How to Cover Breaking News

Photo by KaosBrutal (Retorn). CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Photo by KaosBrutal (Retorn). CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What is breaking news? 

An unexpected event that happened within the last six hours. When you send a post through sub-editing, the latest development included in the post should have happened in the last three hours. If these two conditions are met, you can tag the post “breaking news” in the categories.

Predictable or expected events such as elections can have breaking news elements to them (like surprising results or outbreaks of violence), but they are not breaking news stories in and of themselves. We should think carefully before we package something as breaking news so that we don’t cheapen the urgency associated with the term for our audience.

When you commit to writing a developing breaking news story, you are also committing to following and updating the story after it is published. The 24 hours after news breaks is crucial, so if you cannot follow the story, please hand it to someone who can. If you cannot find someone to follow the story, reconsider whether you want to write the story as breaking news.

What is trending news? 

News that once was breaking may continue to trend for days. While this type of news does have a limited shelf life, this is no longer breaking news, so we should be careful not to present our stories as such.

Unexpected news breaks. Now what?

  1. Notify the sub-editors that you or one of your team members will be covering the news so they are on stand-by.
  2. Notify your GV regional community to crowdsource information. Make sure to credit anyone who contributes to the post.
  3. Prepare a brief post that describes the basic facts (who? what? where? when?) and circumstances of the situation and puts the breaking news in context as much as possible. This might be as short as a paragraph or two, depending on how much information in available.
  4. Modify the URL to something simple that won’t become dated. It’s possible the headline will have to change as the story develops.
  5. Send the draft to the sub-editing team to quickly sub-edit and publish.
  6. Continue to update the post as news develops, fill in the necessary context and background information and add social media reactions, if necessary. Add an “updated” note in bold to the top of the post each time you modify it. For example: Updated at 9 a.m. GMT, July 9.
  7. If the situation changes enough to publish a second post, make sure to mention and link to the second post at the top of the first one so readers are accurately informed.

When can I add “BREAKING” in the headline? 

If no one else has broken the story, or if it has happened within the last 90 minutes. Please remember to take “BREAKING” out of the headline within the next two hours.

Are you really writing a breaking news post?

Writing a breaking news story should be treated with urgency. Put all other tasks aside until the story is finished. In physical newsrooms, writers on breaking news desks are racing against the clock — they don’t move till the story is out. And as soon as the story is published, they run for the bathroom or the kitchen to grab the lunch they missed.

If you find yourself working on other stories or attending to other tasks while drafting the story, consider taking 45 minutes out to draft a simpler 400-word breaking news story or reconsider whether the story is actually breaking news.

Also, as Reuters puts it, don’t “file and flee.” Remain available for sub-editors in case of any questions that may hold up publishing.

Coverage up to 48 hours after news breaks

While we should start our breaking news coverage with a basic, to-the-point story, we can accompany it with short posts such as:

  • A list of social media users to follow
  • Ways that readers can help
  • Curated photo and video from the scene
  • An explanation of graphics related to the situation, such as graphs, maps or timelines
  • A brief answer to the question “Why should I care?”

Coverage more than 48 hours after news breaks

We should continue to write about a situation after it ceases to be breaking news. We can do this by covering the story from different angles instead of waiting for developments to break.

Try not to stuff too many angles into one long post. Instead, break up the coverage into multiple posts. Short, concise posts are easier on readers and easier to turn around quickly in the sub-editing process.

Ideas for follow-up coverage include:

  • A review of debunked stories surrounding the news
  • An explanation of photos/videos/memes that the news generated
  • A timeline of events
  • A recap of events 30 or 60 days afterward
  • An explainer or FAQ on the context surrounding the news
  • Personal experiences (including from GVers) that shed a human light on the news
  • A profile of projects working on the ground
  • Perspectives on the news from a GV editor or GV community members
  • An analysis of how big media covered the news
  • An analysis of how the story broke and what went well or poorly
  • An explanation of stories that went untold
  • An analysis of the role Internet played in the breaking news
  • An analysis of how the issue could come up in the future

Special coverage pages

We can create special coverage pages for stories that generate three or more posts. These pages should not only curate our stories around a certain topic in one convenient location, but also act as a resource for readers just learning of a situation.

Special coverage pages should include a brief introduction to the topic, an explanation of the context surrounding the topic and links to our past coverage. The pages can also include elements such as:

  • An interactive timeline, such as those available through Timeline JS
  • A list of resources for readers who want to know more
  • Embedded Twitter lists following a certain hashtag or group of users