Viewers shouldn't have to drop to the floor


TV: Is pointing a gun at the camera going too far in `illustrating' news reports with props?

March 28, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

I've faced tough tests in discharging my journalistic duties, and truth be told, I've withstood them all. Fearless is not too strong a word to characterize my efforts on behalf of you, the noble reader.

Why, just the other day, I found myself staring down the barrel of a gun.

Sure, at the time, I was sitting on a couch watching TV. Yes, no actual threat ever emerged to me, personally, um, ever. But it's a breathtaking tale nonetheless, one defined by tragedy off camera and melodrama on it:

In the early morning hours on March 19, according to police, two brothers shot three men who broke into their twice-burglarized concrete plant in Reisterstown. One of the suspected intruders died.

Later that day, reporter Sharon Lee contributed a two-minute piece to WJZ's 5 p.m. news program asking whether it's a good idea to become a vigilante. And she was packing heat.

"It may seem like common sense that you'd want to protect yourself and your property," Lee said, striding through an unspecified someone's elegantly appointed home.

"But when you take the law into your own hands" - here she paused, drawing out a gleaming multi-chambered gun with a loooooong barrel - "it can turn against you." And then Lee pointed the gun at the camera, and pulled the trigger. As the gun was empty, no bullet was fired. No explosive sound resulted. Instead, there was a modest "click."

Bravely, I ducked anyhow.

Many television news crews now employ props to remind viewers what a story's about. Locally, WJZ particularly revels in that practice. A recent story on the plunge of the Dow Jones relied upon play money to symbolize stocks going down the drain; in January, a reporter brandished a fish on the air after Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley mocked State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy for denouncing "red herrings" raised in a trial.

Several observers, even those who did not see the original newscast, wondered whether using the gun as a prop advanced the story about the Reisterstown shootings.

"There is a debate as to whether this adds to the story or may glorify the debatable use of a gun," says Tom Dolan, who had a 26-year career in television news. "What makes for good television doesn't always make for good content. Reporters should try to inform viewers, not just emotionally charge viewers." Dolan is now a Frederick-based consultant who, it should be noted, does some work for WBAL.

"I would hate if a depiction like that sent the message that it's OK - thinking a gun is empty - to point it at someone," said Jon Vernick, associate director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Lee's story didn't fully distinguish between confronting an intruder in one's home, which is generally not prosecutable, and doing so at one's own business, which may be. Nor did the Clint Eastwood style-gun remotely resemble the 12-gauge shotgun that police say fired the fatal shot.

Neither Lee, a free-lancer effectively working full-time, nor WJZ news director Gail Bending returned telephone messages seeking comment. But WJZ spokeswoman Liz Chuday said: "Television is a visual medium. Upon occasion, we do use props, much in the same way the print media uses various graphic arts, to further illustrate its stories."

However, Chuday acknowledged that the footage of the gun was removed in versions of the story that aired later that night. "As part of our daily, post-show review, news management did not think it was the best way to illustrate that story," Chuday said. "It was re-edited for subsequent newscasts that evening."

On thin ice

If you don't think that figure-skating fans are a raucous band spoiling for a bare-knuckled fight, well, you're probably right. But then, you haven't been working for Baltimore's ABC affiliate lately.

On Saturday evening, ABC presented a live broadcast of the world championships in figure skating from Vancouver in which American Michelle Kwan took top honors. Baltimoreans had to wait well into the early morning hours Sunday to find that out.

The figure-skating competitions - the last major international contest before next year's Winter Olympics - were delayed here because WMAR had already arranged to air the Johns Hopkins lacrosse match against the University of Virginia. Washington's WJLA also pre-empted the show in favor of a pre-Oscars special in advance of Sunday's awards ceremony, also carried on ABC.

Both stations ultimately decided to broadcast the skating championships on a delayed basis. WMAR, for example, repeatedly told viewers to set their VCRs to tape the contests at 12:30 a.m. Sunday morning.

But even that plan was thrown off-kilter by the quadruple-overtime spectacle between Hopkins and Virginia.

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