Commentary: The most overused word in TV news
By Jim Schuh
“Breaking news” are “the two most overused words in TV news.” That’s the assessment of columnist Adam Buckman, writing in TVBlog recently.
I came to the same conclusion a few years ago. Back in early 2015, I wrote a Gazette column, observing that “…we find ourselves inundated with repeated claims of “breaking news.” And much of the time, it’s not true anyway. And sometimes, “breaking news” isn’t even news at all.” When I see that phrase, I have trouble believing it – it’s so over-used that it’s become nearly meaningless.
And speaking of “meaningless,” how about all those “thoughts and prayers” the politicians promise every time there’s a tragedy of some sort? For many, “thoughts and prayers” mean almost nothing – It’s become the thing to say following a tragedy. It’s not likely many will remember to say prayers much less keep the victims in their thoughts. Actions speak louder than words.
Back to “breaking news”” – the phrase just won’t go away. There don’t seem to be any real guidelines for using “breaking news.” TV news people tend to think alike and have adopted the phrase to describe – regardless of its importance – to anything that’s new. It’s true at the local level, where you can almost guarantee hearing and seeing it at least once per newscast. But it’s worse at the national level, especially on cable news channels, where the phrase pops us with annoying regularity.
In his recent blog, Buckman says “breaking news” is so overused that it’s a major reason why TV news credibility has declined. “Once news consumers realize they’re being had with these ‘Breaking News’ banners, they can’t help become skeptical about the news.” About the only conclusion we can draw is that the words are nothing but hype.
In my radio news days, the wire services supplied us with state, national and world news. Every so often, when it sent us a major new story, United Press International (UPI) and the Associated Press (AP) would label it “Urgent” if it was important; “Bulletin” if it was a major development; and “Flash” if it met guidelines for the highest alert level.
For example, when I heard the teletype bell ring three times (for “Urgent”), I’d check the machine to find a new and important, but not earth-shattering story. That pretty well describes what “breaking news” is for most stories on TV today.
When the teletype machine bell rang five times (for “Bulletin”), I knew I should scurry over to it to find out what major event had happened. The bulletin may have reported an earthquake, an airliner crash or a significant political event, like the naming of a Supreme Court justice. Bulletins didn’t happen too often – rarely every day. On a few occasions, we deemed a “bulletin” important enough to break into programming to report it.
Then there was the “Flash,” – a ten bell alert – signifying a news report of the highest order. I can recall just a few of them in my radio days – when President Johnson said he wouldn’t run for another term, when President Kennedy was shot and again when he was confirmed dead, and when the cardinals elected a new pope.
The relative importance of news is lost today because everything is “breaking news.”
A friend – Merv Block – who’s authored several books on improving newswriting, wrote last year about “breaking news.” He offered details of several instances when TV newscasters used the phrase, often listing the actual times when they aired the story. Then he went back to see when the AP first reported the same story and found in many cases that the news service had moved it as much as 12-hours earlier. “Breaking?” Uh-uh.
If TV people want to salvage any credibility for their product, they need to stop taking us for chumps by limiting “breaking news” to the heavy stuff. Meanwhile, you should simply refuse to believe that every “breaking” news story is breaking, new or even important. You may, in fact, already have done that.
Another recent report caught my eye – it dealt with the length of TV commercials. It used to be that we’d see just 30 and 60-ads but more recently shorter commercials have shown up on our screens. TV stations and networks love the shorter ones because they charge more per second for them. In other words, a 15-second ad costs the advertiser more than half of what he’d pay for a 30-second spot. The advent of six-second ads this year also was good for TV broadcasters’ bottom lines, because they brought in more dollars per second than longer ads.
But now there’s a Nielsen finding that short six-second ads might not work as well as some ad gurus think. It may be that the best length for many TV commercials is 15-seconds.
The advertising community has developed some guidelines about using :30 and :15 commercials — :30 ads are better when there’s a need to explain more fully a product’s benefits, when the message is complex and when the aim is to drive high awareness. Advertisers can benefit by using shorter :15 ads when the message is straight forward and when the product has been on the market for six months.
But I offer this thought: We TV viewers wind up suffering with commercial overload (clutter) when a bunch of short TV ads are grouped together. We perceive commercial breaks have gotten longer than the standard two-plus minutes, even though they haven’t. When a bunch of ads are grouped together, we have trouble recalling them. Some of us mentally tune them out – not a good thing for the advertisers.
At least most advertisers haven’t labeled their ads “breaking news” – yet.