BREAKING: Paul Allen, Microsoft’s co-founder, is dead at 65. BREAKING: No winning lottery ticket sold in Tuesday night’s Mega Millions drawing, meaning jackpot climbs to $868 million. BREAKING: Pacific Gas and Electric to shut off power in parts of northern California, due to high winds and elevated fire risk. BREAKING: Trump tweeted.
The concept of “breaking news” is a nebulous one, and the label BREAKING is applied at random to all kinds of things: events that are in progress; events that are volatile or require urgent attention like extreme weather or (unexpected) violence; events that have only just happened; or events that simply haven’t been reported yet. The term doesn’t mean much anymore, but BREAKING is used so often on Twitter and homepages and TV banners that it has spawned a parodic meme. BREAKING: My dog picked up a very large stick. (It’s true, she did, it was awesome.)
When I worked at a local newspaper as a “breaking news reporter”—in itself an absurd term, but that was my official job title—many of my stories were labeled BREAKING online. A car crash that happened overnight in San Jose and had already been cleared but not yet reported was BREAKING. A decision in a court case was BREAKING. A police shooting that happened nearly 24 hours before I wrote about it was BREAKING. Wildfires, of course, were BREAKING. At a certain point, I started feeling insane; was everything really falling apart all the time, or was I just making it seem that way?
Since when did news “break”? There’s a theory, which I like, that the term comes from when medieval heralds used to “break” the seals on the scrolls before reading their news out loud in village squares. There’s no evidence that this is really the origin of breaking news but the reconnection of the term to a literal breakage—and to a time when towns got their news via crier—feels wholesome and charming. The Oxford English Dictionary finds the first usage of the term in 1877, in an Illinois newspaper, referring to “the most important or breaking stories of the day.” At that time, late-breaking stories became a common term: it used to be a bigger problem for newspapers when things happened after or close to print deadline. If the news didn’t make it into the paper, there was nowhere else for it to go, so late news was a disruption in the flow of a newspaper’s publication. The term’s usage increased during the heyday of cable news, when major events would “break” into regularly scheduled programming. Again, the “breaking” here referred to a disruption to news itself, and our expectations for how we would get it. Now there is not really regularly scheduled programming, or there is but it’s more diffuse, because the news is on all the time, not just at six or seven p.m.; thus everything is BREAKING but we don’t know what it’s breaking, exactly.
This is a symptom of a grave and well-known problem: the 24/7 news cycle, the constant churn of reporting and the relentless fight for attention. But the problem of BREAKING is separate, and the overuse of the term creates its own set of issues. The first is the conflation of events major and minor, dire and completely normal, both ongoing and long over. A fast-spreading fire equals the long-expected death of a prominent person who really has been on the road to death, like all of us, since the day he was born.
The second problem is a stranger one: nothing is happening any faster or slower than time itself. Meaning that breaking news is just events unfolding, as they must—which might be in a disastrous, horrendous way that feels so fast we can hardly bear it, or in a way that feels more like a slow-motion horror show. But either way, the pace of things is the same. BREAKING distorts our understanding of this reality of time, and makes it feel fragmented and fast and marked by events that are constantly spiraling disruptively through the world.
There are ways of demarcating important news without using the term BREAKING: perhaps URGENT would be a better label for ongoing news about events that impact the public safety, as in the case of on-the-ground reporting on hurricanes and mass shootings. Rather than implying fragmentation, it implies necessity. There are things we really need to know right now—what time the weather will come, and where—and since the media is often more effective than the government at communicating those things, there needs to be a way to differentiate them from the noise. Of course, any label can be cheapened in the game for competing attention—the red blinking emoji means nothing anymore—but BREAKING is so far depleted that it’s worth replacing in dire situations.
BREAKING means shattering, like an explosion of glass against the ground—which is why I like the theory about medieval scrolls. I’m not convinced that there are many events that merit a synonym for shattering. The assassination of John F. Kennedy and the September 11 attacks come to mind, fast ruptures with an existing accepted international reality, a break with what “we” knew before. Catastrophes are not the only things that rise to this level. News like this breaks through the noise of ordinary living. It puts a stop to one way of understanding the world, and replaces it with new facts and systems. In some ways perhaps the term breaking news applies more aptly to the kinds of revelations like those in the Panama Papers, of things that have been going on all along, without our knowing it, news that fills out a different picture of the world than the one many of us had before. More than a single event, news like this is a rupture.
To apply BREAKING at random to the routine events of lived life that qualify as news—weather, the traffic on 93, the whims of the president, individual births and deaths—implies that everyday events are a series of breaks. There is no reality left that is not breaking, or already broken.