News outlets criticized for coverage of case, city's response

April 13, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

LOS ANGELES -- The TV announcer's voice is deep and ominous. "The Rodney King civil rights verdict is coming down!" he warns. "And Channel 2 Action News is ready . . . with live updates every hour!"

Many Angelenos already are worried about the federal trial's outcome and what may follow. But some critics say the news media are making things worse -- with breathless promises of live coverage and endless stories about people buying guns.

Over the weekend, one local station reported on whether it's legal to shoot someone who is looting your store.

"They're going crazy with this thing," says Carl Nelson of radio station KJLH, which serves a mostly black audience. He complains that "the major media have been bombarding people" with reports on preparing for a riot -- as if there is no doubt one will occur.

Local news executives, while defending their coverage, acknowledge they are doing some things they wouldn't ordinarily do. Many of them -- faced with one of the country's biggest news stories, in a highly competitive news market -- find themselves wrestling with ethical concerns.

"We are trying to be as responsible as we can," says Warren Cereghino, news director at KTLA-Channel 5. "We are not going around shoving mikes in peoples' faces and saying 'Are you getting ready for a riot?' "

But Mr. Cereghino adds: "The problem is: It is news . . . We can't ignore the things that are happening."

Virtually every media outlet -- from the Los Angeles Times to competing newspapers and television and radio stations -- is reporting on the case and related issues. It was the main topic for call-in shows yesterday.

"Who would gain by a riot? Who might be planning one?" popular radio talk-show host Michael Jackson asked his KABC listeners.

Former Los Angeles police Chief Darryl Gates, who hosts an hourlong show on radio station KFI, seemed uncharacteristically restrained yesterday as he interviewed KFI reporters about the trial. Mr. Gates, who was blamed by many for mishandling the riots last year, did mention that he thought Rodney King's federal court testimony seemed obviously coached.

Mr. Nelson, who says KJLH has tried to avoid excessive hype, concedes that his listeners want to talk about the case during call-in segments.

Voicing a criticism expressed by many blacks, Mr. Nelson complains that the mainstream media cover only bad news in minority neighborhoods. "If there's an average story about gas prices, they never come to South-Central" to interview motorists, he says.

In their defense, other news organizations say they have tried to cultivate more sources in minority communities since the events of last year. The Los Angeles Times, which has long published targeted supplements for other geographic areas, now has launched one for South-Central and surrounding neighborhoods.

This year's trial -- and the possibility of another upheaval -- has attracted an international corps of reporters and media technicians, who are packing the federal courthouse pressroom and lining up on the sidewalks outside.

In recent days, local media have reported that civic leaders and church groups have held rallies and gone door-to-door in some neighborhoods, appealing for calm. But yesterday, several stations reported on a National Guard display of crowd control techniques -- complete with fierce grunts and grimaces.

A Los Angeles Times poll conducted earlier in the month found 42 percent of those surveyed fear the media coverage could incite violence.

Says Willie Evans, a black resident of the city's Crenshaw district: "I think if the media would stop building it up, things would be all right."

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