Live and lacking

Standoff: Palczynski coverage exposed many pitfalls of live coverage during hostage situations

March 25, 2000

REPORTING on the run is inherently risky journalism. Television coverage of Joseph C. Palczynski's two-week rampage vividly illustrated how the excitement of broadcasting live can overwhelm any reservations about the consquences of this around-the-clock coverage.

The Palcyznski incident -- beginning with his frenzy of kidnapping, murder and carjacking and ending with the assault against him -- was riveting news. People wanted to know what was happening. News organizations, including The Sun, took the public's desire seriously, diverting reporters, producers, editors, photographers and camera operators to cover the unfolding story in great detail.

The problem was that during the standoff there wasn't much solid, verified news. Nonetheless, live television coverage continued. As a result, much of the air time was filled with rumor, speculation and idle chatter. On Monday, with the lives of the three hostages in the balance, television stations featured lengthy stories on unattended pets because that was the only "fresh" information available.

Throughout the weekend, television reporters found themselves following police instructions to fashion their reports so as not to inflame Palczynski. Considering his volatile and unpredictable nature, the stations might have been better off halting all live coverage than being used in that way.

Perhaps in exchange for not going live during these hostage situations, police could give television stations better access and more information with the promise that taped video could be broadcast once the incident was over. But in this day of instantaneous coverage of wars halfway across the world and the intense competitive pressure to be "live" and "exclusive," this may be asking too much.

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