Reporters plunge into their own stories

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Is this helpful or just a product of a slow news day?

July 24, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

The terrors of al-Qaida fail to faze you? Snakehead fish on the lam not stir your fears? Not to worry. Baltimore's television reporters are finding new ways to scare the stuffing out of us.

First, consider the case of WBAL-TV's Jeff Pegues, who drove into a channel off the Magothy River in Anne Arundel County. On purpose.

Tracked by rescue workers from the county fire department, several colleagues with scuba gear and cameras, and the station's helicopter hovering above, Pegues last week contributed a two-part story on how to escape from a car when it's sinking under water. His reports took up six minutes on WBAL's late newscasts last Wednesday and Thursday nights - a big chunk of real estate for local television.

During the stories, Pegues briefly set out safety tips for those who might find themselves in that position: Don't panic. Unbuckle your seat belt. Wait to open your door until water fills much of the inside of the car - only when the pressure is equalized can the door be budged. (Part 2 consisted mostly of a rehash, with the added suggestion that a relatively cheap tool called a "center punch" will shatter an electrically operated window in a hurry.)

The story isn't new, even in this market. WJZ's Mike Schuh had much the same story last summer, and it's been done repeatedly here and elsewhere.

But last week, WBAL offered footage intended to cause racing adrenaline, and Pegues became an action figure. He prepped with the rescue teams, he drove, he dove, he emerged. Imagine a blend of high school driving instructional films and Animal Planet's Crocodile Hunter.

WBAL-TV staffers say they received a heavy volume of phone calls from fascinated viewers.

But is this news or a stunt? Pegues doesn't deny that the dramatic aspect of his stories made them noteworthy. But, he says, "We did a Smoothie taste test recently. Is that news? Depends on who you ask."

The "Getting Out Alive" stories were prompted by the Oklahoma bridge collapse in May. Television cameras captured cars plummeting from the bridge several hundred feet to the water below.

And Pegues says his dive was a form of "news you can use," though he acknowledges that safety officials say falling from a bridge is not comparable to being caught in floodwaters.

"Believe it or not, we did it so people would learn something," Pegues says. "If even one person's life is saved, it will have been worthwhile."

While the stories did call it an "unlikely" scenario, WBAL didn't check to see just how unlikely that is. A single five-minute phone call to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration yielded the following information: Of the approximately 36,000 U.S. traffic deaths in 2000, 219 people died after their cars were submerged in water. The number of such deaths has consistently dropped in recent years, according to NHTSA spokesman Tim Heard, making it a less common peril than ever.

In another story last Wednesday, WMAR reporter Janet Swanson was prowling Baltimore playgrounds after a man was charged with the kidnapping and killing of a California girl. After obtaining permission from the girl's mother, Swanson approached a 7-year-old and lured her away with a story of needing help to find a lost cat.

"It's their innocent faces and trusting hearts that make young children the perfect target for any predator," Swanson told viewers.

(After promising to return a call seeking comment yesterday, Swanson never did so. News director Staci Feger-Childers also did not return messages left seeking comment.)

The story played upon the worst fears of every parent, with only scant information about warnings to give children that could serve to justify the piece.

As it happens, her suggestions weren't directly relevant, as the California victim appeared to have resisted her abductor's entreaties and attempted to fight him off.

No mention was made of how common such kidnappings by strangers are - nationally, several hundred a year - or how much more common it is for missing children to have been abducted by parents or have run away.

WBFF's Jon Leiberman also found himself at the center of his story July 11, when he went to confront a car dealer at his lot in Towson over some credible allegations that he had rolled back odometers on used cars. After arriving at the lot, Leiberman and his cameraman were repeatedly shoved by a large guy with a temper who worked there.

As luck would have it, the U.S. Transportation Department came out with a report that day that said there are 450,000 cases of odometer fraud annually, running up costs more than $2,000 per altered car.

Leiberman says he's received a gratifyingly strong response from his story, which showed the man's angry assault: "There's a part of the public that really wants the media to get these guys. So they applaud when they see you really pushing for answers."

Even though it was not ground-breaking, Leiberman's reporting did not rely upon a staged event to be dramatic.

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