behind the scenes

Breaking News Breakdown

4:03:00 PM

Since I started working with my station nearly 4 years ago, I've had the opportunity to organize coverage of many breaking news stories. If there's one thing I've learned about breaking news, it's that no two situations follow the same rules.

There are two types of breaking news - spot news like a car crash or fire and continuing coverage like a hostage situation.

Spot news situations happen and then they're over. You have a limited window of opportunity in which to act. You send a reporter, they shoot some video, interview witnesses, the people involved and maybe some officials if you're lucky. They bring it back, you put it in your show, it's over.

Continuing coverage is just that - coverage that lasts for days, weeks or even months. It gives you more time to plan. You may even go to some sort of 24-hour rotating schedule that involves everyone. Then the big day comes when everything finally culminates and nothing goes as planned.

It sounds so cliche but in breaking news situations, you should always expect the unexpected. Sometimes the authorities actually have a game plan and shut you down at every turn. That's just one reason why you shouldn't be attached to one plan. Don't get me wrong - having a plan helps, but it's always smart to have a backup plan ... or two.

I've been in more than one breaking news situation where we knew it was going to happen and we had all these grand plans, but once our reporter(s) got to the scene, nothing was actually happening. I've actually produced a two-hour show with 8 live shots from a scene where police had contained absolutely everything and my reporter said the same thing 8 times.

Sometimes you just have to accept that things aren't going the way you want them to, that maybe you allotted more time than you needed to or anticipated there being more to cover than there actually is. In those cases, it's extremely important to remember that the people you sent to the scene are your eyes and ears and you have to trust them.

Breaking news is loud, often times crowded, always rushed and never at an opportune time. And through it all you're trying to remain grounded. You want to report the most recent information, but you understand the importance of letting that information come from the authorities. In most cases, your viewers won't thank you for that bit of ethics. They'll accuse you of hiding things and being slow. But you know the truth.

You only have one shot to get it right, and when you do, you'll realize how totally worth it everything was.

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3 comments

  1. I cringe every time one of my local stations begins a cast with "live team coverage" of an event that seemed like a big deal a few hours earlier but had become significantly less important by air time. It has happened when hurricanes or tropical storms seem like an imminent threat to the area but suddenly diminish in intensity or take an unexpected turn away from us. The producer is presented with a major problem when this happens because you already have the weather guy to explain what happened but you also have all your reporters in the field committed to storm coverage. You're right, though. No matter how you handle such situations some guy drinking a beer in a dirty t-shirt will inevitably call you up to bitch about it.

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    1. Don't forget the old ladies. And all the parents wanting to know if and why their kids' school is closing. And the crazy people who call regardless.

      It's my belief that newsrooms shouldn't have phones. Ha.

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  2. i would make a lousy reporter, particularly a breaking news reporter! the unknown, the spontaneity, the unpredictability, the ad libbing -- it would all drive me crazy! i hate being ill-prepared and flustered! it takes a certain skill set to make it all happen and happen well!

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