How To Report Breaking News
With Little-to-No Information

How To Report Breaking News With Little-to-No Information

Written by Aletheia
🕒 January 08, 2019

The very essence of breaking news is to be able to report something that’s happening in the moment.

When you’re reporting from the scene (or the desk) on unfolding events, it can be hard to keep your flow knowing you have very few facts to report. YouTube is flooded with reporters, and anchors, (even the network pros) who have stumbled and bumbled their way into an on-air mess.

Whether it’s reporting on rumors, assumptions, or just freezing while staring blankly at the camera, live television captures it all. So to help you avoid becoming the wrong type of YouTube star, I’m sharing tips on how to report breaking news when you have three or fewer details.

Arriving On Scene:

Whether your control room is waiting for the green light to take you live on-air, or you’re using Facebook Live to let viewers know what is happening, start with collecting the facts.

Reach out to the appropriate Public Information Office (PIO), check official social media pages, or call dispatch to get the bare minimum.

I get it. PIOs and dispatch commanders can be hard to crack, especially if they’re in the process of gathering reportable information themselves. Your best bet is to have specific questions—avoiding the call that asks, “Hey, I see a lot of police activity on Main Street. What can you tell me?” Nothing. They will tell you absolutely nothing.

Stick to the basics: Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Ask your official questions like:
          • Are you able to say who is involved (small details like one man and two women are worth reporting)? Has anyone been injured?
          • Are you able to tell me what the initial call was for?
          • Did the incident originate on Main Street, or is this a secondary location?
          • Can you tell me what time your officers responded to the incident on Main Street?
          • Is there a message I can relay to nearby home or business owners? (i.e. Should they evacuate? Stay indoors? Call police if they see anything?)

Finally, ask the PIO what’s the next step in communication. Should you call back in 15 minutes, after he’s had more time to gather details, or will the PIO send out an email, update Twitter, or call you back directly? You avoid being annoying by calling or texting every five minutes, and you set the expectation of when more info will be available.

Now You Have Some Info:

Once you have your facts—as minimal as they may seem—it’s time to go live.

As newsies, we totally understand that you could summarize what you know in about 15 seconds, but your producers and audience will want a more exaggerated delivery.

Use these tips to extend your coverage:
          1. Use Process Language
Insert urgency when you explain to your viewers what you’ve just learned from the PIO, or other officials. Using verbiage like, “I just got off the phone with…” or “Just as we were coming on air, I received a text message confirming…”​

This type of language lets your viewers know you are working diligently to get details on what’s happening in their community. You can also add what the PIO said regarding when more information would be available.

“We have limited information right now, but Captain Smith tells me he arrived on scene about five minutes ago, and expects to have more details within the hour.”

Process language includes anything you’ve done to gather more information. If you’ve called law enforcement, city or county officials, reached out to neighbors, or explored other sources of information, tell your viewers.

It’s ok to say I’ve reached out to these offices and are waiting on a response.

          2. Include Past Incidents
Has the location of your breaking news been a topic of news coverage in the past? Use your station website, or ask your producer, to help you out with details from recent news stories. Use those stories to fill time, and give the back story to your viewers.

The area may be a high-crime neighborhood where neighbors have recently put together a crime watch group. Perhaps county officials are trying to oust business owners of a certain area and merchants are protesting. Whatever the back story—if there is one—include it in
your coverage.

          3. Explain What You See
It’s especially helpful to viewers for you to explain what you see standing on scene.

Officials may have certain areas blocked off from your camera’s view, so giving detail as to what’s happening behind you will help the viewers piece together the story.

          4. Give Intermittent Recaps
Not all viewers will tune in the moment you go live. After you’ve explained the situation or find yourself stumbling to fill time, bullet point the facts you have.

“If you’re just joining us, we’re on Main Street in Springville, as more than 20 police officers attempt to coax an armed subject from a business. Here’s what we know so far…” Then list
the details you received form the PIO, adding in any information you learned while being on

          5. Tell What You Don’t Know
Inevitably, viewers will sit at home and ask, “How’d the guy get in there with a gun?” “How did the fire start?” “Is anyone hurt?” The questions will vary depending on your story, but part of your story should be what you do not know.

If you’ve asked the PIO if anyone is hurt and he couldn’t say, explain that to viewers. If fire officials say it could take two weeks before a cause is determined, say it.

The unknown will cause viewers to change the channel, but if you explain that you’ve asked about injuries and the PIO was unable to answer, but expects more info in 10 minutes, you prove to the audience that you’re on top of the story—even with very few details.

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