TV news 'choppercams': costly, dangerous toys Look for eyes in the skies to make news more often than they report it

September 13, 1998|By Bob Graham

YOU HAVE probably seen that Channel 11 and Channel 13 have taken to the air, fighting it out for local TV ratings supremacy with competing news choppers. While this might signal, as each station puts it, a new way of covering the news heading into the next millennium, it also marks a great change because eyes can look down at you when you least expect it.

Your back yard, side yard and other properties might not be safe from intrusion by television cameras anymore. On the Channel 13 chopper's first day in the air in June, the station's Marty Bass offered "newsworthy" shots of a family walking at Fort McHenry during lunch, and of a father and several teen-agers swimming in a backyard pool one evening. Unsuspecting people were caught live on the news.

Were those the types of stories you were hoping to see covered locally after 2000?

During the past couple of months, Channel 11 and Channel 13 have used their aviation technology to show the aftermaths of several serious traffic accidents, including fatalities on Interstate 95 near Route 175 in Howard County and rush-hour tie-ups.

These shots from at least 600 feet above the scene didn't add a lot to the story. Rather, they replaced the usual gumshoe, "behind me you see a police barricade" reporting that usually enables the audience - and the reporter - to feel as if they are at the news scene. From 800 to 1,000 feet, it's hard to get a sense of the scene, the situation, the way things unfolded below.

Another potential upshot of competing helicopter coverage is the high-speed car chase involving a criminal and police. While the chase scenes on Fox's police shows and on local news stations in Los Angeles make for good ratings, they offer little more than Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame to someone stupid enough to try to outrun the law.

It's just a matter of time before someone on the Jones Falls Expressway or U.S. 40 sees police lights in his rear-view mirror, checks his dashboard clock, sees it's time for the 5 p.m. news to start and makes a mad dash, hoping for the immortality that can be bestowed on the truly senseless only by live TV. Of course, the next day it will be the first thing everyone wants to discuss around the water cooler, like the low-speed chase of O.J. Simpson.

The sad reality is that these news choppers are going to make news more often than they report it. To prevent that from happening, I offer these suggestions to the TV stations taking to the air. It wasn't that long ago that MSNBC was criticized for its live coverage of a self-inflicted shooting at the end of a chase. The best policy would be to avoid covering any incident in which people's lives could be at stake as a result of the coverage. In other words, forgo coverage of hostage dramas, barricade situations and police chases.

Instead, use the helicopters to tell stories that aren't so apparent from the ground. Show the path of a severe storm or tornado. Show the areas of danger after a chemical spill or a major traffic accident. Cover a major fire from the air so people can see the magnitude and intensity of the flames. Help us to understand the vastness of the Chesapeake Bay, the Patapsco River and the hundreds of tributaries feeding our greatest natural resource.

Second, refrain from invading people's personal lives. Most people probably don't want a TV camera zooming in from 8,000 feet on their backyard picnic, much less their sunbathing at the family pool. You don't do it on land, so why should you do it by air? If stations want to air these private backyard moments, they should get the addresses in advance, contact the owners and get their permission before putting them in the path of ridicule and scorn.

Third, get over the newness of the toy. Headphone-wearing, wide-eyed reporters don't need to tell us how cool the view from the air is. That isn't news. I've been in helicopters and, yes, the view is grand and, yes, you can't help but notice every blue-bottomed swimming pool and dark green tennis court. But you also notice how much land has been developed, how many cars fill the roads at rush hour, how wide the Chesapeake Bay is, and how enormous malls such as White Marsh and Owings Mills look from the air.

Each of these could lead to stories that would help people better understand the changing landscape. When you see all the narrow swatches of forest and open space along major roadways from the air, the frequency of the collisions between deer and motorists on main roads throughout the region makes sense. That's the sort of news that helicopter reporting can tell well, and that's where helicopters should be helping the newsrooms. Find more stories that can be enhanced from the air.

Fourth, use the chopper cameras and hovering reporters sparingly. If used correctly, the choppercams could help rather than hinder the reporting of news. Not every newscast needs to have two or three shots from the air.

Sooner or later, the war for air superiority being waged in the skies over Baltimore will probably lead one of the stations to broadcast something offensive. Then people will cry out into the whack-whack-whack filling the air for something better.

Bob Graham, who lives in Harford County, is a free-lance writer and adjunct faculty member at Towson University's mass communications and communications studies department.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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