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If it ain't broken...
September 3, 2013

Breaking News. Those two little words can sound a warning cry when uttered by a news anchor. But has the call to attention grown dull from overuse?

In July, WDRB, a news station in Louisville, KY, announced that it was ditching the term except in cases where the news warrents it. (Like, when a story is actually breaking.) In honor of this noble venture, may we present our highly selective history of the industry’s obsession with “breaking” the news.

1906: After the San Francisco earthquake, the Associated Press introduces the
“FLASH” as a means of alerting editors to “news of transcendent importance” in as brief
a way as possible.

July 23, 1920: The New York Times backs into the breaking news game with, “Crown Prince at Doorn: Consults with Father on Breaking News of Joachim’s
Death to Mother,” about Prussian Prince Frederick William dealing with his father’s grief over his youngest child’s suicide.

May 7, 1945: AP reporter Edward Kennedy defies an Allied Command embargo and breaks news of the Nazi surrender and the end of war in Europe. The AP publically rebuked and fired Kennedy; he received a posthumous apology last year.

2005: BBC airs Broken News, a satirical take on the nightly news, featuring reporters who endlessly stall for time while they try to manufacture breaking stories.

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2007:, which aggregates breaking news broken elsewhere, launches. Its Twitter account, @Breaking News, has 6 million followers.

2011: For the first time, the Pulitzer committee withholds a prize in the “Breaking News” category, eliminating finalist stories on Haiti and the death of two Chicago firefighters.

February 25, 2013: Anderson Cooper opens his 8pm broadcast with a “breaking” travel warning from the National Weather Service–news that had already been reported by Fox 2 in St. Louis (via CNN) at 9:35am. BuzzFeed dubs Cooper king of “breaking news” misuse.

July 2013: Media consulting firm SmithGeiger leaks a list of suggested phrases,
sent to local TV affiliates to add urgency to newscasts. Samples include: “We do have
some breaking news right away”; “You saw it here first just minutes
ago”; and “You’ll hear in just seconds.”

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.