News and Breaking News (language usage question)

I seem to see / hear “breaking news” a lot more often of late, but that could be confirmation bias. Prescriptively, “news” is anything that is new, and “breaking news” is a new story that has just broken. When I see “breaking news” on CNN or hear it on the radio, it seems to mean something more like “big story” or “main story” as well as “breaking news.” I’m interested in the current meaning of the phrase from a descriptivist standpoint.

My questions are: Is there some linguistic inflation going on, where all “breaking news” is becoming a synonym for “news,” or is it semantic drift where it’s taking on another meaning like “top story”? Are there guidelines in journalism for how long a story can be considered breaking or new? How long has this been going on? Is it just an American phenomenon, or is it happening all over the Anglophone world?

Here in the UK, if you watch Sky News (fairly sensationalist) or the BBC News, the distinction is “News” is the stuff that’s happened and they’re telling you about it, or its background. “LATEST” news (though the Sky News site uses BREAKING NEWS on the site, and “first for breaking news” as its strapline) is stuff that comes in additional to all the regular news - either something totally new, or a new development - while the program is on, or in the case of the websites, something that has just been stuck on the site for reasons of urgency, with few details yet.

You can have lots of historical fun by looking at the definition of “news” over time. Entrepreneurs quickly figured out that people would pay to get information faster. The quality of the information counted, but assuming that the facts were accurate, sooner meant money, especially to businesses.

They started with fast ships. Signal telegraphs - mechanical, not electrical - came next, which accounts for the rash of newspapers called Daily Telegraph in the 1820s and 1830s. The electrical telegraph changed everything. But it had gaps. Reuters started out as a homing pigeon service to breach one such in Europe.

The advent of giant mechanical presses allowed papers to put out multiple editions every day. Some got up to a dozen, with those iconic newsboys calling out Extra (sometimes spelled Extra) to passers-by in crowded downtowns.

So there’s always been an emphasis on the new in news as opposed to the mere informational value of information. Breaking news is a relatively recent term. It doesn’t get popular until the 1960s. That means television, of course. Although radio had some newscasts, especially during WWII, the regular evening telecast as a cultural institution is from television. Some news, the most urgent dire news, justified breaking into regularly scheduled programming. The Kennedy assassination is foremost, though not first.

So breaking news came from breaking into programming. As news expanded from a 15-minute national program to a half-hour of national and an hour or two or even three of local news, then a sizable portion of the day was news rather than entertainment. Breaking news became news that became available during a news program.

And then CNN. News all day, twenty-hours a day. Except that any regular viewer quickly realized that the same news was repeated over and over again with each hour, and every half-hour when the Headline News channel debuted. Breaking into news programming still happened but real news too important to wait for the next hour was still rare.

My impression from watching a lot of CNN for coverage of Japan is that they use Breaking News in a couple of overlapping ways. One is that new information relevant to the ongoing story is available and the other is that here’s more of that big ongoing story that you’re tuning in for. The latter is often not “new” or previously unreported. But people tend to watch channels like CNN off and on over the day, or keep it in the background and pay attention at intervals. Why alienate them by limiting breaking news to the first few minutes? If it’s likely to be new since the last time they paid attention, even if that was hours ago, it’s still new information to them.

If the meaning has changed from literal to marketing-speak, and I think it has, it still retains some value as a device that cues viewers that something has happened that worth their attention. Any capital N News will still override anything else. The broadcast networks can still break into programs and have true Breaking News. But the term has lost most of its meaning in a world of instant communication and constant access.

IMHO, I agree. This is what’s happened to the term. Breaking news capture’s the viewer’s attention and he or she is less likely to change the channel.

I worked with the public affairs staff of a major Federal agency for many years. Their definition of Breaking News was partly dependent on how busy the IT staff was when they wanted to update the Web site.

Breaking news used to be a once in a while thing with a big story that would be interesting to almost anyone. Now, breaking news is just for everything and is on 24/7. I have noticed this lately, as I used to stop and see what happened every time I saw the term while flipping channels but it is usually just regular news. Nancy Grace always has a “breaking news” segment probably throughout the whole show.

It used to be a strong cue but now it has no meaning.

The use of the term “Breaking News” has become so common that it barely captures our attention anymore. In order to define its modern meaning, it’s easiest just to accept it at its most basic: “Breaking News” simply means “news that is in the process of happening right now as we’re being told about it” (i.e. “breaking” is the present continuous tense of the verb “to break”).

Seeing a “Breaking News” alert nowadays doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something earth-shattering going on, it just means that we’re watching it (or hearing about it) in real time as opposed to “Film at 11.”

A “news” story has already been completely written, although it may be subject to updates. “Breaking news” is in progress and the end has not yet been written, but the story is a big enough deal to tell you what is known so far.

O.J.'s Bronco race with the cops was “breaking news”; his capture a few minutes later was “news.”

I don’t think so. I agree with the prior posts that the term has lost any meaning it may have had. OJ’s capture would, too, be breaking news.

Here the TV stations use ‘breaking news’ to the point of ridiculosity. Every damn thing they start a broadcast with is “Breaking News”, even if it happened four hours ago and you already know about it from other sources like the radio, and even if it’s something of no major import to the citizenry, like a house fire or an automobile accident. Then, if they have follow-up information a few days later, they begin with a breathless announcement: “And now we have an update to breaking news we told you about four days ago.” :rolleyes:

Agree. O. J. was a full 17 years ago. The usage has unquestionably changed since then. That’s generations in tv time.

Breaking news? Please be careful. News is fragile.

Otherwise, yes, the whole “Breaking News!” with optional musical sting has been as badly overused as live remotes: “Our Jennifer Spoonfeeder is live at the site with breaking news where just five minutes ago, a streetlight burned out near City Hall. Jennifer, we’ve been hearing reports at the studio that there may also be a streetlight that’s been flickering for a few days. Is it really dark there?”

“No, Tom, there are actually several other lights that are still working near the burned-out one, so it’s actually almost as bright as normal. There’s just a spot under the broken light that’s a bit more shadowy. I spoke with the Director of Public Works a few minutes ago and he said this light should be repaired by next Wednesday.”

Yeah, “breaking news” nowadays is almost always just a lie to make the station seem more important than they are. A related technique is being “on location.” Of course, it generally is actually on the location, say outside a darkened and closed building, where something happened. Six hours ago. Totally meaningless, and not on location when something is actually happening, which might yield true breaking news.

I think the era of 24/7 news networks has a lot to do with the devaluation of the phrase “breaking news.” It was originally used to distinguish literally breaking news from the normal cycle of reiterated news, but then that phrase started hanging on for more and more cycles, especially if it was something which at least appeared to be of some import, and now it’s gotten to the point where "breaking news’ just means the cycle of the day.

It’s a promotional thing too. The networks keep more eyeballs for news that appears to be “exciting” and is still in progress rather than somthing which is essentially already over.

Now that “breaking news” has become devalued and less exciting, we’re starting to see other phrases like “news alert,” or flashing sirens or other devices which are designed to show that something is actually new news.

Yes it seems everything gets overused to meaninglessness. I would see breaking news as say a major building on fire. News is that it burned down sometime in the last 24 hours.

I used to listen to the radio a lot. With ‘‘news’’ every hour and headlines at the half, I could quickly tire of many stories when by 6 PM there was little change from 8 AM.

I notice Fox News now has a banner Urgent news.