TV execs defend their Palczynski coverage

Standoff: One local manager says his station is being extra cautious because `I don't want the blood of those hostages spilled to cover something someone on this station said.'

March 21, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Local broadcast executives yesterday defended their decisions to shape coverage of the Joseph Palczynski hostage story in deference to police requests not to inflame the situation.

"The bottom line here is that we are all trying to be responsible while covering the story without making it flare up into a greater tragedy than it already is," said Bill Fine, vice president and general manager of WBAL.

One example of altered coverage occurred on WBAL-TV (Channel 11) last night when the station censored an "Inside Edition" report by deleting interviews with Palczynski's father and girlfriend.

"We are not showing those interviews. We don't want in any way to agitate Palczynski," said Fine.

"Inside Edition" is not produced by WBAL; the station buys the show from a Los Angeles production company.

It was also learned yesterday that Palczynski had called WJZ-TV (Channel 13) on Sunday, but that the station, after conferring with police, did not report the call to its viewers.

When asked about it yesterday, WJZ vice president and general manager Jay Newman said, "Given that we are in the middle of covering a situation that involves life and death issues, I would choose at this point not to answer your question."

Bill Toohey, spokesman for the Baltimore County Police Department, also declined to answer questions about the telephone call.

Fine said WBAL has tried to be "sensitive" to police requests when management felt they were appropriate "without becoming part of the story."

One such request came Friday night when Palczynski's former attorney, David Henninger, arrived at the police command center in Dundalk, and police wanted him to make an on-air appeal to the gunman to surrender.

"They did ask us, when his attorney came out, if we could have a camera there. And, yes, they did steer him to our camera, because apparently he was watching Channel 11 at the time," Fine said. "We thought it was a reasonable way to help at the time."

Drew Berry, general manager at WMAR-TV (Channel 2) said, "I don't want the blood of those hostages spilled to cover something someone on this station said. I feel very strongly about this."

Calling the standoff with Palczynski one of the biggest and most volatile stories in the 15 years he's worked in local television news, Joe DeFeo, news director at WBFF-TV (Channel 45), said he would rather have his station err on the side of being too cooperative with police rather "than causing something to happen where people get hurt."

The Radio and Television News Directors Association, the organization that sets professional standards and includes all Baltimore stations, does advocate cooperation with police in a hostage-taking situation.

But Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies and the author of the organization's guidelines, said yesterday that TV news stations should in no way abandon independent editorial control and become an arm of law enforcement officials.

"The key is that television stations must weigh the request in terms of the potential harm that could occur if the station does not help out with the police request. The answer is never simple compliance," Steele said.

In February 1998, a suspected bank robber broke into a home in Salem, Mass., taking a father and his twin sons hostage.

Two Boston television stations stopped their live coverage immediately; a third, however, WHDH, sent up a helicopter, broadcast pictures from the scene and described where sharpshooters were positioned.

At one point, a news anchor on WHDH reported that the father being held hostage was a corrections officer. Although the situation ended without any of the hostages being hurt, the news broadcasts -- which were being watched in the house -- almost caused the suspect to lose control, the father later said.

Since then, Boston's TV stations and police have arrived at an informal agreement: In exchange for not broadcasting live pictures of a hostage situation, TV cameras would be allowed closer to the scene and videotaped action could be shown immediately after the crisis was over.

Using the News Directors Associations' guidelines as a benchmark, one failing in local coverage has been in not telling viewers Friday and Saturday how greatly coverage was skewed by police requests, which were often made in response to something Palczynski didn't like seeing on TV.

"Be forthright with viewers, listeners or readers about why certain information is being withheld if security reasons are involved," the guidelines say.

It was not until Sunday that such disclosures started appearing with any regularity. Some stations have yet to inform viewers of all the things they didn't see.

For example, David Collins told viewers on Sunday that videotape they were seeing of the immediate neighborhood where the hostages were being held had been "censored" by police.

It was the first admission on the air of such censorship.

Yesterday, WJZ started offering viewers an explanation of the ethical and journalistic decisions they were making, though, they did not reveal the phone call Palczynski made to them on Sunday.

Another of the organization's recommendations says: "Challenge any gut reaction to `go live' from the scene of a hostage-taking crisis, unless there are strong journalistic reasons for a live, on-the-scene report. Ask if the value of a live, on-the-scene report is justifiable compared to the harm that could occur."

DeFeo acknowledged that everyone in town was bending that rule a little, but he and others justified it by the magnitude of the story and "the need to give people in the area [of the standoff] the facts they need."

WBAL's Fine seemed to speak for most of the local broadcast news community when he said, "After it's all over, we can compare notes about what was said when. Right now, I think we're all trying to do the best we can."

Sun staff writer Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this report.

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