The problem(s) with breaking news

During the rush hour of breaking news, many journalism standards can become difficult to maintain such as meticulous fact-checking, story contextualisation, and thorough reporting. Prototypes were developed during our Madrid hackathon to improve the breaking news experience for readers behind their screens — and the journalists in newsrooms or in the field.

Extracted from Trying Not to Drown in a Flood of Major Breaking News, by Liam Stack on The New York Times (May 2017)

For readers, breaking news can be problematic: sometimes there is a lack of context to the story, and sometimes it is hard to distinguish facts from rumors and misinformation. Push notifications can be overwhelming (the average number of alerts received is 3.2 per news outlet, according to a recent study), or simply annoying (alerts are no longer restricted to breaking news events).

In newsrooms, the resources employed to produce the best and most accurate content, or simply the levers pulled to filter through the noise of information, are not always available during a breaking news event. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google do not seem very helpful, according to BuzzFeed, as they keep on surfacing misinformation despite their efforts.

Nathalie Malinarich, editor of mobile and new formats, BBC News, at the workshop Innovate breaking news coverage

In January 2018, the Global Editors Network and El Confidencial, with the support of Google News Lab, gathered some of the best Spanish media innovators in the country’s capital for a two-day hackathon to develop innovative news prototypes on the theme of breaking news.

Eleven teams participated, each of them including a journalist, a developer, and a designer, representing different media outlets or startups. They were Ara, Cadena Ser, CCMA, Diario de Navarra, El Confidencial, La Sexta, Maldita, Mèdia.cat, Medialab Prado, NacióDigital, Videona, and Vocento.

Before getting in the prototyping and brainstorming spirit, participants gathered to listen to:

  • Nathalie Malinarich, editor of mobile and new formats, BBC News;
  • Alejandro Laso, director of El Confidencial Lab;
  • David Dieudonné, Google News Lab lead at Google France;
  • Alvaro Ortiz, from the startup Populate — Tools for civic engagement.

For this article, we selected five pieces of advice for journalists from Nathalie Malinarich’s presentation on breaking news on a crowded mobile screen, and under each advice, we listed a few respective solutions hackathon participants came up with.

1. Stand out, appeal to the reader

The Ara Stories prototype, by Ara.cat

Live blogs are widely used by newsrooms during a breaking news event, but this format can be overwhelming on mobile if there are a lot of updates. While some of them feature ‘pinned information’ on top, some participants wondered if there was another, more mobile-friendly way, to display breaking news information.

  • Ara Stories — by Ara.cat: A solution is to publish visual summaries — similar to Snapchat’s Stories format — as a complement to live blogs on mobile. The prototype is a tool for newsrooms to create these visual summaries easily, selecting and adapting the essential information and media published to the live blog.
  • Alert — by Cadena Ser: Alert is a dynamic, mobile, and portable platform for covering breaking news, with the ability for the journalist on the scene to broadcast audio directly to the readers.

2. Make it easy to understand

How can you give the context surrounding a piece of news when it is currently happening? How can you inform the reader on the background stories that were leading up to the breaking news? When screen real estate is limited on mobile, newsrooms must think of clever ways to avoid this problem.

3. Stay trustworthy

What can journalists do to filter through the noise quickly? How can they make sure the information they share is verified in order to keep a trusty relationship with their audience?

  • Hospital de campaña para la información—by Diario de Navarra: A tool for small newsrooms to classify the information by its reliability using a color code.
  • Breaking Hoaxes—by La Sexta / Maldita: A web app collecting information from several sources — social networks, websites, press releases — and categorising it as information from official sources, reliable sources, or sources on the ground.

David Fernández (the team’s developer, middle, in the photo on the left), explained what Breaking Hoaxes was all about:

‘One of the main issues we tried to address is the difficulty of filtering all the information that our journalists can receive during an event of crisis, when it’s very difficult to know what’s fake and what’s real. So our work is mainly to filter through the noise, and to work in parallel on debunking some information, and making sure that the journalist can be notified of that debunk before going on air.’
  • News noise reductor—by Videona: a news search engine evaluating the credibility of the source that is producing the news and classifying it by its credibility.
  • Thermometer on censorship—by Mèdia.cat: a tool calculating the seriousness of a press freedom alert, with the help of an algorithm that takes into account the quantity and severity of past incidents, collected in the previous 30 days.

4. Use your audience to gather information

When journalists are on not in the field to cover an event, they can always count on user-generated content (UGC). The problem with UGC is the need for verification and this can take time (even honest witnesses to a scene can sometimes report false information).

Let’s see which prototypes were built to solve this problem:

  • Verificador Ciudadano—by CCMA: a tool that responds to the need of immediately verifying information, channelling information that comes from the user and checking it with the mobile’s hardware capabilities: time, GPS information, accelerometer, mobile number. Who recorded the video? When? And where? All in a simple dashboard for the news editor.
  • El Correo Zoom— by Vocento: Zoom is a minimalistic content management system (CMS), dedicated to breaking news, that allows our journalists to publish all kind of content in real time, with the help of the readers as witnesses on the ground.

5. Be prepared and keep it organised

While some newspaper have dedicated breaking news teams, many newsrooms and journalists have to improvise when news break.

  • Funnel—by El Confidencial: Funnel is newsroom tool that aims to convert breaking news coverage into a collaborative and organised process in order to avoid the publication of unverified news.
  • Linked Data Context— by Medialab Prado: A tool to put news (and related data) in context. The prototype can be embebed in the newsroom favourite CMS for internal or public use.

Every prototype was finally presented in front of a jury of experts. The jury composed of Ana Ormaechea from Cuonda.com, Eva Morell from Flipboard Inc., Nathalie Malinarich from BBC News, Rafael Höhr from Prodigioso Volcán, Ramón Puchades from Metrópolis Comunicación, and GEN’s Sarah Toporoff.

The winning prototype, Breaking Hoaxes, was voted best by the jury.

Jury member Nathalie Malinarich, told us:

‘It was a really hard choice because all the projects were very high level and very well thought through. This one had a really good focus on the user — in this case the journalist — and it thinks about how reporters on the field can verify stories and news reports on the fly. A light weight mobile use, well executed, very easy to use, and very much in need.’

The team from La Sexta / Maldita will get to compete in the Editors Lab Final at the GEN Summit 2018 in Lisbon, 30 May-1 June 2018, facing off with the winning teams from the sixth season of the programme.

Special mentions were awarded to Ara.cat and El Confidencial.

Explore

The La Sexta / Maldita winning team, with: David Fernández (developer), Nacho Calle (data journalist), and Alberto Reverón (designer).
Editors Lab teams at work