Something big has happened. Maybe a flurry of law enforcement activity. A building evacuated. Families unable to reached loved ones. Sirens wailing and ambulances hurtling past. In the first minutes and hours, people are desperate for information, and reliable information may also be scarce.
During breaking news, newsrooms are put to the test under the pressure of a concerned or even panicked public. Reporters, anchors and producers must work quickly but also carefully.
Break down a 2017 Murrow Award-winning piece for Breaking News, NBC’s coverage of the January 2017 shooting at Fort Lauderdale Airport, to see how breaking news coverage can inform, add context and provide an important public service during a developing situation.
In watching the coverage, it is immediately noticeable that everyone contributing to the on-air reporting is calm, clear and alert. From the newsroom and on the scene, using a clear authoritative tone is the first way the reporting stays factual and measured. The scene’s layout is clearly described and the key facts are restated periodically throughout the broadcast, knowing audiences may not be tuning in continually.
For more, see RTDNA’s guidelines on covering mass shootings.
What is known and what is not
The report is also clear about the facts: What is happening right now? What is the reporter on the ground actually seeing? What are law enforcement officials saying? Just as importantly, the reporting makes clear what isn’t known yet at various points throughout the broadcast, without speculating as to what could be.
For more, see RTDNA’s guidelines on breaking news.
Show how you know
One key phrase from the breaking coverage was “the best information we have from witnesses is…” In addition to letting viewers know what information was not yet available, the report included explanations of where available information was coming from, whether from law enforcement, based on video footage from the scene, or from witnesses. Viewers also know that in developing stories, the situation can change quickly. For example, official reports on the number of victims frequently change, and taking the time to point that out to audiences was transparent and helpful.
The report included insights from several witnesses on the scene, and it was clear from the witness statements that they were carefully vetted prior to coming on air. When asked what they had seen and done, the information the witnesses provided was specific, relevant and important. Witness information corresponded with what was known from other sources and provided important, additional insight.
For more, see RTDNA’s guidelines on evaluating sources and user-generated content.
In breaking situations, speculation is to be avoided, but providing context is key. In this story, providing insight into the immediate implications of the situation for travelers and their relatives meant sharing actionable information with the public, like showing law enforcement blocking roads to the scene and, following the suspect’s arrest, discussing the next steps law enforcement would be taking to secure the scene.
Similarly, the reporting anticipated audience questions about what would happen next and in the longer term by sharing insight into law enforcement procedures following suspect arrests.
For more, see RTDNA’s guidelines on live coverage.
Perhaps counterintuitively, successful breaking news coverage requires careful planning. In this case, the news team clearly demonstrated expertise in airport layouts, terms and dangers, identifying runways and taxiways from the live footage. The team was also able to add context from a recent conversation with a TSA official – a good reminder that it is important to keep up with officials and law enforcement regularly, not just during the immediate needs of breaking news.
For more, see RTDNA’s guidelines on covering law enforcement.
Successfully covering breaking news is a team effort, testing the skills of producers, editors, anchors and reporters in the field. For more behind the scenes of this Murrow Award-winning piece, hear from members of the NBC news team at Excellence in Journalism’s “What it takes to be a Murrow Award winner.”