Broadcasts from skies not always in the clear

TV: News helicopters haven't taken to the air much due to post-Sept. 11 security restrictions. But yesterday's chase in Dallas wasn't hindered.

November 08, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Yesterday's televised aerial footage of a speeding stolen truck, its wooden cargo aflame, neatly encapsulated a vigorous debate over whether the government should ease restrictions on where news helicopters can roam.

In the Dallas area yesterday, the public's right to see spectacular pictures appeared to trump security measures put in place to control the country's air space after the terrorist attacks in September.

Currently, news choppers can fly only "point-to-point" in the nation's 30 largest metropolitan areas, including Baltimore - that is, with specific destinations in mind along flight paths determined by air-traffic controllers.

In some of those areas, news stations have been told they cannot even record footage from their helicopters during those flights. No news helicopters can fly within an 18-mile radius of Reagan National Airport outside Washington or John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.

"For all intents and purposes, we're really not flying anywhere," said Gail Bending, news director for WJZ (Channel 13). "Obviously, national security is the most important thing. But there is a belief among pilots and other knowledgeable people that helicopters can go up without compromising that security."

Her station was thwarted in its desire to send a helicopter to cover the effects of the tornado that struck College Park and Laurel in late September. During WJZ's two-hour bloc of local news each weekday evening, Bending said, helicopter coverage typically generates two or three breaking stories. Helicopters are also used routinely for traffic and weather reports.

Some news stations have been criticized for sensationalizing their coverage through helicopter footage of fires or car chases. Yesterday's story had a touch of both. CNN carried a live feed from Dallas station KDFW of the truck leading police on a chase until the driver stopped and surrendered. The Fox News Channel used similar shots. It's not known whether station officials had FAA approval for their flights; KDFW officials did not return calls seeking comment.

"If ever you had an example of how helicopters could save lives, there we have one," Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, said as she watched the truck wend through nearly empty streets. She claimed viewers of the local station would know not to drive on nearby streets.

Cochran has lobbied federal lawmakers and officials to end the restrictions, which, she noted, no longer apply to crop dusters and some other small aircraft. So far, there's been no change in the limitations on flight in major regions.

Richard Vatz, a Towson University communications professor who studies the media, argued that the introduction of new technology often distorts how stories are selected by television stations. After news helicopters first came to Baltimore and other markets, he said, viewers were deluged by breaking news stories aired simply because the station had new technology that made them possible.

"I don't have a great deal of difficulty with a presumption of a security interest over the ability to send out helicopters to gather news," Vatz said.

Fraser Jones, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said it wasn't clear which governmental agency would have the authority to decide when to lift the restrictions. "Our long-term goal is to restore general aviation flying, in keeping with national security concerns," he said.

The effect has hit hard those in that slice of the television news business. "It's been pretty devastating economically," said Alan Purwin, president of Helinet Corp. in Van Nuys, Calif.

His company provides helicopters for 18 news stations around the country, including Baltimore's WJZ and Washington's WTTG. He said his business has lost half of its news-related revenue from the restrictions put in place after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It's a visual medium," said Cochran. "What we're asking for is to be able to use the tools we always use, because we don't see any logical reason not to."

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