With another sweeps period ending, this is a good time to talk about branding coverage with the all too often touted claim of “Breaking News.”

This term is used so loosely industry wide that it is a common brunt of jokes. Even if you think the jokes are funny, there’s a lesson behind the laughs. The phrase “breaking” is losing its meaning. Stations are showcasing with bold graphics, strong phrasing and 16 boxes in which they are happy to manipulate time in order to fit the station brand. Harsh? Not when numbers of viewers continue to decline. Making everything “Breaking News” is one of the reasons viewers are looking away.

Consider this, “Breaking” has a new call to action for viewers now. For arguments’ sake, just think about when you hear there is breaking news. My guess is you the journalist, immediately hop on Twitter to see what people are saying about the story. Then you do a Google search. Guess what? Viewers do the same. And I am going to argue that TV stations using the term “Breaking” now just encourage viewers to check and potentially call your bluff. The natural reaction is to want to know all you can about the story happening right now and hopefully be the first to learn something you can share with others. This is not just a journalist’s desire. Viewers do the same. That is basic human instinct.

So if you want to look slick off the top and throw in the breaking news animation and supers package, but the story really happened an hour or two ago, your viewer will figure it out within the first paragraph of coverage. Busted! Then you potentially look behind the 8 ball. Why is station (call letters here) just now covering this story? Did they miss it when it started? What else did they miss today? Welcome to what viewers say. Or this: Here goes station (call letters here) calling a story “Breaking” when it’s not. What else do they exaggerate about to try and trick me into watching?

Viewers are not as gullible as you might want to think. Especially in this day where everything you want to know is a Siri question or few taps away. Show the respect of calling something breaking only when it truly just started happening. Old timers had an hour or less rule. I think you can get away with that if the standoff is still underway. But if the manhunt is over, the person shot is at the hospital and the scene is being cleared, then no, it’s probably not breaking news.

If you have “breaking developments” they better not be something you saved for the TV part of the three screen equation all day. Again, chances are high you will be outed as fudging the timeline.

For those of you who are shaking your heads saying “We’ve called everything breaking for years, our numbers are solid and we love our slogan” here’s one last thing to consider: “Breaking news” is quickly becoming less crucial to gain viewers. Three screen news gathering means an event that just started is likely going to be seen “live” through social media first. Now TV stations need to focus more on “Breaking” great additional details and separating fact from fiction in these fluid situations. That is where your expertise can be counted on. And, if you lie and tell viewers everything is happening right that second when it’s not, you are no longer an expert, just another person with a camera, and an outlet to share.

What if TV stations got bold, and stepped away from the time crutch associated with “Breaking News.” What if instead they focused on what journalists do best, sort out the truth and explain it easily, so everyone can understand what is happening. Talk about a powerful brand. Talk about “breaking” information. Redefining the term breaking news in a clear way could reenergize TV news. Instead of defining that type of news by timeliness of an event, focus on exclusivity of details. Then those tried and true “Live Local Late Breaking”, “Your Breaking News Station” and even “Where the News Comes First” slogans are legit credible assets to your station. Not the brunt of jokes. Dump the timeline references. Use breaking news they way the old timer’s did. New crucial information about an event. New information. Not a right now event. Then watch the viewers check Twitter, and head to your websites and newscasts in droves. They know the story is happening now, but what’s the truth in it? What news really “broke?” You’ll have the clear answers.

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