How to handle a breaking news situation

Knowing who does what, why, when, and how

<a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-thomas-brewer/" target="_new">Slide by David Brewer</a> released via <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/" target="_blank">Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0</a>.
Slide by David Brewer released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.

I was asked to create a training module for a 24-hour TV channel in an Asian country where competition is fierce, and being last with the news isn’t an option.

Prior to the training they sent me a wish-list of what they wanted fixed in their news organisation. The issues they wanted help with were around the issue of how to handle breaking news:

1: Speed – a faster response to breaking news alerts
2: Planning and logistics – better coordination of staff and resources
3: Improved communications – who is doing what and when
4: Organising output – roles and responsibilities
5: News management – orchestrating operations

So I shared with them the example of how an international TV and digital news organisation I had worked with in the past dealt with breaking news.

1: Confirmation
A breaking news story has to be confirmed by two of the following: A news reporter, a member of the bureau staff in the area concerned, and/or any other independent sources.

2: Action
The news programme producer or senior supervisor in charge of the news desk liaises with the international and domestic desks and the interactive team. Regional specialists are alerted. A decision is taken to go live.

3: Collaboration
The international desk and the domestic desk discuss how they can each bring different elements to the coverage. The interactive team meanwhile start to piece together the first elements of the story. Depending on the location, one desk covers the main story while the other desk looks for angles that help explain events to their audience. Resources are shared wherever possible.

4: Convergence
At the same time the social media team slips into top gear and moves into a well-rehearsed routine which includes updating the online news ticker and providing regular social media updates. Chronological live updates are created along with a live blog. And all this from a team that is sitting in close proximity to the team producing the TV output. They have to be breathing the same air; it is no using having them in a different room, floor, or building.

5: Depth and added value
The main news desk lines up its (regional bureau) contacts and correspondents; often this is supported by bookers who help out with research the best experts to talk to and arranging interviews. Social media plays a major role when it comes to finding good sources and info snippets or even video and pictures related to the news story.

6: Roles & Responsibilities
In the early minutes of a breaking news story the TV anchor plays a crucial role when it comes to asking the right questions and keeping flow of the output going. The initial news-gathering time varies and depends on good sources – which most major news organisations tend to have. Planning, booking, research work together in order to add depth and new angles.

7: Building on Breaking News
Based on the growing set of information, the elements of a breaking news show can be built up. They are ordered and arranged by the news programme’s producer or senior supervisor and include support from those running the live output and any specialists on the international desk specialists. The standard elements are interviews or reporters updates with clips, graphics, pictures, social media, witness accounts etc etc.

8: Revising & Refreshing
Then starts a continuous process of updates. Material is arranged and re-arranged as needed by the production teams – producers, writers, graphic artists etc – the usual TV and online production specialists. The challenge is to stay with the main story but weave in fresh elements.

9: Breaking becomes developing
After a while, breaking news transitions into a developing news situation. In exceptional cases, teams on various continents have to take over and keep the story going. This is when the international desk becomes particularly important and busy as it then turns into a logistics and resources management exercise.

10: Developing returns to regular
Planners and editors on the main news desk discuss resources with senior management. Depending on the state of the budget – and based on the strength of story – resources are allocated or withdrawn based on cost and the likely reach/impact. Teams are scaled down or built up case by case.

11: Maximum ongoing exploitation
As soon as breaking news happens, planners are in action working on follow-ups, studio debates and related programmes. Most news organisations will try to extract and exploit every piece of content for the maximum benefit of the audience and the news brand. Nothing goes to waste, everything is reworked and reused in different output areas and for days ahead, as well as in pick of the week, month, year, etc, etc.

12: Online story development
The online news team will have set aside resources in order to build fact-files, timelines, and info graphics which, in a converged news operation will be created in such a way as to be able to be used online and on air. These interactive assets need to be promoted via the TV anchor in a way that encourages those who want to read about the issue in-depth to stick with brand and move from TV to the online coverage and back.