Aired live but was it news?

Commentary: What else was being pursued in WBAL's live broadcast of that car chase last week?

TV/Radio column

March 07, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Last Wednesday, WBAL's newscasts could have been mistaken for a Fox special: "When Car Chases Have Murky News Value."

Starting on the 5:30 p.m. news program on Wednesday, and spilling into the 6 p.m. show, anchors introduced live footage taken from the station's helicopter.

A car that police thought had been stolen - the license plate didn't match the make - wouldn't pull over for a traffic stop near Woodlawn. Instead, it shot away, at times weaving and appearing to break speed limits and traffic laws. Police soon stopped following, obeying their own rules governing possible high-speed pursuit. But it was all captured deftly by WBAL cameraman Ken Brown Sr.

So the suspects sped away, trailed not by police, but WBAL. Later, Brown taped two people getting out of the car in Northeast Baltimore. (Police were later allowed to view unedited footage - itself an interesting decision by the station.)

On the 11 p.m. news, reporter Jeff Pegues promised viewers a full report: "A dramatic chase plays out live, only on WBAL." And the story was all replayed, along with several companion stories on car thefts and an altogether confusing map cataloging the mad dash.

A bit later, Pegues made an important point: "Cars are stolen every day in Baltimore. The difference is, this one was caught on camera."

True enough. Official police figures show more than 3,200 people were arrested for car theft in Baltimore County in 1999. And the city logged more than 7,200 arrests for car theft that year. (Figures are comparable for the year 2000.) That suggests that more than 10,000 cars were taken in those two jurisdictions alone. So, now that the adrenaline's ebbed, it's worth stepping back and taking another look at how newsworthy that alleged car theft really was.

That night there were other stories to cover. The Pacific northwest was rocked by a powerful earthquake. And deep in the newscast, WBAL carried a moving interview with the adult son of an elderly couple that was killed by a hit-and-run driver. It was a story with far more serious consequences. But it was not an exclusive, as other stations obtained the interview, too. And anchor Rod Daniels apologized for the poor quality of the videotape, suggesting another reason why it was submerged.

News director Princell Hair summarizes the decision to highlight the speeding car this way: "This was a stolen car. They were going through the streets of Baltimore, some side streets, at times going at high speeds. I thought it was very compelling television. It was compelling to watch."

Hair says that this is the first time his channel has engaged in a live broadcast of a car chase from a helicopter, a trademark move of flashier stations in Los Angeles.

In an interview, Pegues says he thinks the station performed a valuable public service by airing the account live. People were warned away from what could have been a dangerous area.

But there's another way of characterizing the incident: The youths were not suspected of any violent crime or even an unusual one. There were no arrests. No injuries.

Gail Bending, news director for WJZ, says stations have become much more aggressive in using dramatic footage since WBAL and WJZ obtained the full-time use of helicopters three summers ago.

"It's something that has definitely changed news coverage in this market," she says. But, she adds, "You want to make sure that you don't put something on there that's inappropriate, just because you can."

By 11 p.m., when I saw it, the chase had already played out and ended without incident, making it even less newsworthy.

Yet, the original decision for a live broadcast created its own problems. Was the station prepared to air the footage if the car careened into a day care center or the driver stopped and threatened to commit suicide? These are the real choices news producers have to make.

Guidelines posted on the Web site of the Radio and Television News Directors Assocations set out a series of challenges to newscasters considering a live broadcast. The core question: "Why do your viewers need to know about this story before journalists have the opportunity to filter the information off the air?"

Hair says that his station's producers were monitoring carefully to yank the live feed were it to appear that a tragedy was about to occur. The point of live, however, is that you don't know what's about to happen.

"The video makes the story - I make no bones about that," Hair says. "Anytime you can watch something unfold right before your eyes, that's [compelling]."

It didn't hurt, he acknowledges, that last Wednesday was Feb. 28 - the final day of the February sweeps period, which helps set the station's advertising rates. But he contends that the timing was icing on the cake - WBAL's evening and late newscasts won - not a factor in the decision.

Of course, "breaking news" doesn't have to involve a helicopter or a ratings period to present dubious news value. WJZ broke into the top of its 5 p.m. newscast yesterday to announce that a B-B gun had been found at a Roland Park school earlier in the day. It's a far cry from the shootings outside San Diego on Monday.

WPOC's efforts honored

WPOC (93.1 FM) has received top honors from the Country Radio Broadcasters for its community outreach efforts. The country music station's initiatives included raising money for the family of a slain Baltimore County police officer and for area oncology, leukemia and breast cancer projects.

The award, in a category for large market stations, was announced earlier this month at the radio broadcasters' convention in Nashville.

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