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Breaking News hype: one local TV station vows not to use the term – offers 10-point contract with viewers

I didn’t know anything about WDRB-TV in Louisville until I heard about a promo they began airing last month.

An Associated Press story explains:

 “(WDRB) recently began running an advertisement telling viewers that stations constantly touting “breaking news” reports are deceiving viewers with a marketing ploy. “Breaking news is seldom actually breaking,” the ad said, “and quite often isn’t actually news.”

WDRB offered a 10-point “Contract with Our Viewers” promising bias- and hype-free news programs that strive to beat rivals to a story but never at the expense of being right.

The station will use the phrases “news alert” or “this is a developing story” when merited, said Bill Lamb, president and general manager of WDRB. But it has avoided “breaking news” for a few years now. Lamb said he sees it so often elsewhere that it was time to speak up.

“They’re saying you need to create this sense of urgency to make people think you’re on top of everything going on right now, whether you are or not,” Lamb said. “It’s an illusion.”

A story lifted from another news source isn’t breaking, nor is a relatively timeless government report. Anyone who has followed local news can recall reporters doing live shots from the scene of an accident or crime that happened so long ago that the location is already empty.

News blogs run by Mervin Block and Jim Romenesko recently got ahold of a list of phrases recommended to television stations by SmithGeiger, a California consultant group. People who write news stories at TV stations need to find the right words to capture a sense of immediacy that viewers demand, the consultants said.

Here are some examples:

–“Breaking news just coming in to our newsroom.”

–“We are going to be covering this live for you.”

–“Breaking as we go on air.”

–“We are going to stay on this story every step of the way.”

–“We have new information for you as soon as anything happens.”

–“This is a rapidly developing situation.”

“Many stations — not all — spend what I think is an inordinate amount of time emphasizing the kinds of things like ‘breaking news,’ ‘live’ or ‘latest development,'” said Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, and a longtime local news executive. “Some of it may be true, but a lot of it is not so true.”

Here’s the promo that’s been airing in Louisville:

And here’s the 10-point contract with viewers:

  1. We will not hype our product, and our promotion will always be truthful. We will strive to present reporting that is bias free.
  2. We will seek to minimize harm to the people who are the subject of our stories.
  3. Weather reporting will be calm and rational — never sensational. During severe weather, we will tell you what you need to know for your safety without monopolizing your television.
  4. We will set our own standards and not mimic or copy our competition.
  5. We will not use the term “breaking news” as we believe this to be merely a marketing ploy. We believe the relationship viewers have with their television station should not begin with deception.
  6. We will strive to use our viewers’ time wisely — each story will teach, inform, entertain or resolve or it will not air.
  7. We will strive to be first but never at the expense of being right.
  8. We will serve this community we love with a passion.
  9. We believe that complete and accurate information, taken in context, is a cornerstone of a democratic society.
  10. We will oppose any attempt by government or individuals to curb the free flow of information to the people.

Maybe it’s just a marketing ploy by WDRB, as has been suggested by the news director of a competing Louisville station that touts its “breaking news” coverage.

But I hope not.  Now I wonder if they’d be willing to be the first local TV station in the country to adopt and act on our 10 criteria for health news coverage about medical interventions?


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