Chapter 44: The breaking story

In this and the following chapter we consider how to deal with a news story which is still happening as you report it. In this chapter we look at how to plan in advance, so that you will be ready when something like this happens; and what to do when it does happen, to give readers and listeners the best news service. In the following chapter we take you through a breaking story minute-by-minute to see how it is done.

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A breaking story is a news story which is still happening as you report it.

This is not the same as follow-ups, which we considered in Chapter 24; there we looked at how to handle a story where something had happened and been reported, but where there were later effects of that event. Here we shall consider the story where something is continuing to happen and develop, often in a dramatic way, as you report it.

This may be something expected, like an election, which will unfold slowly as the votes are counted and the results announced. However, it will more commonly be an unexpected event, and often a disaster - either a man-made disaster, like an air crash or a riot; or a natural disaster, like a volcanic eruption or a cyclone.

The key to covering a breaking story is good management and good planning. You may feel overwhelmed by the speed with which events are happening, and feel unable to handle it all. It is important to stay calm, think clearly and do as much as you can.

Ideally, one person should take control of organising the coverage of a breaking story, organising their troops like a military leader. If possible, this person should not get too involved in reporting or writing or sub-editing. If everybody is in the engine room of the ship, and nobody is up on the bridge, the ship may well drift on to the rocks.

So the person in control - let us say the editor - will need to plan the available resources (including time) efficiently. The editor will need to think of problems which are likely to arise, and prepare solutions. He will need to inspire the people around him, and demand from them 100 per cent effort. And he will need to be considerate to those people, not keeping them hanging around the office if there is nothing to do, and remembering to thank them for their hard work and dedication.

Planning

As soon as you hear about a major news story developing, you will need to begin to plan. Newspapers and television, in particular, need to consider their production deadlines. It may be possible to persuade printers to accept later deadlines than usual, but remember that those deadlines may have been set in order for the papers to catch a boat or aircraft to other parts of the country; if you are late, in order to get the full story, the result could be that much of the country outside the capital gets no story at all, since the newspaper does not reach them.

It may be possible to bring out a special late edition, aimed at the capital city, bringing the story up-to-date. It may be possible to bring out a special issue - perhaps a Tuesday issue of a weekly newspaper which normally only publishes each Friday. To do this, though, you will need the agreement not only of the printers but also of the owner and/or advertisement department; otherwise the special issue could be very expensive.

Staff

You will need to consider how many staff you have, and whether you can get more. In particular, you may have to call in any staff who are on holiday, or have the day off, or who have already gone home at the end of their day's work. Nobody wants to be called in to the office when they are off duty, but journalists have to understand that this may be necessary in exceptional circumstances.

You will need to think about how to use the staff you have. You will want to send some out, to report and to get pictures and sound. You will want to keep some in the newsroom. You will need to decide exactly what stories you want and then give clear instructions to everybody as to what they are supposed to do.

Stories

It is good to divide a big and complex story into component parts, and have a separate story on each subsidiary part to back up the main story. As time goes by, and the story continues to develop, you may need to change these instructions: do so clearly, and let everybody know about any change which will affect them.

Communications

It will be vital that everybody keeps in touch. Telephones can be difficult in rural areas, which is why many newsrooms have portable two-way radios for their staff. Whether you do it though telephones, mobile phones or two-way radios, you must insist that all your staff who are out on assignments keep in regular contact with the newsroom, to let you know what is happening and to receive new instructions.

You will probably need to have someone on hand to act as a copy-taker. This is much faster than reporters having to return to the office to type their copy. A copy-taker needs a telephone headset which does not need to be held with a hand - usually a set of headphones with a microphone attached. They can then have a story dictated to them down the telephone, and type it, perhaps into the newsroom computer.

Alternatively, you may send reporters out with laptop computers and modems, to enable them to type their own stories and then send them direct from their own computer to the newsroom computer by telephone line, using a modem. This is a good option if you have the money available, and if you have a good telephone system.

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Writing the story

Reporters who are sent out to cover a breaking story have a difficult job. They are usually confronted with a confusing situation, which they are expected to assess and explain in detail as quickly as possible. Everyone who has information seems to be busy, and none of them wants to be bothered with a journalist asking questions. And the clock seems to turn twice as quickly as usual.

Don't panic

It is vitally important that reporters do not panic in these circumstances. Whatever you manage to do will be better than doing nothing, so just get on and do what you can.

Remember at all times what instructions you have been given, especially about deadlines and about the length of the copy. Many reporters think they can stretch a deadline by a few minutes, in order to make the story just a little better, without being aware of the problems this can cause to the production schedule of the newspaper, radio or television station. The golden rule is that you should get a story in on time, however much you still do not know - it is better to tell half a story in time for it to get into the paper or on the bulletin, than to tell the complete story too late for anyone to read or hear it.

Write to length

Similarly, you will create problems if you are asked for 300 words and send in 500, or you are asked for a 40-second report and send a 60-second one. This will waste precious time while you phone in the unwanted words, and will waste more precious time while they are edited out again.

You will need to keep in touch with your newsroom regularly, which may mean finding a telephone. Try houses or shops nearby which look as though they may have telephones. If there is no telephone at all, you will have to allow yourself time to drive to one, and still phone in your copy by the deadline.

The fastest way to deliver your copy is to phone it in to a copy-taker, as we discussed above. To save even more time, though, you will need to learn the technique of "writing" the story as you speak it, from your notes. This means that, instead of writing the whole story in your notebook, you write just the intro and perhaps the second and third paragraphs; and then you write notes for the structure of the rest of the story - "Topulpul quotes ... school evacuation ... headmaster quotes ... rescue operation ... scenes of sorrow and despair".

Using this outline, together with your detailed notes, you then create the story out loud, as you speak to the copy-taker, and they will type it for you. This is difficult to begin with, but like anything it becomes easier with practice. See Chapter 14: Copy presentation for more detailed information about phoning copy.

If there is an important new development after you have phoned in your copy, phone it in as an add to your story. It may be too late to use it, but that is a decision for the editor to take; your job is to supply the information.

Radio reporters will not usually be expected to file long voice reports from the scene. Thirty or 40 seconds is usually enough. So write a tight story of about six sentences and be prepared to send it to your newsroom or recording studio (who should have been warned in advance to have a tape ready on the recorder to record you). If your editor or program producer wants a longer description, suggest to them that you record it in the form of a question and answer session. They will ask the things they want to know and you provide simple, unscripted answers. This way there is no need to write a formal script.

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Editing the story

The way in which newspapers, radio and television handle breaking stories is slightly different. Newspapers and television require more time for technical processes - printing or editing videotape - than radio does.

We shall talk first about newspapers. This will include much that is the same for all three media. Then we shall look at radio and television, to discuss the things which are different for those media.

Newspapers

The chief sub-editor is a crucial person in a newspaper's handling of a breaking story. He or she will need to work under great pressure, balancing the needs of the reporters to have as much time as possible to report and the printers to have enough time to print the paper. Above all, though, they will have to look after the demand of the readers to have the story told clearly and thoroughly.

The chief sub-editor will first need to make sure that there is sufficient space in the paper to tell the story. Very often, if the big story breaks near to the paper's production deadline, this will mean clearing other stories out of the way. This is not easy. The least significant stories will usually be on inside pages, but these pages will usually be printed early, so it will often be necessary to rearrange the front and back pages. You cannot just abandon your lead story, to make room for a new lead: if you thought it was a good enough story to be your page one lead, it must be too good to throw away. Usually, they will need to throw out one or two of the smaller stories, and then cut some or all of the remaining ones, rewriting headlines as necessary. The chief sub-editor must first redesign the page or pages, and then cut and rewrite headlines to fit with the new plan. This can be done first, while the reporters are gathering the news on the big late story.

Like everybody involved, the chief sub-editor must keep a clear head and not panic. They must keep the copy flowing, possibly even before they know precisely how they will use it. It is wise under these circumstances to use standard column measure, since this is most flexible if the page has to be redesigned.

It will also be necessary to break a big story up into component parts. This will make it easier on the reader. It is easier to read a main story of 500 words plus three stories on related aspects, each of 200 words, than it is to read one big story of 1,100 words. How the story is to be divided up needs to be agreed with the editor, or whoever is instructing the reporters, so that they know what is wanted and can provide copy of the required length at the required time.

The last job which the chief sub-editor will do is to write the main page one intro and headline. This allows the story to be as up-to-date as possible. Even if some late news is received as the front and back pages are almost ready to go to the printers, it may be possible to rewrite just the intro and headline to include the late news, leaving the rest of the story untouched.

If there is late news which is even later, it may be necessary to carry a Stop Press paragraph. If you have a stencil machine, you can run the printed pages through that, to stencil the late news into a column or half-column left blank for that purpose. If you do not have a stencil machine, it may be necessary to make a new plate, including the late news paragraph, and to stop the presses to change the plate as soon as it is ready.

The chief sub-editor will need to keep closely in touch with the printers, to ensure that the rest of the production process is proceeding smoothly.

Above all, the chief sub-editor should be prepared to start all over again, tearing apart the work they have just done and remaking the pages, for a second or subsequent edition. They must be tireless in their desire to give the readers as clear a picture as possible of the big story which is taking place.

Radio

Radio journalists enjoy several advantages in reporting breaking stories. It is usually possible to break into scheduled programs with news flashes on the latest developments. News can be up-to-the minute with live reports from the scene of the story. You can use sound to bring the scene alive to the listener. Unlike newspapers or television, the technology is simple and involves only a small number of people to transport your story from the scene all the way to the radio in the listener's home.

The main disadvantages are that you can only work in sound, you cannot show pictures of the event. In big breaking stories such as disasters, pictures are important. Also, you cannot include as much detail as newspapers. Radio reporters must restrict their reports to essential details and the most important comments.

The task for the reporter on the scene is similar for all the media. The differences arise mainly in the methods of getting the stories to the audience. In radio, there are three main ways of getting reports of breaking stories to air.

The first is to use recorded and live reports in scheduled news bulletins. Because most news bulletins have very limited time, the reports must be short and delivery must be reliable. It is no good encouraging listeners to expect a live report from the scene of a disaster if all they hear is silence when you try to cross over to the reporter.

It is also possible in radio to break into programs which are currently going to air. This may involve the program presenter either playing a report recorded by the newsroom or going live to a reporter on the scene, by either telephone or two-way radio. This can be done as many times as necessary. However, you must be sensitive to any clash in tone between the reports coming in and the content of the rest of the program.

For example, it is possible to interrupt a record request program with live reports on a flood disaster, but the presenter would have to take two precautions. One is avoid playing cheerful music straight after a report of death. The other is to separate the requests from the news report by appropriate music. No-one will be happy if a cheery request is read out either directly before or straight after a report from the scene of a tragedy.

The third way of getting stories to air is by gathering material for scheduled current affairs programs. In this, radio works in very similar ways to newspapers and television. Someone must be assigned the task of gathering together all the reports on the breaking story, then producing them in a logical order for the program. This is usually the task of the program producer (who might also be the current affairs presenter). The newsroom sub-editor in charge of the story will need to cooperate closely with the producer/presenter. If you know that you will be covering a major story in your news or current affairs program, tell the presenters already on air so that they can warn people to listen later.

Television

Television has many of the advantages of both newspapers and radio. Television can give viewers news of a breaking story as it happens, either by feeding a live report straight into a news bulletin or by interrupting scheduled programs with news flashes. Using modern satellite technology, television is even able to bring pictures live from the scene. It cannot, of course, give the same amount of detail as a newspaper, but moving pictures can be used effectively to tell stories in a simple way.

It is unusual for television producers to break into programs for news updates in the same way as radio can. For major breaking stories, the newsroom might produce a short news flash to be read by a newsreader at an appropriate break in the scheduled program. Again, great care must be exercised in determining what goes before and after the news flash. For example, you should not interrupt a comedy program with news of a tragedy, except in an emergency, perhaps to warn viewers to evacuate homes down-wind of a chemical factory explosion. It is normally better to wait until the program ends.

More often, television journalists will build up reports on a breaking story in a similar way to radio current affairs, trying to put a variety of reports and interviews in a logical sequence. Far more people are involved, so everyone must be kept informed of what is happening, minute by minute. (See Chapters 48 and 49 on radio and television.)

In the following section, we show you how to handle a breaking story. Although it focuses on newspaper reporting, much of the advice is also applicable to both radio and television.

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TO SUMMARISE:

Keep a cool head: don't panic

Plan how best to use the resources you have

Make sure everyone has clear instructions

Make sure everyone keeps in touch with the boss

Keep to deadlines, even if it means writing an incomplete story

This is the end of the frist part of this two-part section on the breaking story. If you now want to read on, follow this link to the second section, Chapter 45: A practical example of the breaking story

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Index to Chapter 44
  1. What is a breaking story?
  2. Planning
  3. Writing the story
  4. Editing the story
  5. To summarise
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