The Immediacy and Modality of Breaking News

Breaking news is a genre of news reporting that promises important information with minimal delay. Its continuous updating depends on a group of live editors that classify incoming information based on their email subscriptions and search settings.

The study of breaking news illuminates several critical epistemological issues reflected in the distinctive way of knowing promised to the audience. It explores the following aspects of breaking news:

Immediacy and urgency

The immediacy of breaking news is often a factor in its sharability. A story about a terrorist attack or the discovery of a natural disaster is a breaking news event because people want to know about it as soon as possible. The same is true for celebrity deaths and other high-profile events. This type of content is incredibly popular on social media and can make or break a website’s traffic. It is also a huge advantage when it comes to SEO – the sooner you cover a topic, the better.

It is important to note that while breaking news stories may be more compelling than regular news items, they should be verified before being broadcast. Many reputable news outlets take the time to verify eyewitness accounts and other facts before posting them online or putting them on their TV show. While this can be a challenge for some, it is vital to ensure that the information that you are sharing is accurate.

In anthropology, the concept of urgency can be a useful lens through which to study institutional power and its dynamics. For example, Melissa Gatter has shown how the routinisation of human emergencies in refugee camps can render them mundane, while simultaneously transforming them into a kind of forced waithood (Gatter 2021). In other words, the urgency that is imposed on refugees by institutions like the Red Cross and UNHCR can actually deprive them of their agency and ability to respond to crises on their own terms.


The modality of breaking news refers to the way in which information is formulated in relation to its urgency and immediacy. Despite the fact that news editors often claim to be first in publishing the latest developments, they also acknowledge the limits of their knowledge. Consequently, they routinely balance truth claims by using specific modes of knowing. For example, they may indicate that the information they publish is preliminary or that it stems from a tip.

This mode of knowing is also reflected in the interaction between news presenters and reporters on site. Previous studies have shown that questions from the presenter and in-house journalists are carefully designed to elicit certain observations from reporters (Ekstrom and Kroon 2011; Montgomery 2007). These observations are then used to confirm the status of a breaking news story.

Nevertheless, it is possible to argue that such modes of knowing are insufficient for justifying the existence of breaking news. The ambiguous nature of the information that is provided by a reporter on site suggests that it is not necessarily reliable. In order to minimize the risks of reprimand, it is important for journalists to use various discursive resources in order to maintain high standards of credibility while mitigating the knowledge claims they make (Hermida 2015; Sohlberg, Johansson and Esaiasson 2020). It is therefore necessary to analyze how these discursive tools are utilized in practice when reporting on breaking news.

Institutionalized routines and digital services

In line with a general ethos of being fast and first, news publishers prioritize breaking news. This is also reflected in the ways they organize their routines to publish such news. Digitalization facilitates a range of routines that aim to be both continuous and live, in order to fulfill the promise of being there in the moment for their audience.

A key feature of these routines is the classification of information as either doable or not doable for publication. Doable is understood as being able to be processed within the limit of 15 min that the editors have to work on a story. This implies a high level of uncertainty in the process, which is compensated by balancing commitments to facts with the calculation of epistemic efforts.

The information that qualifies as doable is sourced from agencies, community- and emergency services via email subscriptions, social media and search settings. The live editors are well aware that the information they receive is often limited and incomplete, and yet they still rely on this information in publishing their first updates. This is justified by a rationale of immediacy in which the need to publish quickly outweighs the risk that the information may be wrong.

The study analyses the distinctive epistemologies of online breaking news, focusing on how journalists know what they claim to know and how this knowledge is justified. The analytical framework draws on the concept of ostensive routines, and identifies three aspects of these:

Live broadcasting

Although the terms “live streaming” and “live broadcasting” are often used interchangeably, these are distinct digital phenomena. Live streaming is a way of broadcasting real-time visual content to a large audience, while live broadcasting involves distributing a broadcast that was produced before the event took place.

Many local television news stations in the United States use live broadcasting to air their evening news reports so that viewers can be updated on the latest weather forecasts and major breaking news stories that occur within their area. The news station may also break into regular programming to televise live events such as the presidential inauguration or major sporting events.

A famous example of a breaking news story that was first reported on live television was the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which prompted four days of continuous live news coverage. A more recent example is the 7 July 2005 London bombings, which were broadcast live on Sky News.

Live broadcasting requires technological solutions that enable synchronized distribution and consumption around the world without lags for the viewer. It also needs to foster relationships between the content creators and the audience in order to engage viewers and drive monetization. One of the most recognizable ways that live broadcasting platforms incentivize engagement is through virtual gifting, where viewers can purchase and send gifts to their favorite on-screen personalities.

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