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A news flash or newsflash is an item of urgent breaking news. The term is a reference to the fact that reporters are willing to break into or “flash” a broadcast to report the news. In broadcast media, the reporter often announces “news flash” or “breaking news” to alert viewers and listeners to the fact that an important piece of news is about to be broadcast. Historically, large-circulation newspapers were sometimes willing to print special editions known as extras to report on critical breaking news.
In order to be considered a newsflash, a piece of news must generally be deemed important enough to be of interest to most people. On a regular broadcast station, for example, news about a sporting event would not be considered a newsflash, but the assassination of a major political figure would be. News flashes may also cover things like natural disasters, catastrophic accidents, or critical political news such as breakdowns in peace talks. Most stations will also interrupt their broadcasts to provide safety information in the event of an emergency such as a rapidly spreading fire or disease outbreak, although this may not be termed a news flash.
In the case of broadcast media, the reporter will usually interrupt the broadcast to inform viewers or listeners that a piece of breaking news is on the way, and then he or she will read the news flash. Since people usually want more information about the news, the rest of the broadcast may be dedicated to providing additional information, and the news flash will usually be repeated periodically so that viewers and listeners just tuning in can catch up on the news. Despite the desire for more information, broadcast media organizations sometimes have trouble gathering additional facts in the immediate wake of a major event, because the situation may be chaotic, so news flash broadcasts tend to become extremely repetitive.
Extras are rarely issued in the modern print media, partially because many newspapers maintain websites, so breaking news can simply be pushed to the top of the page. Historically, however, newspapers would issue extras for important breaking news, and news staff would flood the streets with the extra edition, shouting “read all about it.” Extras were typically very thin editions of the paper, thanks to the scant information available, but in the era before widespread mass communications, extras could be of critical importance in getting the news out.
One thing to be cautious about when reading, viewing, or listening to a news flash is that the information may change rapidly. Although media organizations try to be as factual as possible, breaking news moves quickly, and some information may be misreported or inaccurate. For this reason, it is a good idea to wait for confirmation before acting on a newsflash.
I was nursing a sprained ankle and watching "Saturday Night Live" when NBC broke in about Princess Diana dying. I really didn't believe it until Reuters, which is the European version of the Associated Press, confirmed it.
Sept. 11, 2001 is a good example of waiting to get more information before you act on a news flash. There was so much we didn't know, and so much that changed so quickly, you didn't know what to believe, so we chose not to believe anything until we had more confirmation. That's the only way to treat this kind of event. Don't listen to rumors and don't get hysterical. And don’t spread rumors, either.
A reputable media outlet will say something like, "more to come," or "will update as information becomes available."
For national stories, most media outlets rely on the Associated Press. The AP will release a bulletin first, which is either a one sentence note that something is about to be released, or a one-sentence news item. An alert will follow, which may be a couple of sentences and provides more information.
When Elvis Presley died, we were home that afternoon watching TV, when the local news broadcaster broke in with the news. They said more information would be forthcoming on the 6 p.m. news broadcast. So they just said he had passed away in Memphis, and had his birth and death dates, and that's all we knew.
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