The feeding frenzy of the headline-driven news cycle rarely informs us of anything we need to know and serves only to increase anxiety – let’s stop buying into it.
There is no end to the petty and minor irritations of social media, often tied to the self-importance and virtue signalling (and I use that phrase for attention-grabbing across the political divide) of many of its users. I realise that complaining that websites that exist solely to allow people to express their every passing thought mainly appeal to narcissists is ludicrous – but even so, there are moments of self-importance that still leave me astounded. Foremost among these is the overuse of the phrase ‘breaking news’ – or often just ‘BREAKING’ or some other variation, all of which refer to a news story that is just emerging.
It’s often bad enough when news outlets and journalists use this to head their tweets, given that it can be used for anything from the start of a war to a celebrity making some coke-addled, ego-driven thick-as-pigshit comment on said war – all points from the vital to the trivial reduced to the same level of importance in the search for clicks. It feels even worse when Johnny Nobody uses it to head his own tweet, posted after he has read the original tweet from an established news source (rarely the actual story, of course, just the tweeted headline – because who has time to dig into the actual facts of a story?). The belief of Twitter users with a handful of followers that they are a news bureau on the level of Reuters and that their readers will be unaware – or perhaps unbelieving – of a change of Prime Minister until SwiftFan47 has told them about it must be the very height (or depth, depending on how you look at it) of egotism. Even many self-styled news sites – the self-proclaimed ‘top news sources’ – are cribbing this information from other, more establishment organisations (or, more often than not these days, fellow conspiracy-driven outlets who have already put their own spin on the headline – or possibly just made some shit up).
Rarely do these self-proclaimed breaking news sources have anything of any value to add to the story – most simply ape the style of actual news service that already has nothing much beyond a headline to post, stating the already well-known facts loudly and perhaps with a subtle spin if they have a particular agenda going on but often refraining from any sort of comment or insight. In no way are they ‘breaking’ a story in any way, shape or form – by the time they put their post online, it can be anything up to an hour since actual news sources have ‘broken’ the story. And that’s assuming it was worth ‘breaking’ to begin with. Most of the time, even when this is something that qualifies as ‘news’, the information available is thin and incomplete, something that we could probably live without until it becomes an actual story that appears on a regularly scheduled news broadcast. We are now fooled into thinking that it is vital that we know this now, for reasons unexplained.
The problem with a 24-hour news cycle – one made worse by the relentless demands of the internet – is the continual need for content. To justify this constant stream of ‘news’ – much of it the sort of thing that might never have even made it onto the gossip columns, let alone actual news broadcasts once upon a time – everything has to be hyped and made to seem vital, terrifying, immediate. The word ‘BREAKING’, screaming in uppercase, not only announces that a news story is fresh but also that it is very important and not to be ignored, even if it is nothing more vital than Britney Spears convincing a judge that she is mentally capable (of course, I’m aware that for a large part of social media, this was every bit as important as the invasion of Ukraine). When news outlets report a surge in anxiety, panic attacks and mental health issues, maybe they should consider their own culpability – in the lust for ratings and clicks, they cause untold stress and nervousness by treating everything as though it deserves the internet equivalent of a News Flash. Remember those? The interruptions to regular broadcasts that would immediately let you know that something major was happening. Something so important that it couldn’t wait until the next news broadcast. A big, screaming ‘BREAKING’ has the same visceral effect but then often leads nowhere – but we usually don’t know that until our stress levels have risen. It seems especially irresponsible right now when the unthinkable really is being thought about and discussed on a regular basis. But we are now encouraged to see everything as immediate, vital, urgent and so, by default, worrying. After all, no one breaks good news. Even the stories that speak of triumph or success will be certain to work people into a frenzy because of the previous injustice involved. Breaking News is designed to create fury and distress because it makes the unimportant suddenly of immediate concern while burying actually important and immediate news in a flood of ephemera. If everything is urgent and vital, then nothing is.
Here’s the thing: most news is via press or government release and does not have a desperate immediacy to it. No one needs to know this RIGHT NOW. It might be good if actual news sources stopped announcing everything as ‘breaking’ and instead simply took a moment to see what the news story is and what it actually means. We are bombarded with scare stories, shock headlines and trivia dressed up as headline news in order to secure position and make money for news outlets – and then the wannabes join in and make it worse. Breaking news is rarely informative news – it always requires a follow-up and a deeper investigation, and we all know how social media works – the headline, the 280-character tweet is all that many people will ever take from a story.
I’m not dismissing social media as a news medium in itself. My awareness of the current revolution in Iran is almost entirely thanks to social media because actual news broadcasters seem curiously reluctant to report on it – and we could get into the likely reasons for that at some other time. Social media is actually now set up to allow more solid content than we usually get and in cases like Iran and the latest developments with QAnon in America, it is usually down to individual journalists and researchers to bring us that information. We might note, however, that these people don’t generally head up their posts with ‘BREAKING’ because they are aware that these situations are ongoing and they research and build a story before sharing it.
I doubt anything will change because news sources – actual or self-proclaimed – are in furious competition with each other and having the decency and sense to wait for a story to at least fully develop before reporting on it is not going to fly now. But the people who eagerly, desperately post their own rewrites of actual news stories as if they are somehow in receipt of this information alongside actual journalists rather than grabbing it from the same sources that we’ve all seen – they need to stop. Not only is their news rarely ‘breaking’ by the time they have cribbed it from elsewhere, but no one cares anyway. It’s a bizarre desire to be important when there is probably more interaction and kudos to be had by simply making furious, ill-informed comments on the news based on those news tweets or sharing furious hot takes on current events if you really want the attention of strangers that badly. Ignoring these stories, rather than amplifying them, will lead to less anxiety, less stress and more harmony. Let’s give it a go and save ‘breaking’ news for the stories that really can’t wait.
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