Breaking news, interchangeably termed latebreaking news and also known as a special report or special coverage or news bulletin, is a current issue that broadcasters feel warrants the interruption of scheduled programming and/or current news in order to report its details. Its use is also assigned to the most significant story of the moment or a story that is being covered live. It could be a story that is simply of wide interest to viewers and has little impact otherwise. Many times, breaking news is used after the news organization has already reported on the story. When a story has not been reported on previously, the graphic and phrase "Just In" is sometimes used instead.
The format of a special report or breaking news event on television commonly consists of the current non-news programming suddenly switching to a reverse countdown from 5 or 10 seconds to allow any affiliated stations to switch to the network news feed (television stations typically do not provide these countdowns for local coverage, normally leading with a graphic and/or voiceover announcing the cut-in). There is then an opening graphic, featuring music (such as NBC's "The Pulse of Events", composed by John Williams) which adds an emphasis on the importance of the event. This is usually followed with the introduction of a news anchor, who welcomes the viewer to the broadcast and introduces the story at hand. Lower thirds and other graphics may also be altered to convey a sense of urgency.
Once the story is introduced, the network or local station may, if possible, choose to continue to show a live shot of the anchor or may cut away to video or images of the story that is being followed during the broadcast. Additionally, the coverage may be passed to a reporter at the location of the breaking event, possibly sharing more information about the story as it breaks.
Depending upon the story being followed, the report may last only a few minutes, or continue for multiple hours – or with the most significant events, days – at a time (events in which the latter instances has occurred include the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the September 11 attacks). If coverage continues for an extended amount of time, the network may integrate analysis about the story through analysts in-studio, via phone, satellite, broadband (B-GAN) or through other means of communication. Depending on the severity of the event, regular commercial advertising may be completely suspended for sustained coverage, and network affiliates will be required to insert their station identification in at the top of the hour overlaid during the report rather than through the usual means of a station imaging promo or program reminder.
When the coverage comes to a close, the network or station may either resume programming that was occurring prior to the event or begin new programming, depending upon the amount of time spent on the coverage. The anchor will usually remind viewers to check the network's website (or that of the station, if coverage is provided locally), or watch any cable news channels that may be co-owned with the network for more information. If the story breaks during daytime programming, the anchor will usually remind viewers that there will be or might be more details on their local news that day and a full wrap-up on the network's evening news program. Usually regular daytime programming is re-joined in progress and segments may be missed.
If the event occurs during prime time, the anchor will usually remind viewers that there will be more details on their late local newscast and on the network's overnight news program (if applicable) the next morning. Programming at this time is either joined in progress or started back up at the point of the interruption, depending on whether the program is new to air, highly rated or has time left in its time slot to finish airing. In either of the above instances, network (and in some cases, for local stations, syndicated) programs that have segments not aired or are pre-empted in their entirety by breaking news reports – particularly those that extend to or longer than 20 or 45 minutes, depending on the length of the previously scheduled program – may have to be rescheduled to air at a later time.
On radio, the process of a breaking news story is somewhat the same, though some different considerations are made for the medium. For instance, a breaking news theme is required by default to have an urgent tenor and be used only for the purpose of true breaking news or bulletins. This is obvious on the local all-news radio stations owned by CBS Radio, which very rarely use a breaking news theme for all but the most urgent and dire of breaking news, and is purposefully structured to give a sense of attention for the listener, almost sounding like an alarm. For local events, continuous coverage may be imposed, or else the station may wait until they have a reporter at the scene and will promise more details of the event as they become available.
National news that is broadcast over a radio network requires constant monitoring by station employees to allow the network coverage to air, although many stations will take the 'urgent' signal sent by the network and break into programming immediately. Again, continuous coverage from a national radio network depends on the severity of the event, and often the network may just pass down the coverage by their local affiliate with spare commentary by the network's anchors.
Other considerations are made also; FM music stations rarely relay breaking news unless it is an event of grave national concern, though local weather warnings are relayed when in effect (either in the form of updates provided by an on-staff anchor or disc jockey, an emergency alert system or through an audio simulcast of a television station which maintains a contractual partnership with a radio outlet). Less urgent events allow a network to feed updates to stations at 20, 30 and 50 minutes after the hour to give a summary of events. Stations are also careful about what stories are relayed during play-by-play broadcasts of professional and college sports, as those are the programs most listened to on radio, so breaking news coverage is limited to only commercial breaks.
News bulletins have been a fixture of radio broadcasting since at least the 1920s. Examples of early news bulletins in the Golden Age of Radio include fictionalized versions in the 1938 radio drama The War of the Worlds and coverage of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was also the first television news bulletin, reported on stations in New York and Pennsylvania. KTLA in Los Angeles is credited with being the first television station to provide extended coverage of a breaking news event: for 27½ hours from April 8 to 9, 1949, the station carried live coverage of an attempt to rescue three-year-old Kathy Fiscus, who had fallen down an abandoned well in San Marino, California, where she ultimately perished due to asphyxia from a lack of oxygen.
In the decades before 24-hour news networks such as CNN began to exist, programming interruptions were restricted to extremely urgent news, such as the death of an important political figure. For example, one of the earliest such interruptions that modern viewers would recognize as "breaking news" coverage was for the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963, (with CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite's coverage being especially noted), and as such reflected the relatively crude technology and procedures of that era. Such breaks are now common at 24-hour news channels, which may have an anchor available for live interruption at any time. Some networks, such as Sky News, largely emphasize this, even advertising the station/network as being "first for breaking news".
Another type of breaking news is that of severe weather events, which had such coverage evolve in a very similar manner. In North America until the 1990s, television and radio stations normally only provided long-form weather coverage during immediate, ongoing threats (such as a tornado that has been confirmed visually or by radar to be producing damage or a landfalling hurricane); cut-ins and, in the case of television stations, alert crawls during regular programming were used otherwise, even when higher-end alerts such as tornado warnings were issued. Advancements in newsgathering and weather technology (including the deployment of helicopters to provide aerial coverage and radar systems that can detect specific storm attributes), coupled with a few highly life-threatening events during the 1990s (such as Hurricane Andrew and the 1999 Oklahoma tornado outbreak) and the resulting heightened urgency to advise those in the storm's path to take safety precautions in advance made extended (or "wall-to-wall") weather coverage once a high-end alert is issued more common in storm-prone areas, with cut-ins only being used in weather events of lesser severity.
In various countries and at various news outlets, terms such as "(late)breaking," "urgent," "flash," "bulletin," and "alert" may accompany breaking news reports. The term breaking news has come to replace the older use of news bulletin, with the latter term relegated to only the most extraordinary of events. There has been widespread use of breaking news at the local level, particularly when one station in a market wants to emphasize the exclusivity of coverage. Not all viewers agree that stories assigned as breaking news rise to the significance or level of interest that warrant such a designation.
American network news divisions still use the term special report for either a breaking news, a developing news story or both, but tend to use the term breaking news on their morning and evening news programs. Most local stations across the United States that interrupt regular programming for a news story use the breaking news and special report terms (though, local broadcast news outlets use the former most often), with a voice-over stating either "This is a breaking news special report" or "This is a special breaking news report" or "This is a(n) (network name) News Special Report" or "This is a(n) (station brand name) breaking news (special) report" or "(From [station brand name],) this is breaking news." The breaking news ending has a past-tense variation, followed by a disclaimer for viewers who would like more information to see the network's news division website.
However, "special report" has also been de-emphasized by cable news channels in the United States, as both Fox News Channel and CNN now use that phrase for regular programming; Fox News carries Special Report with Bret Baier, a daily political affairs program, while CNN's Special Report is a catch-all banner for CNN's library documentary and true crime programming.
In early coverage of a breaking story, details are commonly sketchy, usually due to the limited information that is available at the time. For example, during the Sago Mine disaster, there were initial reports that all twelve miners were found alive, but news organizations later learned that only one actually survived.
Often it is considered important to be quick with news bulletins also for less important news. Such news might not be updated later, even if it was found that information was wrong or severely incomplete.
Another criticism has been the diluting of the importance of "breaking news" by the need of 24-hour news channels to fill time, applying the title to soft news stories of questionable importance and urgency (for example, car chases). Others question as to whether the use of the term is excessive, citing occasions when the term is used even though scheduled programming is not interrupted. Some programs, such as HLN's Nancy Grace, have even used the term for events which occurred months before.
In June 2013, Fox affiliate WDRB in Louisville, Kentucky gained notice in the television industry for a promo that criticized the broad and constant use of the "breaking news" term, explaining that it has been overused as a "marketing ploy" by other news-producing stations, who tend to apply the term to stories that are low in urgency and/or relevance. To coincide with the promo, on its website, WDRB posted "Contracts" with its viewers and advertisers, with the former list promising to use "breaking news" judiciously (applying it to stories that are "both 'breaking' and 'news'").