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American Journalism Review
Ambushed by the Press  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features :    FIRST PERSON    
From AJR,   December/January 2004

Ambushed by the Press   

A feel-good photo-op for a recovering burn victim turns into a vulture-like media attack.

By Francene Cucinello
Francene Cucinello, who was on special assignment for WLFL, is 9 a.m.-noon host on talk-radio station 84WHAS in Louisville.     

A gang bang. It's a crass newsroom term for a media event where every news organization in the market shows up. The president comes to town, the police chief holds a press conference to announce a big arrest, a brigade of Fort Bragg soldiers returns from Iraq. Gang bangs.

Let me be clear, I love my profession. The ability to communicate to the masses is a privilege and one I take seriously. Underneath the masthead of my college newspaper was the motto, "No civic evil is ever defeated without publicity." I believed it then and I still do today.

And until recently--despite more than a decade of work in television news, in markets including Charlotte, Nashville, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.--I never personally witnessed the ugly side of the news media that the critics and the public rant about. I still can't completely let go of the experience.

In late July, John Klein, my cameraman, and I were the first television news crew to arrive at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We were the team from Raleigh's WLFL assigned to do a piece on Jim Edwards, who six months earlier had been severely burned in a deadly industrial plant explosion. He suffered burns on more than 60 percent of his body, and doctors said it was a miracle he survived. After excruciatingly painful physical therapy, he regained some use of his arms and legs. The day we filed our report Edwards was finally allowed to leave the hospital for a 24-hour visit to his parents' home. It was a great story.

The hospital's public relations director ran through a list of what John and I were not allowed to do. We would be limited to shooting outside. We could get only so close to the building. No, I couldn't talk to the family before they came out to ask if we could follow them home to get additional pictures. No, it wasn't possible to go inside the hospital and get video of the physical therapy suites where Edwards spent so much of his recovery, etc. etc.

Edwards and his dad would come out of the main entrance, address the media and drive away. Doctors would then be available for interviews.

"This is where you'll have to shoot from," the PR director said, pointing to the area behind a portable plastic barricade that hospital security officers were setting up. Another pair of officers unrolled wide yellow plastic tape and cordoned off areas of the sidewalk.

"It looks like a crime scene," I told her. "We're professionals. Is all of this really necessary?" She frowned. "We've had problems with hovering," she said. All this seemed a bit much for a story that would consist of the day's new video mixed with file of the aftermath of the explosion. I figured she was overreacting and, frankly, trying to flex her muscles.

Edwards' dad pulled his car up to the curb. Several reporters asked to speak with him. He knew some of their names. This was a huge story in the state. It was obvious some had interviewed him before.

Dad obliged. Some crews attached lavalieres; other radio and TV crews had handheld stick mics. A few print people stood within earshot. After a couple of minutes I heard what I needed, signaled to John that he could grab b-roll and moved away from the pack.

I took a good look at Dad. He was sweating. Dad's in his 70s. Typical July day in North Carolina--humidity was high and the temperature was in the upper 80s. Dad and son also had a three-hour drive ahead of them. I'm thinking, "Let's do this fast." But no. Questions continued for several more minutes until Dad was unwired and allowed to go into the hospital.

Radio and print reporters, wire service stringers, at least four TV crews and a couple of one-man bands scurried, again jockeying for position. A moment later, Jim Edwards emerged from behind the rehabilitation center's automatic sliding doors. He was in a wheelchair being pushed by one of his nurses. A second aide walked alongside him holding an umbrella to block out the sun's rays. A baseball cap covered his burned scalp and further shielded him from the sun. The skin on his face looked raw and blotchy. It was bright pink and in places transparent enough to see his veins. White gauze covered his arms. Ace bandages were tightly wrapped around legs that were noticeably shriveled by skin and muscle loss.

Cameras flashing and video rolling, reporters began asking if Edwards would take a minute for questions. Until this point the throng had kept a polite distance, but the instant he agreed to talk everything changed.

I've always resented people referring to the media as "vultures," but at that moment the term was accurate. I watched in disbelief as reporters and photographers ran up to Edwards, got inches from his face and began, some simultaneously, clipping lav mics all over his T-shirt. I counted six separate lavs, all with wires dangling and transmitters attached to his wheelchair or dropped in his lap. Only a couple of photographers explained to Edwards what they were doing as, but not before, they began to manhandle him.

It must have been overwhelming and possibly downright frightening. Pairs of strange hands touching him. Unfamiliar voices circling him.

You see, what the media knew, but somehow forgot or just insensitively disregarded, is that as the result of his severe burns Edwards contracted a serious infection. It settled in his eyes. Jim Edwards went completely blind.

Experts say precise communication is essential when a person who is visually impaired is wired for an interview. Belveia Benzenhafer at the Metrolina Association for the Blind suggests that a reporter even take a moment to let his or her subject hold the recording device that will be clipped onto the body before attaching it.

Make no mistake, I am highly ambitious and competitive. My approach to news every day is to be the first and the best. But you don't swoop in and attack a blind man in a wheelchair in pursuit of a story. You just don't.

I wish I could say the indignity ended there. A few questions, which to his credit Edwards generously answered with poignant, emotional and insightful sound bites, weren't enough for the gaggle. While some of the more seasoned reporters got their sound and moved away, the rest of this crew kept the questions coming until the hospital's rep finally ended the session.

From a technical standpoint, there was no reason we all couldn't have used stick mics or the shotgun mics from the cameras. This is what John and I did, and the sound quality was fine. The litter of black lavs clipped to this poor guy's white T-shirt was visually distracting and contradicted the subtlety of using one.

Don't want to have a bevy of radio and TV mics and station logos in your shot? Ask everyone to lower theirs--I have and they will. This interview was an orchestrated press event; there wasn't going to be any kind of confrontation and no one was going to walk away with a scoop.

In addition, UNC Hospitals should have made available an air-conditioned or at least indoor area so that the family could be interviewed more comfortably. For a burn patient, outside interviews on such a hot day are potentially dangerous. And a table with a central mic stand would have cut down the chaos. Nevertheless, the hospital is not responsible for this debacle. The journalists who engaged in it are.

Where did these reporters learn their craft? E! News' "Celebrities Uncensored"? Are we so pressured in this business that manners and professional courtesy don't exist anymore?

Several years ago I was blessed to work in a newsroom run by Al Tompkins, now part of the distinguished faculty at the Poynter Institute. Al's mantra has always been "minimize harm." He routinely discussed ethics and newsgathering tactics.

Unfortunately, this kind of journalistic integrity is a stretch for the majority of newsrooms across the country. But have our standards deteriorated so much that sound bites have become more important than the people who utter them?

This never should have been an ambush; it was a photo op. Edwards isn't a criminal, a public official or the focal point of some scandal. He's an ordinary man who never before had any reason to attract media attention.

Jim Edwards is blind. He's a burn victim. Now he's also a victim of overzealous journalism.



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