TV's view now is high-tech, remote, desensitized

May 01, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,TV Critic

The TV news pictures out of Los Angeles are hot, high-tech, graphic and violent. And, as with any major news event, they are being repeated over and over again on the screens in our living rooms.

The question is what kinds of effects such TV coverage might be having on viewers in Los Angeles and elsewhere around the country. Might seeing wall-to-wall coverage of the riots lead to other viewers in Los Angeles going out into the streets to join? And what about viewers in places like Baltimore? How might they be reacting to pictures of people being dragged from cars and trucks and violently beaten?

Many viewers, of course, have vivid memories of urban rioting from TV news coverage of riots in the 1960s. Los Angeles' Watts district burned in August, 1965.

But the pictures we are seeing this time are very different. The main difference is in point of view.

In 1965, TV news was relatively in its infancy. What mobile capacity it had mainly consisted of fixing a reporter on a spot on the street and having a camera film him or her. One result of that was that the viewer saw the story from the ground up -- from within the community, so to speak, as much as the reporters and camera people could get inside the community.

But this week's coverage is high-tech, like the Persian Gulf war. As viewers, our primary point of view is now omniscient, looking down from the Olympian vantage point of the news helicopters on the flames and the flattened figures scurrying about on the ground.

The result is that the victims of the violence seem less real -- in some cases they seemed almost more like characters on a video screen than real flesh-and-blood people bleeding and dying.

Another factor affecting the way we react to these pictures is the overload of "reality" programs shown as prime-time entertainment. The helicopter pictures of the truck driver being kicked and beaten Wednesday night were exactly the kinds of shots that made NBC "I Witness Video" the hit of the spring season. It all adds up to a desensitized viewer.

As for the notion that TV coverage of the rioting might lead to more rioting, there is no hard evidence to support that claim. But it is still a concern of TV news executives.

"There are no studies from the industry either that I know of which indicate that watching rioting on TV leads others to riot," said David Roberts, associate news director of WBAL-TV (Channel 11). "But it's something every news director and news editor has to think about."

Mr. Roberts said that in 1967 during the bloody Detroit riots, WWJ-TV (the NBC affiliate there) elected initially not to show pictures of the riots because it feared coverage might lead to more violence.

"And that led to the downfall of the station's credibility in the community," said Mr. Roberts, who is from Detroit.

Peter Bart, an editor at Variety in Los Angeles, compared yesterday's coverage with Watts, saying that 27 years ago TV news was incapable of instant pictures "and that riot spread like wildfire. So I don't think anyone can argue intelligently that television coverage spread this thing."

Maybe not. But, again there were differences.

NBC's "Today" show, for example, was using a freeze-frame image of young men dancing in triumph on an overturned guard station as its logo for stories on the rioting yesterday. The image -- which in this case was of rioting and destruction -- looked like and was treated by NBC exactly as were images of German youth dancing in celebration atop the Berlin Wall when it crumbled.

The lack of context was appalling, and it would not be surprising if such images made the streets look attractive.

Still, Mr. Bart said, "It's inconceivable [for TV news] to even think about not covering it. It's a great news story. That's what television is all about."

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