The Message

News directors debate what is, and isn't, breaking news.

In today's version of television news, graphics are slowly but steadily eating the screen. Broadcasts without at least an update ticker running along the image's base have grown exceedingly rare, and plenty of programs feature additional flotsam: time, temp, logos, American flags, the current terrorism-danger color scheme, and assorted banners trumpeting upcoming events in a style that suggests Doc Severinsen on crystal meth. During one recent evening, viewers who stopped by the Fox News channel saw a bold red banner with white letters that screamed about a "FOX NEWS ALERT." Turned out a press conference in relation to a fatal nightclub fire in Rhode Island a day or so earlier would be taking place about ten minutes hence -- interesting, but far from earth-shattering when put in the context of this post-9/11 age.

On a local level, the situation isn't quite as extreme. But graphics are a growing part of every Denver newscast, especially as concerns what's regularly labeled as "breaking news" -- a term that's lately been the subject of contention in commercials for two of the market's most prominent stations. Channel 4 has spent months airing spots identifying itself as the area's one-stop shopping place for breaking news. More recently, Channel 9 countered with ads noting that 9News doesn't label items as breaking news when they're not.

Television insiders immediately interpreted this promo as a blow aimed at Channel 4's midsection, with many wondering why Channel 9 would bother taking such an obvious swing at a less-popular crosstown rival. One reason might be the narrowing news-ratings gap separating the stations, while another motivator could be the possibility that Channel 9 anchor Jim Benemann is considering a jump to Channel 4, as reported in the February 27 Rocky Mountain News. Setting these prospects aside, the questions raised by Channel 9's promo are intriguing in and of themselves. To wit: What's the definition of "breaking news"? And are some stations pretending that lesser stories deserve breaking-news status in a self-aggrandizing effort to spice up their broadcasts?

The news directors at the five local stations that cover events of the day -- channels 2, 4, 7, 9 and 31 -- all say they're careful not to mislabel reports, whether they touch upon breaking news or not. Typical are the remarks of Channel 7 news director Byron Grandy: "When people see the words 'breaking news,' their expectation is that there's something major about this story and that it must be happening right now. I think if you begin to push the boundaries of that, you're not doing your viewers any service at all. The key is to be honest."

Pinning down the meaning of "breaking news" is considerably more difficult. Notes Patti Dennis, news director for Channel 9, "That's pretty subjective. What's important to one segment of the audience might not be important to another."

True, but graphics don't lend themselves to ambiguity; they're meant to simply tell folks what's coming next. In the case of Channel 4, nearly every feature of the average newscast is introduced by visuals -- not just weather and sports, but investigative pieces, traffic updates and breaking news, which is central to the persona the station has worked hard to establish.

The man behind this makeover is Walt DeHaven, who was named Channel 4's vice president and general manager last August. In previously unpublished comments from an interview conducted for a column that ran the following month ("Not Kinder, Not Gentler," September 19, 2002), DeHaven made it clear that breaking news was extremely important to him and shared his opinion that Channel 4 delivered it "better than anyone else here." He also acknowledged that at the time of his arrival, these words were being slapped on quite a high percentage of stories.

"From a promotional standpoint, there's a lot of breaking news," he said. "What I wanted to make sure of is that it meant something, and it does mean something. I think if anything, you'll see a little less of that jumping out at you -- 'Breaking news! Breaking news!' But you'll see a lot more of us doing breaking news.

"We want to be first on and, if it merits, last off," DeHaven added. "We want to be the most comprehensive, we want to be the most thoughtful. You've seen IDs saying that's what we are, and I'm not opposed to that. I'm against it being exploitive -- but if we stand behind that, I don't think it is. We know people will respond to us if we do it in a respectful fashion."

Channel 4's news director, Angie Kucharski, doesn't construe these marching orders as permission to tag everything as breaking news -- but neither does she shy away from employing the phrase if, in her view, such a step is justified. "We want to make sure that we are very direct in telling people that this is a developing story or a new development in a story we've been reporting," she says. "That's why you see, for the sake of a better word, the labeling of breaking news."

Kucharski insists that the vigorous promotion of Channel 4 as the breaking-news leader, which has expanded exponentially since DeHaven's arrival, places no pressure on her to make sure newscasts include something dubbed breaking news as often as possible. "I can't speak for the other news organizations in town," she says, "but whether it's coverage of the search for an avalanche victim or breaking information about a storm that's coming in, we know what 'breaking news' means for us. And more importantly, we believe our viewers are able to understand and identify that with us."

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