Elias: Breaking News! Just Kidding.

Overuse of breaking news headlines contributes to desensitization and distrust.

by Chantal Elias | 1/18/19 2:10am

Breaking news! Donald Trump is at his Mar-A-Largo Club. Breaking news! Donald Trump is serving NFL players fast food. Breaking news! 

We have a breaking news epidemic. Constant access to local, national and international news is a reality for the vast majority of Americans — and news sources are capitalizing upon it. Americans are living in an information age that leaves them ever-hungry to remain connected to news at all times. The last few years in particular have seen Americans consuming more news than ever before. A study conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that the average American spends somewhere between 24-72 minutes with news a day. The desire to stay informed, in tandem with a dynamic national and international climate, has created a very gullible population that is always on edge, waiting for the next big piece of news to drop. This gives news networks an easy audience to capitalize on and suck in with attention-grabbing headlines on the TV screen in a coffee shop, on the lock screen of people’s phones or perhaps emblazoned on the newspapers that lie on their front steps. Unfortunately, this has created a host of problems that the public must contend with.   

Desensitization is perhaps the most disconcerting consequence. That is, the inability to be alarmed by life-endangering disasters. Some of us have lost the ability to cry when we see the death of a young child on the front page, or to be concerned when there is a terrorist attack near our hometown. The loss of these emotions is not so much due to drastic content change as it is a by-product of plastering President Donald Trump’s vacation plans and  national emergencies under the same headline of “Breaking News.” 

Urgent news, in its true form, should be life-endangering information that needs to quickly grab viewers’ attentions. With the obnoxious overuse of the “breaking news” headline also comes a burden of psychological and physical consequences. People are programmed to react to emergencies with a fight-or-flight response, and historically, “breaking news” headlines have elicited such a response. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule when breaking news affects a part of the world other than our own. Today, breaking news rarely affects anyone but the members of the United States government and are often insignificant updates regarding the web of political drama engulfing the institution. 

CNN is perhaps the biggest over-user of breaking news headlines. Their abuse of the phrase served as the butt of Hasan Minhaj’s joke at the 2017 White house Correspondent Dinner. Minhaj pointed out that “[CNN has] got some really weird trust issues going on with the public.” Minhaj drew attention to a very real consequence of constantly scaring the public — a decline in the trust citizens have toward the media. As a result, CNN is knee-deep in the territory of “fake breaking news.” What will happen when CNN really needs to get the attention of the public? Will America trust the validity of the breaking news? 

While CNN may have been accused of such actions years ago, its consequences are felt more harshly by news consumers today because people are ingesting news with every turn of their head. News phone apps such as BBC and CNN capitalize on this, with their eye-catching red banner headlines. The United States’ political climate today is a perfect habitat for news agencies to draw in their targets. American citizens, obsessed with the volatility and drama of national politics, are vulnerable prey. Each week there is a different issue riling the country up, whether it is a sexual abuse account, an update from the 2016 Russian interference or a new executive order introduced by President Trump. In this polarizing time, Americans look to the news, not necessarily because they want to, but because the country is constantly changing. Spending hour after hour reading the flashing headlines causes many to forget the absurdity of political decisions such as a zero-tolerance immigration policy or travel ban on majority-Muslim countries.   

What is the next step?  I believe there is value in creating regulations for what can constitute a breaking news headline. News agencies must ask: without this information branded as breaking news, will the public be at any loss? I also advocate for humanity-based reporting — for news sites to remember the real consequences that arise from an incorrect determination of urgent information. While citizens may be waiting anxiously for a Mueller investigation update, does that necessitate a breaking news story? News sources and its readers must work together to remain informed, but not paranoid. Citizens need to have confidence that news agencies are publicizing true “breaking news.” Believe me, this epidemic is not fake news.