The Three Audiences to Serve During Breaking News (And How They Can Help Newsrooms)

Jul 16, 2014

The three types of audience for breaking news.
Credit Russell Gossett


  Floods, fires and earthquake can make the world seem like it's coming to an end. Then, there are those man-made catastrophes that end people's lives with a gun or explosive. Between mishaps of celebrities and politicians, "breaking news" can seem like an overused term in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. But there are certain instances where an event is unfolding and people really need that news immediately. Having an understanding of who those people are and what they need can help guide your coverage, and help people who are affected. 

Let's start with the audience. 

The start of breaking news is the discovery of information. A plane crashed. A road is washed out. A fire is spreading. In the midst of all of these events are people -- IMPACTED people who need help, people NEARBY who are in a position to help and those PERIPHERAL to the developments who can offer insight and support. 


Credit Russell Gossett


This is the audience in the middle of the event and needs help. They are trapped in a situation and need the latest information to know if they can escape or at least know that help is on the way. The information they need is simple, direct and immediate.  

The impacted audience is looking for information on multiple platforms: they're searching on Twitter and Google or they've just tuned in to the radio or tv. Make sure information is available on multiple platforms in a way that's native to that experience. For example, many news organizations treat their social media accounts as a way to promote web stories or alert users to turn on the broadcast. In a breaking news situation, providing information directly to that platform can make a difference for the audience that might not have the capacity to follow links or tune in.  

Here are some examples of information the impacted audience needs: 

Emergency alerts. Inform affected communities of what they need to do. During the chemical spill in West Virginia, West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Ashton Marra tweeted updates as they came in. 


During the massive floods in Colorado last summer, sewage contamination required local residents to boil their water. NPR member station KUNC delivered that information where residents were looking, via Twitter, radio and the web.  

Community closures. Emergency situations can close down schools and services, blocking people from where they need to go. Closures can also keep them confined. During the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers, the city was in an unprecedented lock-down. WBUR updated their live blog of campus closures throughout the day.  

An update from WBUR the morning after an MIT police officer was shot and killed on April 18, 2013.

Available resources. Notifying people of what's available to them is just as important as letting them know what's not. Clean water had to be shipped in during the West Virginia chemical spill. 


Outages. Identify the locations where power and water are not in service. Often times during crises, official web sites that hold vital information go down under an overload of traffic. It's worth reporting that information out. Here, KUNC reported problems with the Colorado Department of Transportation site.  

While information is easier for the impacted audience to find thanks to search and smartphones, people caught in the middle of an event are also easier for news organizations to find as sources. This was one of the first on-site images of the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 plane crash at San Francisco International Airport in 2013. 

News organizations can retweet or embed tweets as part of their reporting. They can also reach out to individuals who are clearly on the ground. However, be mindful to the situation and the person's needs. The moment when someone is seeking help may not be the best time to ask for an interview. 

See how Morning Edition responded to someone they, along with other news outlets, reached out to after the Aurora shooting: 

Credit Russell Gossett


Alongside the impacted audience are people nearby who are able to engage. They are close to the community where the news is unfolding and are able to offer insight or assistance around the event. What can the nearby audience provide? They can offer a record of unfolding events with some degree of authority because of their familiarity and proximity to the location. 

For a newsroom, the information provided by the nearby audience can be helpful for curating information. Liveblogs are an essential tool for breaking news coverage. Including curated information from the nearby audience can offer prospective that reporters on the scene may be challenged to acquire in a timely manner. Information from other journalists, news organizations and government agencies play a crucial role in curating information from the nearby audience. KUNC does an excellent job curating information from the nearby audience for their liveblogs. 

The nearby audience can take snapshots of the scene and offer perspective. Those snapshots can relay the message that roads are clear or passengers are safe or that several people were injured. 

Here's an image from a bystander showing the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. 

Here's a round-up of what locals were experiencing during the lockdown of the Boston area after the bombing. 

NPR's Teresa Gorman curated this Storify of photos people trapped in the unprecedented lockdown of Boston neighborhoods during the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers.

The nearby audience can also offer localized insight after an event. For example, earthquake specialists are in California where temblors are regular occurrences. Hospitals are in just about every community and have trauma specialists that can offer perspective, like they did after the marathon bombings

The nearby audience has its own needs. The nearby participants don't always have access to public officials or staff resources the way journalists do. They want to know what officials are saying and what information has been verified. They want information in platforms they're already participating in, like web updates, social, tv and the radio.  

Credit Russell Gossett


The peripheral audience exists outside the immediate area of distress. They can provide perspective and expertise. For example, a bombing in Boston would be reason to call a world-renowned terrorism expert in Washington, DC. 

The peripheral audience can also introduce the news coverage to a regional audience outside of the event. For example, during the Marathon Bombing manhunt, WBUR had a significant audience outside of the Boston area that wanted the latest information but didn’t need a specific service beyond news reports and event context. 

WBUR is lauded nationwide for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing.

The peripheral audience can direct your coverage to their communities and spread the word. The additional validation of your good work can be a moral boost -- or a pizza lunch paid for by an appreciative rival.