Opinion: The breaking point of the digital age news cycle

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Nicholas Hunter

For as long as I can remember, breaking news has been constant. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News never stop airing, and whether actual news is breaking at 1:30 a.m. or not, major cable news networks will tell you it is.

It hasn’t always been like this.

When local networks, newspapers and radio shows were our only sources of news, there was a predictable pattern to the news cycle. The morning drive and after dinner was when you got the news — only tragedy disturbed the cycle. 

Those days, however, are gone.

Since CNN was launched in 1980, the news cycle has evolved into a never-ending stream of events across the globe, with TV personalities yelling back and forth about why those events are important in between.

This stream has only inflated with social media boom of the 2010s. Twitter is the hub of 140-character breaking news alerts. It’s accessible on a smartphone in seemingly every corner of the world.

News practically finds you.

But since this massive amount of information has become available, it seems impossible to figure out what’s important.

Every news story shared on Twitter is preceded by “BREAKING” — whether it is about President Donald Trump firing FBI Director James Comey amid an investigation into Trump’s campaign or another random billionaire announcing he wants to run for Governor of California.

Everything matters, so nothing matters.

This isn’t just a labeling issue for news organizations, though. I’ve talked to several people who told me they’ve stopped watching TV, deactivated their Twitter account, or simply left their phone at home because they were overloaded.

As someone who has done a decent job of keeping up with politics over the past year, I’m beginning to feel the same way.

In the nine days since Trump fired Comey, there have been multiple breaking news alerts concerning that story nearly every day. The flurry of keywords, — “investigation,” “Russia,” “memos,” “obstruction,” “special counsel” along with the million names associated with this ordeal — are simply impossible to keep straight.

In the same nine days, the U.S. Senate worked on a tax plan and health care plan; Trump invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House amid strong criticism and, during the visit, Erdogan’s bodyguards attacked Kurdish-American protesters in Washington. Moreover, a powerful hacking tool was stolen from the U.S. National Security Agency and used to shut down computer systems all over the world — including in hospitals in Britain.

All of these events were covered in the news, but they were all buried by the apparently never-ending Comey story.

The madness surrounding this investigation has exposed a massive, ongoing problem with our current version of the news cycle: it happens too fast for anyone to keep up with.

To figure out why this has happened – and doesn’t seem to be slowing down – it is important to understand why constant “breaking” news is good for news organizations.

There is a financial incentive for news organizations to be the first to break news. If one organization breaks an exclusive story before anyone else, they get the most online traffic and, therefore, more advertising money.

That system is a result of free news, and one that’s hard to overcome without news being behind a paywall. Unfortunately, that seems to be the best answer.  

While social media is creating an environment with too much news to sift through, newspapers are dying, organizations can’t afford to hire quality reporters and more mistakes are made.

This leads to fewer people that are willing to pay for the news, feeding back into the beginning of the cycle.

The answer to this is for news organizations to put more effort into quality stories over quick turnover.

It seems, however, that this will only happen once faith in news organizations is completely lost.

Nicholas Hunter is the opinion editor, contact him at [email protected]