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Breaking news is daunting, chaotic; focusing on ‘A-game’ is



by Stan Zoller, MJE

To many journalists, the “rush” of a breaking news story is like no other feeling as journalistic instincts kick in at a moment’s notice.

Whether it’s an international, national, regional or local story, covering breaking news requires journalists to resort back to those A-game skills they learned as a student journalist.

It also entails an extreme attention to details as in the early stages of a breaking news story. As hard as it may be during the potential chaos that is often associated with a breaking story, fact checking and accuracy remains paramount.

The recent holiday parade tragedy in Waukesha, Wisconsin is a classic example. The instant and seemingly surreal unfolding of events pushed reporters to the limit to get out as much information. 

As difficult as it may be to do, information for breaking news stories, especially of horrific events, needs transparency and accuracy.

As former Washington Post reporter, Jackie Spinner, keynote speaker at the 2009 JEA convention told a packed JEA conference in Washington, D.C. it seems as if more and more media outlets are interested in getting information out first rather than get it right.

In these days of instant transmittal of information, it seems as if that’s becoming the norm. But it can be an embarrassing one. As difficult as it may be to do, information for breaking news stories, especially of horrific events, needs transparency and accuracy.

For example:

  • When quoting eye witnesses, identify who they are and where they were. If possible, identify any expertise or affiliation an eyewitness may have to establish a higher degree of credibility.
  • Citing first responders can be tricky. When using police, fire or rescue personnel, be sure to identify their rank and role. For example, “Paramedic Frank Smith who arrived on the scene said” tells news consumers that he was a responder. Conversely, reporting like “At a press conference, Deputy Chief Frank Smith said the department transported 15 people to area hospitals” not only gives news consumers a better idea as to what has transpired, but from a high-ranking source.
  • Citing hospitals presents another level of challenges. At the very least, identify the hospital by its proper name and its trauma level classification. Also, indicate any specialization the hospital may have. For example, if it’s a children’s hospital, be sure to indicate that as it tells the reader, viewer or listener that the situation includes pediatric patients.
  • Don’t estimate how many victims are being transported. Wait until an official number can be provided by an official source.
  • When asking about patient conditions, try and clarify what different levels may mean. Critical, serious, fair and good will indicate the severity of patient’s condition and potential prognosis for recovery. Avoid, at all cost, “stable condition.” A patient who has died is, theoretically, in stable condition. Local hospital or health care organizations may have guidelines for journalists to use.
  • Suspect or person of interest. Clarify how law enforcement agencies are using these terms. Some agencies may use the term interchangeably while others may have specific uses for both.
  • When there’s an arrest, understand that if a suspect is being held on $2 million bond, he or she can be released on a far lesser amount, often 10 percent of the court-ordered bond, which in this case would be $200,000.
  • Identifying suspects. Get the full name, hometown and, if possible, a general address.  This avoids accusing the wrong person.  It’s safer to say “John Smith of the 200 block of Main Street in Centerville was charged.” An age will also help clearly identify the person in custody.
  • If you are covering an accident or major fire, see if there’s a history of the location. This could be previous accidents or building code violations. Both are public records and should be available through Freedom of Information Acts or online court records.

Covering breaking news of catastrophic events is a daunting task. However, judicious reporting and background checks can enhance your reporting as well as your journalistic reputation.

In the long run, it can be a win-win situation as you will not only get first, but you will get it right.