Breaking News: It’s Not Often All That Important

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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  1. I agree. The best illustration on this is the “nuclear” discussion. We’ve known nukes could fly since the invasion of Crimea in 2014. That’s a baseline. But for this repeated interjection that “Putin could” or “Putin says” is not new. I’d also say that the oversaturation of news from the currently conflict has caused Americans to see this as a new normal like Iraq and Afghanistan, making more difficult for us to commit to the long term.

  2. Bless ’em, I say! Everyone gets to feel important – utopian, surely? I imagine they wear a trilby with a piece of paper saying ‘Press’ on it tucked in the hatband while they type. World peace is none of our business. Much of teh so-called ‘News’ is sensationalist enterntainment – they tell you you’re going to die, to starve, to freeze, tell you to fear these people or that, then the ritual is concluded with a cheery story of a dog on a skateboard – A God on a skateboard, cheerful homilies following reflections on mortality and the fragility of the human experience. Propaganda, in that a simplified worldview is propagated, and pornography, in the sense of the culture of desire that the advertising which permeates all media disseminates.

    Put me in charge and I’ll make this world a better place. I’ll show you all a good time, promise. Til then, I have only my own numbing impotence in the face of man and nature to offer. Aerial bombing took away the cavalry. I’ve been sick with worry over ‘the bomb’ since I made my debut, my vaginal exit. Apparently all had been strivcken by the same paralysing fear for decades prior, so why they were still breeding I don’t know – the indefatigable optimism of the organism, I suppose. Hopefully, they are right! Chicks will not allow a dead world, it’s a fundamentally male fantasy.

    ‘Limited’ use of nukes? All hypotheses suppose this isnot feasible, escalation is inevitable – the basis of the ‘mad’ doctrine. Everyone has to pretend to be insane now, the maddest man in the room gets the hot seat, to give our/their posturing a bit of oomph. People really die of course, in numbers great and small. The Starngelovian solution is that the madness has to be followed through to it’s insane conclusion in order to be anything other than a hollow threat.

    Mind you, I am absolutely a typical internet lurker in that I am an unadulterated source of bullshit and every-asshole’s-got-one opinion. I am like an ant trying to understand an ice cream. Love sex, fear death. Better than the present ‘War Good, Sex Bad’ philosophy which abounds. In this sense, all news is irrelevant, it can’t be reduced to a binary, sensory inputs tell you you are alive, the only ‘News’ that matters is the imminent end of this flow. If there’s nothing you can do about it, make like Alfred E Neuman.

    It could be we are shifting awkwardly over to a quantum consciousness. The Universe is Holographic, in that every part of it contains the entirety of the whole – in this senses, maybe Britney is every bit as relevant as Ukraine, as relevant as what you had for dinner, etc., etc.

    I’m only bullshitting, like everyone – entertaining bullshit or not? You judge. it was the same years ago on a highland croft or a midlands smoke-pot or in downtown Rome or Greece when the toga parties were the thing – etc.

  3. We saw a precursor to TV News/Current Affairs programmes with the brilliant satirical series “The Day Today” (1994), made by and starring Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, David Schnieder and others; predicting excesses of news broadcasting which now has further made it trivial, verbose, overblown and over produced, making it far duller and lifeless; the endless supply of bloated graphics and visual flashiness in virtually all news bulletins and programming is even more overwhelming than The Day Today foresaw nearly three decades ago which I now find an unwatchable irritation; I much preferred Kenneth Kendall or Richard Baker reading the news with a streamlined set design supported by restrained news reports that were filmed, instead of live on the spot reports with conversations between news readers and reporters that are mostly contrived, forced and patronising that is now the norm.

    1. It is interesting that we used to have a 15-minute news broadcast early evening and a half hour at night, and no one seemed any less informed about the happenings of the day than they are now. The whole things of reporters interviewing each other feels especially facile and a guarantee of objective facts being lost along the way.

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