When breaking news confuses: Citizens may be as undecided as the Pulitzer board

Some years ago, deadline reporting was declared a dying craft. Reporters would gain muscle in long-form journalism and engrossing narratives, but lose the ability to quickly report a story, some feared.

This year’s Pulitzer Prizes — especially the decision to award no one the honor for Breaking News reporting — could be the product of that decades old forecast.  Except the weakness today is not in quickly reporting breaking news, but in presenting facts to tell a cohesive story.

We are surrounded by “breaking news.” News screens use the phrase to alert and infuse urgency and significance in reports throughout the day. Tweets spread headlines and follow-up bulletins that outline a breaking news story. We are a society of bits and bytes. Could it be that so many bits of news do not a coherent story make?

The Pulitzer category calls for “a distinguished example of local reporting of breaking news, with special emphasis on the speed and accuracy of the initial coverage using any available tool.”  The year 2010 did not lack big events. It began with an earthquake in Haiti, then moved through natural disasters from snow and flooding to human acts of mayhem, including a Gulf oil catastrophe.

Journalists have more options than ever before in reporting tools, including video, the written word, slideshows, timelines, charts, audio and more. The question is: Do citizens consume a full and accurate report or just taste an array of interesting pieces?

Plenty of reports and conferences examine journalism in a digital age. Most of them look at the business, ethics, legal matters and new tools for reporting.  This is a good time to consider what the array of digital tools mean to storytelling, especially during breaking news.

There’s so much that we don’t know, including how do people grasp a highly emotional, fluid breaking story like those represented by the Pulitzer finalists: a city’s flood, a country’s earthquake or the death of civil servants while doing their job? For that matter, how does a story presented to awards judges differ from the way citizens engage with it as it’s happening?

We don’t know, but we can learn from the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for Breaking News, the Seattle Times.  Their prize-winning package maintained a central narrative with clear updates. They used Twitter, Google Wave and Dipity to support their storytelling. Multimedia, including video, took viewers to the scene. Screen-grabs, photos and a timeline tracked a 12-hour period with captions along the way. Each time-stamped update includes the central facts of the story.

A new world of digital storytelling builds on many of the basics that reporters continue to master: get the facts right, add the details, and share them quickly. The added step citizens require, especially on breaking news, is that we tell the full story, in context.

In the end, the Pulitzer Board may have been a surrogate for citizens, challenging journalists to meet their ever-changing needs.

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