Covering breaking news online

Breaking news stories often start with just one line and headline and grow into multimedia stories by the end of the day, like this large fire in New Westminster.

Breaking news stories often starts with just one line and a headline and grow into a multimedia story by the end of the day, like this large fire in New Westminster. (CBC)

Sometimes when we cover news online we post one version of a story and that is the final version, until the next day, much like a newspaper.

But online readers expect news stories will be updated right away with the latest details, and if they don’t find what they want on your website, they will go looking on others.

So when covering developing stories for which new information continues to come in during the day, we often need to go back into an online story and rewrite it several times during one day to include the latest news.

Generally the rule is you post one story online about an event and update it with any changes through out the day. Then if the story continues to develop the next day, you create a new story online, and include links back to the first story.

Get up the first line

When there is a major story breaking, such as a large fire, a plane crash, a mass shooting, a celebrity death, a political resignation or scandal, you need to move quickly to get a story up online.

But often you face a real challenge sorting out fact from rumour, especially on social media. You often have to make decision about what information to report, and what to leave out because it can’t be confirmed.

Some times rumours circulated for hours, but you can't report them until police make an official statement.

Sometimes rumours circulate for hours, but you can’t report them until police make an official statement. (CBC)

There is an old saying in journalism that it is better to be right than to be first.

Sometimes this means you’ll be beat by your competition. Other times it means you’ll avoid really big mistakes.

For instance it is really bad to declare people dead who are really still alive, like CBC once did with folk singer Gordon Lightfoot.

Who do you trust?

In emergencies journalists will rely heavily on basic information coming from official sources such as police, firefighters  and government officials, but even they can be wrong.

Information from the public should not be reported as fact until it is confirmed with at least one other source, and even then you should be very careful what you report.

It is very important that it comes directly from eyewitnesses. Be sure not to report secondhand information.

It is also important to look for inconsistencies in the information. If one person says they saw someone dead, and another says the person was taken to hospital, you should take that as a warning that the situation and information is unclear.

In all cases it is best to attribute everything, particularly in breaking news.

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When former premier Gordon Campbell’s office called a surprise press conference, everyone could guess what was going to happen, but nobody could report it until the words came out of his mouth. CBC

When you write your story, say clearly what you know and how you know it. We call this being ‘transparent.’

It is also just as important to be upfront and say clearly in your story what information is not verified or unclear.

That way as the story develops, your readers will trust you to update them with details as things are confirmed.

Build your story

If you are working online when a major story breaks, your first priority is confirm what is reportable. That means asking your colleagues or your sources how they know what they know.

Then as soon as you have something solidly confirmed, post a story with just a short headline and one line of copy. Underneath the single line write More to come in bold.

Once that is up online, you start revising your story, updating it and rewriting it with new information as it is confirmed by your newsroom.

You can start to look for photos and reports on Twitter and other social media, which can b be used to build the story.

But be careful of hoaxes. For instance during the NHL trades many people create fake Twitter accounts to tweet out fake trades.

Stay focused

As the story develops and reports start flooding into the newsroom, you may find you have more information than you can use, and you have to switch from searching for information to filtering out the unnecessary stuff.

During breaking news cellphone photos and video posted on social media are one way to quickly confirm basic details.

During breaking news cellphone photos and video posted on social media are one way to quickly confirm basic details. (CBC)

It takes a lot of concentration to keep your story focused when this happens. The key is to focus on the best sources and keep asking yourself what is the most important thing about the story.

Also as your story develops, you’ll have to keep rewriting it, replacing the headline with the latest news, rewriting the lead,  reorganizing the copy and even deleting parts to refashion the whole thing.

Wrapping it all up

Finally as the story finally wraps up and all the facts are clear, you’ll often do one final write-through of the whole story to remove any repetition, details and quotes that no longer belong.


About Mike Laanela

Mike Laanela is journalist, photographer and instructor based in Vancouver, B.C.
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