The Psychology of Breaking News

If you are a regular viewer of cable news, you must have noticed the proliferation of Breaking News graphics.  It seems more prevalent on CNN and Fox News than on MSNBC.

We see the graphic come up, our heart beats a little faster, not knowing what they will be breaking.  Will it be a homeland terrorist attack, A tsunami warning or Putin invading Latvia?  The anchor comes on with this urgent look, only to find out that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is in a police car being transferred to jail!  They immediately go to the correspondent in a front of the car to give tiny details of this new information.  Wow…is that the back of his head?  I feel so much more educated now with that video snippet.

Is this breaking news?  Was it worth me stopping  a conversation with my daughter, telling her to be silent, only to see and hear this?

On CNN, we have the privilege of being in The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, where he actually states that news “will” be breaking during his newscast everyday.  Is Wolf clairvoyant?  Does he track that news events normally break between the hours of 5:00pm – 7:00pm Eastern Standard Time?  Do hurricanes only form at 6:23pm Monday through Friday?  The tone in Wolf’s voice adds to the urgency as he sounds like he is talking after walking up all the stairs of the Empire State Building…a monotone, exhausted, run-on sentence filled with hyperbole. It normally starts with a dramatic pause, then the CNN Breaking News graphic twirling around and coming closer to your eyes, followed by Wolf’s look of grave concern.  Then we find out that the breaking news is just additional news of what we already are aware of.

On Fox News, we see a globe that must be in 3-D, spinning with an “Alert” or “Breaking” graphic.  The audio is akin to mortar fire being blasted into your living room.  Hold on folks!  Secure loose objects around your house!  Something big is happening!  Then, as only Fox News can do, we find out that it is a partisan alert about a Democrat’s stumble on video.  At this point I am thankful that the television set is the only thing setting me apart from the ever-present “blonde anchor” reading from the teleprompter.  If she could read my thoughts, I don’t think she would be happy.  I just spilled hot coffee on my wrist with this unjustified “Alert” from Fox News.

Why are we so easily drawn to this media manipulation?  The cable news channels are now doing this on a more aggressive basis than ever before.  Sometimes they even sub-divide breaking news into “Just In” or “Alerts.”  What is that about?  Is this not simply news?  If every bit of new information on a 24 hour cable news channel has to come with some type of urgent graphic, how are we suppose to decipher when the truly breaking news comes in so we are prepared to listen?

I submit that the news media has found a way into our psyche that triggers interest when nothing is really happening.  They want to keep us on edge so that we continue to watch their continuing programing all day.  Should I take a chance and turn off the television and miss the next important alert?

Like most things in life, fear is a great motivator.  Politicians use it, bosses use it, relationships use it and cable news has mastered it.  What does it say about us that we cannot listen to the news without having us succumb to an artificial rise in our heartbeat?  We cannot simply have the patience and temperament to follow most news without these alerts?  I guess apparently not, or why would cable news continually subject us to it?

Human nature is based on our conditioning of thousands of years of experiences.  Back in France in the 18th century, thousands of people gathered around the town square to watch the guillotine fall on a person’s head.  Why is that?  Do we have a perverse pleasure in someone else’s misfortune?  Is this a distraction to our mundane everyday lives?  Do we need this artificial stimulus to trigger something inside us?

Breaking News has become the 21st century guillotine.  We need to watch it and we are no better off most of the time.

4 replies »

  1. The 24 hours news cycle, combined with the multitude of cable news channels, has left us news-blind. Wolf Blitzer was once a decent news guy, but that was before he became an entertainer, whose job it is to amuse us with breaking things.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree shglaw. I think the worst thing that happened to America was the 24 hour news cycle. It is all just entertainment… real journalism exists. It’s who can get the information out the fastest, and lots of time it is incorrect and always opinionated. I stopped watching, best decision i ever made.


    • Although I agree with your viewpoint Mimi, I think it is still important to be informed about the world’s events. As long as you are getting the news through another medium (online, etc), then that is good and probably healthy compared to the cable news on steroids.


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