Safety First  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   January/February 2000

Safety First   

There's a growing sentiment that TV news operations must be careful that their coverage of hostage situations and the like doesn't endanger lives.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

Related reading:
   » Going For The Fake
   » Leaping Before Looking


IT WAS AROUND 3:15 p.m. November 4 when word came over the police scanner at Saginaw, Michigan's WNEM-TV that a gunman had barricaded himself in a mobile home near Flint. No big deal, thought assignment editor Marlin Kibbe. Ten minutes later, Kibbe's telephone rang. It was the gunman, Matthew Utt, pleading for a chance to tell his side of the story before police arrested him for bad checks and misdemeanor domestic violence. Officers were knocking on his door. Would Kibbe just listen before he killed himself?
Kibbe scribbled a note to seatmate Lisa Farrell: "I've got the guy on the phone."
"Oh my God," thought Farrell. She called the Flint Township Police Department to ask for help, "because we are definitely not trained for this kind of situation."
Normally, law enforcement officials prefer journalists to refrain from talking with armed suspects in a crisis situation, because reporters might unwittingly provoke a violent outburst. But this time, a police negotiator wanted station personnel to keep Utt talking. "For the next 40 minutes, we were on the phone with this guy," Farrell says.
Elsewhere at the station, the Poynter Institute's Al Tompkins, by coincidence, was conducting a workshop on his specialties: television writing and ethics. "Someone came and got me," says Tompkins, a former news director. "They wanted another set of eyes and ears."
They got the right set: Tompkins and his Poynter colleague, Bob Steele, conduct seminars that deal with the thorny question of how television stations should cover tense, life-threatening crises such as hostage situations, barricaded gunmen, terrorist actions or prison uprisings.
Suddenly Tompkins found himself in the middle of one.
"It's important in situations like this that [the gunman] only talk to one person," Tompkins says. "We turned down the police scanner to cut out noise. We wanted it to sound like a calm, in-control situation."
Kibbe, now 39, kept talking. He listened patiently as Utt stressed that he wasn't such a bad guy. He had never done anything violent, he said. With epilepsy and a prison record, he couldn't get a job and, yes, he'd made a few mistakes and written some bad checks.
"I was nervous," recalls Farrell. "I couldn't believe this was happening. Marlin was cool as a cucumber."
Kibbe kept his cool with Utt in part because he had a coach--Tompkins was sitting next to him, writing him notes. "I fed over a series of things to say to the guy," Tompkins says. "Would it be OK if we transferred your call to a professional, because we don't really have any training, and you'd be in better hands?" Kibbe asked.
The answer came back swiftly: "No."
"We are really nervous about talking to you," Kibbe was told to say. "We are afraid we'll say something that will irritate you. Will you promise that if we say anything to you that is upsetting or irritating to you, you will tell us? All we want to do is get you the help you need."
"You're doing fine," Utt replied. He just wanted Kibbe to keep listening. Meanwhile someone else in the newsroom called a local crisis intervention center to ask for advice. About 40 minutes later, police suddenly cut Utt's phone line. Meanwhile, WNEM news managers were grappling with whether they should put the episode on the imminent 5 p.m. newscast. They had a crew near where Utt was holed up. SWAT teams were surrounding his trailer. But was it news? No one but Utt's life was threatened. The area around the small trailer park had been evacuated, and there weren't any hostages.
By 9:30 p.m., Utt had shot himself to death. "We never ran a single syllable," says Farrell, who produces the 6 p.m. news show. "We hear barricaded gunmen stories all the time. Unless he's a threat to the neighbors or has people inside the house, it's not a story to us. Just because we were involved didn't make it a story."
The way WNEM handled the situation is a good example of responsible journalistic behavior in a volatile police situation. "They were extremely professional," says Flint Township Lt. James Iacovacci, who was on the line with Farrell. "I deal with the media all the time, and Channel 5 did a phenomenal job."
The station could have puffed up its role in the story and sensationalized the situation by exploiting Utt or breaking into regular programming with the disclosure that he was threatening to kill himself. Instead, it worked with police and didn't try to control or interject itself into the situation, and it used an outside coach to offer advice.
"It's not all just about covering events or running out and telling the viewers everything you know," Tompkins says. "Sometimes in telling the story you can cause unintentional harm, in this case to the suspect, or harm to the police. This is an example of journalism that is asking a whole series of questions before they run onto television with all this information. This is what viewers say they want in the news. They want us to minimize the harm that comes in seeking the truth. But not at the expense of the truth."

HOW TELEVISION reporters and photographers should act in a tense police situation is one part of the journalistic equation. The other is how TV news managers decide under enormous pressure what should be aired live, what should be shot as video and aired later, and what should never appear on the screen.
Nowadays, journalists have to assume a suspect holding hostages or keeping police at bay is watching television, listening to the radio or even surfing the Internet. Live coverage of a SWAT team with snipers crawling toward a barricaded suspect may make for riveting television. But, with an armed man watching, it can also endanger the lives of police officers, hostages and others.
Last April, when a Denver television station aired live SWAT team movement toward Columbine High School to rescue a student hanging from a library window, no one knew if the two gunmen were alive or dead. Had they still been alive, real-time helicopter coverage could have made it easy for the two gunmen to pick off SWAT members or the student.
When a gunman sees a live shot of law enforcement officers approaching him or a taped interview of a neighbor ranting that he's a kook, that can complicate life for the police. So can a journalist calling a barricaded suspect. Not only does it tie up the phone, preventing trained negotiators from getting through, but a reporter can unintentionally provoke a tightly wound individual by saying the wrong thing. "I had one reporter ask: Are you going to kill anybody else?' " says Gary Noesner, chief of crisis negotiations for the FBI. "We'd handle it differently."
As technological advances in broadcasting equipment make it easier for television to go live instantly, and as competitive pressures loom larger, journalists face tough ethical questions on what to show during a high-stakes crisis. Added to the pressure are HUT (households using television) numbers, which news managers know always shoot up when a big story breaks. Too often, producers under pressure focus on what their high-tech equipment can do rather than what the station should do. Asking two essential questions during a siege of any sort can make a journalist's job less stressful, says Steele, head of Poynter's ethics program and author of guidelines on how to handle such situations: "What does the public need to know? When do they need to know it?" The public, say many in law enforcement, does not need to see live tactical police activity.
"Live coverage can cause real problems for us," says Lt. Steve Davis, public information officer for Jefferson County, Colorado. Davis was the spokesman during the Columbine crisis in the Denver suburbs, in which two high school students gunned down 12 fellow students and a teacher before killing themselves. "During the incident back in April, we had kids inside the school calling TV stations and telling them their location, and one station put that on the air. There were helicopter shots of us removing students from the building and congregating them in the corner that were shown live. We don't have a problem with the news media shooting the shots, but can you please hold onto them until it's over?"
Incidents like Columbine, where the perceived needs of the news media and the police diverge, create powerful tension between the two. While television reporters and producers need to be sensitive and cautious during strained police standoffs, law enforcement officials, says the FBI's Noesner, need to stonewall journalists less and cooperate more.
"Unfortunately, a lot of law enforcement agencies view [the press] as the enemy," Noesner told journalists at an October conference. "Their initial inclination is to cut off information from you: If we don't talk to them, maybe they'll go away.' That doesn't happen. You won't go away.... When I teach negotiators and crisis managers, and please don't take offense at this, I say: You either feed the shark, or the shark will feed itself.' "

ALTHOUGH NOT quite a movement, an effort is under way in many communities for law enforcement and television personnel to better understand each other and figure out how to coexist more cooperatively. In these sessions, journalists talk about the need for timely, reliable information from police during a crisis. Police explain how they negotiate with irrational individuals and identify ways television can exacerbate an explosive situation.
In Boston and Portland, Oregon, police and television stations forged voluntary agreements providing access and information in exchange for delayed coverage. In other jurisdictions, constructive talks between the two have eased relations.
Law enforcement agencies and local news media in many communities have arrangements for covering breaking news, says the FBI's Noesner. "It's not so much a formal agreement as an understanding that there are certain things that law enforcement expects the media to not broadcast live and, in exchange for which, the police feel an increased obligation to provide timely briefings and some access," he says.
Of course, such negotiations have to be handled carefully. While journalists certainly should try to minimize harm, they have to maintain their autonomy and not allow themselves to be used as arms of law enforcement. Paul McMasters, the Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman, worries that any agreements between police and the media are dangerous--and create no-win situations for the press. Such agreements aren't going to boost the media's popularity, and if an important story isn't covered because of a pact, the public is likely to outraged.
"Generally the media are responsible," McMasters says. "To try to craft an agreement because of one or two bad incidents where the press behaved badly is like rewriting the police manual because two situations went bad. You don't tear up the police manual and start over. You shouldn't try to alter the balance of power between the police and the media in these situations. Not only do the police already have the upper hand, but it's a heavy hand."
And while journalists have had their less-than-stellar moments, the police don't have a perfect track record, either. "Law enforcement across the country does much to unnecessarily obstruct media coverage," McMasters says. "They have come up with the idea of holding up a blue tarp, stopping the media a mile from the scene, confiscating camera equipment and exposing film--only to return it all later with an apology. But at the same time, they were successful in preventing the news from being shown."
All the more reason for the two sides to converse. In some instances, talks can have a positive impact that goes beyond guidelines for crises. "The ultimate value of working with the Portland Police Bureau on an agreement was that it broke down some of the obstacles in communication and trust between the police and the TV stations," says John Sears, news director of KPTV in Portland. "We found the tension was removed. They knew what we wanted, and we knew what they wanted. Their ultimate concern is the safety of their officers. We acknowledge that no one wants to be responsible for an officer's life."

TWO YEARS AGO in Portland, three police officers were about to serve a search warrant at a suspected marijuana grower's house. When they smelled burning pot, officers burst through the door. As they entered the house, suspect Steven Douglas Dons started firing an SKS assault rifle, killing a female police officer. Two other officers were wounded. Within a half-hour of the shooting, helicopters from four Portland TV stations--KATU, KOIN, KPTV and KGW--began arriving. Within an hour, the stations were live on the air.
"Police were giving us no information," says KPTV's Sears. "They weren't telling us where the house was or what color it was. They weren't telling us if tactical teams were moving in, or if officers were surrounding the house. It was all of our best judgment to try to find the house from the air."
Getting virtually no information puts live television in a bind. Had police fed the stations piecemeal items, the stations might have been more cooperative. "Several helicopters showed some images of police officers on the ground," Sears says. "A loud hue and cry came from the police that we were jeopardizing the lives of the police officers, so we moved our helicopters a mile away." Eventually, Dons was arrested, stripped of his clothes and, for reasons Sears still doesn't understand, paraded naked in front of news cameras.
At a hospital press conference later that day, Portland's then-Police Chief Charles Moose was furious. "Chief Moose came out and ripped the news media for being irresponsible and putting the lives of the officers in jeopardy," Sears says. "It was a passionate argument but not completely true. The community watching it, though, was inflamed. I got e-mail criticizing our coverage from as far away as Ottawa and North Carolina."
Portland Mayor Vera Katz had the city attorney draw up mandatory rules for future live television coverage during a siege. She summoned news directors and general managers to meet with her. "We were incredulous," recalls Sears. "She basically said, When you leave here, I want these signed.' We said no, but that we would get together on our own and discuss the situation. It was not going to be mandated by the city or the police."
A voluntary agreement (with no signatures) was worked out in March 1998 with Portland television and radio stations. Police agreed to provide meaningful tactical information and pool access if TV and radio stations didn't broadcast police movements live during tense situations involving hostages, explosives or armed, barricaded gunmen. Cameras could shoot endless video; it just couldn't be shown until the incident had played itself out. Portland SWAT teams also agreed to visit newsrooms and explain their needs. Once in 1998, says Sears, the voluntary agreement was tested during a juvenile jail incident, and it revealed a jurisdictional problem that has been resolved.
"The downside," Sears says, "is it's a matter of getting that understanding from the top of the department down to the bottom. That's going to take a while. There are still police officers who don't want us around at all."

PORTLAND'S PACT played a role in Boston television's decision to create a coverage agreement with police in the wake of a dicey hostage situation in Salem, Massachusetts. After robbing a New Hampshire bank of $9,000 in February 1998, a 24-year-old man led police on a wild car chase into Massachusetts, firing a semi-automatic pistol at officers and eventually crashing into a brick wall in Salem. He smashed a glass door at a nearby house, taking a man and his 4-year-old twins hostage at gunpoint.
Boston's news media soon arrived, and the neighborhood was evacuated. SWAT teams took positions around the house as state police began negotiating with the suspect. WHDH-TV did two things that irked police during the four-hour standoff. It reported that SWAT team officers were "crouched behind large rocks." And it accurately broadcast that the suspect had broken into a correction officer's home--a fact police preferred he didn't know.
The standoff illustrates dangers in reporting live during a tense situation. "When we are broadcasting live, there is very little opportunity for checks and balances," says Poynter's Steele. "It's very easy for a reporter in a live situation to say something that greatly exacerbates the dangers without even realizing it."
During a 1991 hostage crisis in Sandy, Utah, a man entered a hospital intending to kill a doctor who had performed a tubal ligation on his wife, which violated his religious beliefs. Instead, he killed a nurse and took patients and newborns hostage. A television reporter talked to one of the man's neighbors, and the interview ran during his siege. "He became extremely agitated when the neighbor said something like he was a nut," says the FBI's Noesner. "She gave examples of his prior erratic behavior and told how he's always yelling at his kids. It set him off, and I don't think the reporter had any sense that the interview had an impact on negotiators. He became much more difficult to deal with."
In Salem, the bank robber was caught and there were no casualties, except the media's reputation. After that episode and a similar incident near Tampa, Florida, WBZ-TV News Director Peter Brown approached the Boston police and suggested a game plan be drafted before the next flash point. His station had dispatched its helicopter in Salem but called it back after discussions with police. WHDH's helicopter went up. "We were in touch with law enforcement on the scene, and they said they didn't know if the suspect was watching TV, and that they'd prefer he not know the tactical situation of the police," Brown says. "It was that simple. You never put law enforcement or anyone else's life in danger for the sake of a story."
Under the voluntary agreement between police and television and newspaper photojournalists drawn up last March, Boston TV stations won't show live pictures that could aggravate a tense situation; in return, photojournalists can get close to the scene and shoot as much video as they want if they promise not to air it until the incident winds down. TV stations can send up a pool helicopter and put a pool photographer inside the police perimeter.
"All television and radio stations agree that, during barricaded suspect or hostage situations, they will not in any way possible interfere with the negotiation process," says the agreement. "This includes contacting by any means suspects or other persons involved in the situation without the guidance of the chief hostage negotiator."
The goal of the pact, which is being adopted statewide, is not to limit coverage but to protect the safety of all involved. News media personnel standing close to an armed situation can be in danger if TV broadcasts live shots of police activity.
"I think the media was feeling put upon for their bad reputation, and we were happy to do something prior to something negative happening," says Boston police Detective Margot Hill. "The media has done a lot to endanger people. And to what end? Is it really providing information or just filling curiosity to broadcast live? Is the public's insatiable desire to know the same as its need to know? I don't think so."

JUST A HALF-HOUR north of Tampa in Brooksville is the headquarters of the Hernando County Sheriff's Department. Maj. Richard Nugent, chief of operations for the county's hostage negotiations and SWAT team, tried unsuccessfully to get a voluntary agreement with Tampa-area journalists after a tragic May 1998 situation in which a Tampa man killed his girlfriend's 4-year-old son, killed three police officers and took a female hostage before killing himself.
Before he died, Hank Earl Carr, 30, dashed into a Shell gas station, grabbed a 27-year-old clerk and held her for four hours. The fact that he had killed three officers made Carr a much-wanted quarry. SWAT teams quickly surrounded the gas station. What happened next angered Nugent and other officers at the scene. All but one of five local television stations showed live SWAT team movements. Time Warner's fledgling all-news station, Bay News 9, taped the siege but delayed broadcasting.
Making things worse, a WFLA-AM radio producer knew Carr was holed up at a Shell station and began calling every one in the area until she got him on the phone. WFLA News Director Don Richards then talked to Carr for six-and-a-half minutes, broadcasting the conversation live. TV and radio stations repeatedly played the conversation throughout the afternoon.
Negotiators say it's critical in resolving hostage situations to wrest control from the suspect as quickly as possible. But because of the news media's involvement, officers say they couldn't do that. "It really slows down our ability to start to gain his trust," Nugent told the Tampa Tribune. "A lot of dynamics are going on. The sooner we start talking to him and build rapport, the better off everyone is. You want to force him to talk to you, no one else. I sure as hell didn't want to have to negotiate through the media."
While Richards talked to Carr, Nugent was getting a busy signal. "The best advice I can give you," Richards told Carr on live radio, "would be to let that lady, who has nothing to do with any of this, out of the store. And, you know, and to follow her yourself."
Richards violated a tenet of the Radio-Television News Directors Association's hostage guidelines, which the organization revised and re-released after Columbine: Avoid the temptation to become a player.
Nugent says Richards' attempt to get a scoop during the crisis showed a disregard for the lives of other people. WFLA General Manager Dave Reinhardt saw it differently, telling the St. Petersburg Times that Richards' interview "was instrumental in getting the hostage freed."
"When you jeopardize someone else's life, is that reporting the news or making the news?" asks Nugent. "I think it crosses the line when you overtly pick up the phone and call the hostage-taker."
Days later, the hostage, Stephanie Kramer, told the Tampa Tribune, "I couldn't believe it. I appreciated him [Richards] trying to tell him to let me go. But it could have made things worse."
Says Richards: "In 30 years I've never done anything like that, and I hope never to do it again. We were lucky in that situation.... Carr said he wanted to tell his story, and that's what we let him do."
He adds: "Do I want every Top 40 disc jockey to run to the phone every time there's a hostage situation? No."
The Carr situation infuriated many who thought the media behaved irresponsibly. Angry letters poured into the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune. Chief among the critics was Florida state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, who introduced a bill last March to restrict the media in ways similar to those spelled out in the voluntary agreements in Boston and Portland. Newspapers editorialized against the measure, and it died. A similar bill in Oregon's Legislature met the same fate.

THE RELATIONSHIP between journalists and law enforcement personnel has always been testy. The latter often feel that journalists overstep their bounds, complicating already tricky situations. Journalists fiercely guard their autonomy and bristle at police even tangentially controlling a story. "One of the principles that applies in this kind of situation is journalistic independence," Steele says. Journalists are "not an arm of law enforcement.... That said, it's important for journalists to meaningfully weigh the concerns of law enforcement. There may even be rare times when we do cooperate with law enforcement to prevent immediate harm."
Deciding whether to help law enforcement is a tough call. How can journalists cooperate with police and still maintain independence? When is it all right to work with police during a crisis?
"When we had a recent hostage situation, the police asked us to not do something, but they've also asked us to help," says Jim McCoy, news director at KHON-TV in Honolulu. "That's a terrible position to be in. You tend to not want to be part of the story. Say the hostage wants to do a live interview and, if not, he'll shoot somebody. Or a cop asks you if he can pose as a reporter. Those situations are unusual. Do you give carte blanche to law enforcement because they asked you to? It raises all these difficult questions."
In such situations, journalists need to discuss the ramifications with top managers, says Steele, and they never should decide to grant an interview without consulting police. Steele advocates using what he calls a "rabbi" to challenge assumptions and provide advice, although not to make the final call. "A rabbi is a wise person who offers particular expertise from an independent perspective," he says. "A rabbi helps the newsroom think through important steps in a volatile situation. Every newsroom should have the name of a rabbi in their Rolodex. The time to find the rabbi is now, not in a time of crisis."
Anticipating contingencies when things are calm rather than waiting for an emergency can pay dividends. "It's part of police training to learn to deal with the media," says McCoy, who is working on a "master disaster" plan for his newsroom. "It should be part of media training to learn how to deal with the police effectively."
FBI negotiators, says Noesner, conduct exercises with reporters, camera operators and producers around the country so journalists can see firsthand how some television coverage could adversely affect the negotiators' efforts. Noesner says journalists should initiate talks with local law enforcement. "Say: Listen, we want to be responsible. We're not going to let you dictate what we say. However, we want to make sure what we do doesn't unnecessarily cause harm.' "
Practice with police and practice with colleagues, urge Steele and Poynter colleague Tompkins.
Last October, staffers at KREM-TV in Spokane, Washington, hooked up with local law enforcement officers to conduct a drill, a mock Columbine-like school incident. Staffers were advised they might be called in, although Tamara McGregor, KREM's news director, gave few details.
Around 10 a.m. on a Saturday, an "all-call" page went to every news employee after a KREM crew "confirmed" students were being held hostage by men demanding a prisoner be released from jail. The newsroom shifted into a continuous coverage mode, and that meant almost everybody was working overtime. Station owner A.H. Belo Corp. paid for a stringer film crew to shoot KREM's performance for study purposes.
Days later, staffers filled out forms asking what they had done well, what they could have done better, and what they had learned. "We definitely had some problems," admits McGregor. "What was really eye-opening for me was having someone shoot our crews in the field. It was incredibly insightful."
Such preparation is unlikely to be wasted. "Newsrooms will be faced at some point with somebody calling in threatening to kill themselves, or someone holding a hostage, or some irrational person taking over an office building or a school," Tompkins says, "and you have to be skilled in how to handle it under intense pressure."

###