and responders. Thanks for your visit.

Marvin Parke from Jamaica on May 01, 2013:

I do not watch TV anymore and I have notice that I am less traumatized. I am more calm and more easy going since. Breaking news do cause post-stress.

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on October 12, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by, HoneyBB. Im glad you read this and can relate.

H Lax on October 12, 2012:

I, also, am a news junkie and a worry wart! I live a couple of hours away from my family in Chicago and whenever I see that there has been an accident on the Chicago News, it takes all my strength not to start calling my family to make sure they are alright. Thanks for sharing.

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on October 08, 2012:

Thank you for stopping by to read and comment on this hub. You are right, it is everywhere.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on October 08, 2012:

Breaking news is a phenemenon that is on news channels the world over. Very interesting read.

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on October 04, 2012:

Yes, meegs, I know what you mean. My sister doesn't watch the news at all for the same reason. Thanks for the vote up and for stopping by to read this one. It's one of my favorite hubs articles.

meegs supergirl on October 04, 2012:

Voted up, I used to watch my local news service all the time, until Australia's media began to only report negative news. Now, not so much... walking around wistfully unaware at times... but there is always a newspaper I guess

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on October 03, 2012:

Thank you for your comments. You make a good observation about our disappointment when we don't receive the information. I appreciate your stopping by and reading this hub.

Mary Craig from New York on October 03, 2012:

Anxiety and anticipation seem to be the emotions of the day thanks to 'breaking news'. Seems we expect instant information at all times and are disappointed or sometimes annoyed when it doesn't happen. Imagine living when news took a week to reach us?

This was an excellent hub with some good points.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.