Guidelines for Covering Breaking News
"Professional electronic journalists should pursue truth aggressively and present the news accurately, in context, and as completely as possible."
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.
Electronic news journalists perform vital functions during disasters and other emergencies. When serious events occur, news operations have special responsibilities as news consumers may be relying on the media for life-saving information.
RTDNA suggests the following standards be applied to covering breaking news events:
- Determine your criteria for running special reports, including news crawls. Stations should make decisions based on journalistic merit, what community action may be required, and in the interest of public safety. 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.
- Television stations should remember that FCC rules require that you caption emergency information. Have you created a system for quickly serving hearing-impaired viewers with vital information they may not be able to hear?
- News managers should carefully consider that broadcasting select information could potentially cause harm. For example, if a SWAT team member is in a specific position during a hostage situation, do you have procedures to avoid putting him/her at risk while broadcasting live?
- FCC regulations prohibit information transmitted on emergency frequencies from being broadcast without independent confirmation. Is your staff aware of this regulation?
- Journalists should avoid presenting the names of victims of injury or death until relatives 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 dead or injured.
- 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. One of the great lessons from 9/11 coverage is that the public trusted the information they 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 callers proximity to the breaking news. Find someone in the newsroom that 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 implicate anyone as a suspect or victim during the course of the conversation.
Aside from the details of coverage, stations should think about the operational decisions necessary to ensure information reach the audience in a rapid and useful fashion. These organizational guidelines can help meet that goal:
- Create a breaking news plan in advance. Be prepared by creating contingencies for disasters. Make the plans as thorough as possible and involve all departments when creating the plans. Communicate your plans in writing to all those who would play a role in your coverage.
- Does your station have a safety plan for employees covering events where they might be exposed to hazards such as toxic waste releases? What can you do to minimize potential dangers to your employees who might be caught in an unsafe situation such as police activity or a riot? Discuss with employees working in the field the need to stay safe and avoid personal injury and that no story is worth risking one's life.
- Standards for breaking news coverage should apply to all types of distribution including but not limited to radio, television, online, personal communications devices and cell phone data.
- Citizens can provide valuable assistance by providing helpful information to news organizations. But news managers must be cautious when accepting information, video and pictures and verify the information is correct and images are authentic. There are people who try to fool news organizations with bad information or fake pictures. Remember the damage that can be caused to the entire community and to your professional reputation if you present material that turns out later to be false.
RTDNF provides workshops and programs on ethics, leadership and decision-making skills and RTDNA provides a number of other guidelines for specific journalistic challenges. In addition, RTDNA staff members and board members are always available to provide assistance upon request.