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From AJR,   June 1999  issue

How Much Is Too Much?   

Coverage of the school shootings in Colorado provokes debate.

By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.     

The shocking high school shootings that left 14 students and a teacher dead in Littleton, Colorado, in April have once again brought broadcast journalists under scrutiny for how they respond to a crisis.

Critics continue to be disturbed by what they call excessive coverage of violence. They also are upset by what they see on the air in these live situations, and they wonder about the ethics and accountability of TV news.

"I'm distressed by this pattern of wall-to-wall coverage of violent events to the exclusion of any other news and by the need to do it live," says Paul Klite, founder of Rocky Mountain Media Watch, a Denver-based group that monitors newscasts throughout the nation. "What you get now in live coverage is a lot of speculation and a lot of incomplete information and repetition. It may be dramatic and sensational, but it's not very substantive."

What gave the incident in suburban Denver more impact and made it seem even more horrific was that it was still evolving in the first few hours--and it involved teenagers. Millions watched over the cable news networks as students ran for their lives and police swarmed school grounds.

That early video came from local stations, which were providing feeds to CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, as well as to the networks. Viewers saw the movements of police SWAT teams, the dramatic rescue of a bloodied student from a second-floor window and emotional interviews with parents and surviving students.

Meg Moritz, associate dean at the University of Colorado's School of Journalism, says most of her students didn't like what they saw. "They were offended by the reporters who they said were insensitive and put mikes in the faces of kids who were clearly distraught," Moritz says. "They also brought up the age of some reporters. Some reporters are not quite 30 and maybe never covered a story like this before.... One student complained about a young female reporter who smiled throughout her live shot--maybe out of nervousness. But he thought it was very inappropriate.

"Personally, I thought there was a lot of good coverage. I think the problem TV reporters face in comparison to newspapers is that during live situations, you are never in total control; there is no professional editing process as in print and, thus, some things get on the air that shouldn't."

Denver's TV columnists were generally satisfied with how the local broadcast media covered the shootings. But Joanne Ostrow of the Denver Post, who praised KUSA-TV for most of its coverage, criticized the NBC affiliate for broadcasting a cell phone conversation with a terrified student who pinpointed the location of a friend still hiding from the gunmen. At the time there was some fear that the killers were monitoring the local stations. There were multiple TV sets in the school.

KUSA also had urged other students inside the school to call the station but then realized its mistake and broadcast an apology, telling students who were watching not to call but to continue hiding. Later, in attempting to identify one of the gunmen, the same station ran the wrong school yearbook photograph twice, on air and on the Web.

"The news media's goal is to cover tragedies like this with discretion, without allowing tactical details or misinformation to spill out," Ostrow wrote in a piece published April 21. But, she added, "For the most part, Denver's broadcast media delivered."

Massive coverage continued for days. The three broadcast networks even sent their prime-time anchors and morning show hosts to do on-the-scene reports.

Serious, responsible reporting was integrated with second-guessing and speculating about the causes of the shootings. The Los Angeles Times' TV critic, Howard Rosenberg, may have summed this up best when he wrote April 26: "From the hysterical tone of some of the coverage...you might get an impression that Littleton represents a national epidemic, that heavily armed homicidal kids are marching on classrooms everywhere like killer ants. That does not appear to be the case even when other schoolhouse shootings are taken into account."

Klite blames TV news for some of the hysteria. It's "more than just a mirror of...what's going on out there. There is a fixation on reporting on violence because it's good for the ratings." Of course, Denver's working news folks disagree.

"Local TV news is certainly vulnerable to justified criticism, but those who say that we reported on this just because it's good for the ratings are terribly wrong," says Rick Sallinger, who covered the story for KCNC-TV, the CBS affiliate in Denver. "It is absolutely impossible to turn your back on something like this.... Not only is this affecting the entire community, but the people directly involved are depending on us for information. And they got it."