Covering Breaking News

This is one of the core values stated in the RTDNA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. Reporting information accurately and completely may be particularly challenging during breaking news situations.

Every organization should have a breaking news plan.  When breaking news occurs, the team will be better prepared as leaders to provide the community with accurate information across all platforms to keep the community safe.  Organizations often become part of the story and it is critical that they have plans as well.

  • Journalists should understand the story.  What do you know? How do you know it?  Has the information been confirmed and/or vetted?  Who confirmed the story? How is it affecting the community?
  • Determine your criteria for running the breaking news on social media, online and on air, including news crawls.    What does the community need to know? Is there a public safety issue or risk?  Who are the stakeholders involved? Evaluate the story from a broad  perspective to ensure the team is providing the most relevant content with context.   What is the standard for interrupting programming? Does it change from one time period to another? Once you interrupt programming, how can you avoid speculation and repetition during the early moments when details are likely to be few and sketchy?
  • Determine how your coverage can inform and alert the public without causing panic or unnecessary alarm. Be factual and resist speculation.  When using social media, it is important to remind your team not to say anything they would not say on air. 
  • Television stations must comply with FCC regulations.  News managers should have a 24-hour closed caption coordinator.  If news happens, who will notify the closed captioning company?  Review your system to serve the hearing-impaired often as new employees are brought on staff.
  • Broadcasting live, whether on air or via social media, carries special risks. See RTDNA’s live coverage guidelines and consider potential harm: For example, if a SWAT team member is in position during a hostage situation, do you have procedures to avoid putting him/her at risk while broadcasting live? Are there undercover agents’ faces you must protect?  Is broadcasting live putting first-responders or anyone else in danger?
  • Vet all user-generated content, including 911 calls, pictures, video and information before putting it on-air. See RTDNA guidelines for using User-Generated Content.
  • FCC regulations prohibit information transmitted on emergency frequencies from being broadcast without independent confirmation. Is your staff aware of this regulation?
  • Journalists should  consider the harm caused by reporting names of victims of injury or death  before loved ones have been properly notified. When conducting live interviews with witnesses during a major event, reporters should caution those being interviewed in advance not to mention specific names of the dead or injured unless the information has been confirmed and families have been notified.
  • One of the greatest challenges is providing context during the opening moments of a breaking story. Prepare names and contact information for experts in a number of fields who can be placed on the air quickly to discuss emergencies.
  • Anchors and reporters should remain calm on air and online. One of the great lessons from 9/11 coverage is that the public trusted the information it received at least in part because of the reassuring manner in which the information was reported during the crisis.
  • When in doubt, don't go live with a telephone call from someone who claims to have urgent information in a breaking news event. If you are not sure about the authenticity of the caller, get the information, return telephone number and ask questions that could help verify the telephone caller’s proximity to the breaking news. Find someone in the newsroom who can further research the validity of the telephone call. If you decide to go live with a call, remind the caller not to use names of individuals on the air and not to identify anyone as a suspect or victim during the course of the conversation.