Los Angeles stations air live coverage of suicide, and a controversy ensues.
It started as a semi-regular Los Angeles news event: shots fired on the freeway, traffic at a standstill, local news choppers hovering over the scene, regular programming interrupted by live news reports.
But 20 minutes into the coverage the afternoon of April 30, the story took a ghastly twist. Daniel V. Jones shot himself in the head as the cameras rolled, leaving L.A.'s news directors reeling from the fallout.
"It was bound to happen," says Warren Cereghino, executive producer for Chris-Craft Television News Service, which owns KCOP, one of the stations that aired the suicide. "Any time you cover something live and un-edited you're taking a risk."
Late that afternoon police had shut down a major freeway near Los Angeles International Airport when Jones, upset over what he considered to be shabby treatment from a health maintenance organization, pulled his truck over and began shooting in the air.
When traffic stops in L.A., for any reason, it's news. So local stations broke into regular programming, some of it kids' cartoons.
Six of the seven English-language commercial stations in L.A. stuck with the story — MSNBC carried it nationally — as Jones lit himself, his dog and his truck on fire. They stayed on air as he shed some of his clothes. And then viewers saw Jones get a rifle from the fiery pickup and shoot himself.
Many on-air apologies came instantly, and as hours and days passed, more followed. So began yet another round of media mea culpas, complete with fresh promises from news directors to improve the way they handle live coverage on future breaking stories.
"Operationally, we have to be quicker on the switch," says KCOP news director Stephen Cohen.
Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg doesn't buy the we'll-be-good-next-time pledge. "It happens after every story. We have O.J., and there are panel discussions and promises to do better," he says. "And then we have Richard Jewell, and the same thing happens."
Live coverage has become the norm for breaking news, especially in stiffly competitive markets like Los Angeles. "In a way it's mindless competition," says Cereghino. "You have these stations going at it hammer and tongs every day, everyone eyeball to eyeball, and everyone's afraid to blink."
After Jones' suicide, several L.A. news directors said they should have pulled away from coverage as Jones grew increasingly erratic. But Jeff Wald, news director at KTLA, Los Angeles' WB affiliate, says there was value to at least the first minutes of coverage. "You have a rush hour where 250,000 people were affected by somebody who was shooting at people on the freeway," he says. "That's a news story. Part of our duty is to warn people."
Still, Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says the industry needs to come up with "rules of the road" for live coverage. Stations, she says, should develop guidelines to deal with potentially explosive live news situations.
Cochran offered to facilitate a meeting with L.A.'s news directors to talk about what happened. But she admits the market's competitive nature will likely prevent any consensus on safeguards. "I doubt that would really happen," she says. "Live coverage is a judgment each news director has to make."
Some news managers whose stations aired the suicide say the technology that allows them to cover news instantly might also provide a solution. Wald is among those considering using a five- to seven-second delay when live shots look like they might get too outrageous or grisly. "It would give a better chance to get off the picture or make a change," he says.
MSNBC has already committed to using a delay of several seconds, a spokes-person says, "for any live situation in which we think violence could occur."
But Rosenberg is skeptical. "It's amazing to me that they've been doing these live freeway chases forever in L.A., where anything at all can happen, and it never occurred to them before to use a seven-second delay." he says. "The fact is that competition is so fierce that they don't want to even be seven seconds behind."
Regardless, KCOP's Cohen says the blame rests with those in charge. Like him. "There is no mitigation — it was a mistake to show it. Period. We left our judgment at the door, and we became observers instead of journalists. We blew it."
And Rosenberg, for one, says he wouldn't be surprised if TV stations soon blow it again. "I hope I'm wrong," he says, "but the media don't tend to learn from mistakes like this."