Witnessing the Final Act  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   July/August 2001

Witnessing the Final Act   

Broadcasters need to think through a decision to air an execution.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     



LAST MONTH'S execution of Timothy McVeigh took us another step closer to one of the toughest decisions broadcasters will ever have to make: whether to televise an execution. It didn't happen this time, but it's beginning to seem inevitable.
The Justice Department's decision to provide a closed-circuit feed of the execution to Oklahoma City so survivors and relatives could watch as it happened crossed a significant threshold. The last time there was a camera in the death chamber was in 1928, when a reporter for New York's Daily News hid one in his pant leg and came out with an exclusive photo of a convicted killer in the electric chair. This time, a government-approved video camera put out a scrambled signal available only to a select audience. The next time, you can almost predict that it's going to be broadcast.
That day seems closer than ever. About a month before McVeigh was executed in Indiana, sounds (but not pictures) from the death chamber in Georgia made it on the air for the first time nationwide. Independent radio producer David Isay acquired official tapes of past executions and developed an hourlong program that aired on public radio stations across the country, with excerpts picked up by national television programs such as ABC's "Nightline."
What you heard was the dispassionate voice of an official at the Georgia state prison describing what he saw, as a convict was strapped into the electric chair and put to death. "When the first surge entered his body, he stiffened and I heard a pop, as if one of the straps broke," the official says. "He is at this time sitting there with clenched fists, with no other movement."
WNYC radio, which coproduced the program, said the decision to broadcast "The Execution Tapes" wasn't made lightly. "We believe this is important material in the public record," station President Laura Walker told a news conference. "We believe we have a journalistic responsibility to air it."
Baloney, said Martin Kaplan of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. "I think it's pornographic," he told public radio's "Marketplace." "I think that it caters to the lowest appetite that we have."
If that's the reaction to broadcasting archival audiotape, just imagine the outcry when and if the video of an execution is aired. Maybe that's why no mainstream news organization petitioned to air McVeigh's. The only outfit that went to court claiming a First Amendment right to air live the feed from the death chamber was an entertainment Web site, best known for its soft-core porn offerings, that wanted to charge $1.95 per online viewing. But plenty of television journalists said they would have broadcast McVeigh's execution if they could.
There's certainly no debating the news value of the event itself. McVeigh was an unrepentant terrorist whose end merited the national attention it drew. But news value alone is not the only precondition for putting something on television. If it were, coverage decisions that newsrooms often anguish over would be easy.
"Because there is an event doesn't mean it is something we should cover," Court TV Chairman Henry Schleiff told Broadcasting and Cable magazine. "We think a vast majority of our viewers would not think it was appropriate."
Perhaps the oddest argument in favor of broadcasting McVeigh's death by lethal injection came from Don Hewitt of CBS' "60 Minutes." "You put a guy on a gurney and stick a needle in his arm," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Gail Shister. "People watch that on ER' every week. What's the big deal?"
To be sure, there's plenty of death on television already, not all of it fiction. Sometimes, it's live and accidental. A space shuttle explodes, a race car driver hits the wall. Rarely, it's deliberate, as when "60 Minutes" televised a tape of an assisted suicide. But always, it's controversial. So even if there's nothing dramatic about a death by lethal injection, putting it on television, live or on tape, would certainly be a big deal. To pretend that it wouldn't be is to equate the ultimate penalty with the ultimate in reality programming.
No question: Lots of people might want to watch a televised execution. It could draw big numbers. But that's not a sufficient reason for a station or network news division to put it on the air. There are plenty of other things viewers want to see, too, and piles of good reasons for not broadcasting them.
So it didn't happen this time. But there's going to be a next time. And if news organizations intend to be among those airing an execution, they'd be wise to have figured out why. They'd also better be prepared to explain that decision to their audience. Saying it's big news or no big deal won't be good enough.

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