AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   December 1996

The Dicey World of Helicopter Journalism    

By Jim Upshaw
Jim Upshaw teaches journalism at the University of Oregon.      

It all began when a driver pulled over for speeding by police near Portland, Oregon, fled on foot. Darkness made the search for the driver difficult, so one local police officer called his neighbor for help. The neighbor, pilot of a local news station's helicopter recently equipped with a $350,000 night-vision camera, showed police how to manipulate the infrared gadget before taking them up in the chopper. An officer ultimately used what it "saw" to steer deputies via radio to their quarry, who was eventually discovered to be a federal fugitive.

KGW-TV thus gained exclusive and graphic video, but also gave the impression that it was cozying up to local law enforcement agents by sharing its resources with them. While broadcast journalists at the NBC affiliate have been using helicopters to capture exciting crime-busting footage for some time, the adoption of military surveillance technology has enabled the station to deliver even more exciting images that are undoubtedly dramatic, but that raise ethical questions as well.

"Sky 8," the NBC affiliate's news helicopter, is said to be the first news chopper in the world equipped with night-vision technology. Sensing the heat emitted by human bodies, the system produces images reminiscent of Persian Gulf War footage of Iraqi soldiers scurrying to hide from U.S. aircraft.

In the September 23 KGW newscast, a man was seen huddled in a field at night as several sheriff's deputies approached him. The aerial-view picture lacks the blinding glare of a photographer's light, with figures invisible to the naked eye standing out as ghostly white silhouettes against their dark surroundings.

"Police lost their man--but we found him," said KGW reporter Larry Shoop, introducing the story that resulted from the high-tech addition to KGW's news gathering arsenal. "They say they would not have found him without the night-vision camera," Shoop said with discernible pride.

But critics take issue with the station's pride in its newfound law enforcement role, arguing that use of the night-vision technology could threaten the station's journalistic independence. Critics point out that "Sky 8" wasn't carrying a journalist who happened to spot the fugitive and tipped the cops in an act of civic responsibility, but rather the aircraft had been summoned aloft, and its night-vision camera operated, by a police officer.

An article in the Oregonian called "Bright Images, Blurry Ethics" by TV columnist Pete Schulberg took KGW to task for the September incident, as well as for using "Sky 8" to tip police off to a field of marijuana plants, airlift deputies off a mountain and provide other aid to authorities. The article quoted the news director of one of KGW's competitors as saying, "We're all into public service, but we don't play police officer."

KGW News Director Mike Rausch angrily denounces the Oregonian article as a "hatchet job" by a disgruntled ex-employee, pointing out that Schulberg was once a KGW anchor (Schulberg disclosed this fact in the article). Rausch counters that even the Oregonian has been known to shed its neutrality in matters of law enforcement by running "Crime Stopper" mug shots of fugitive felons.

Timothy Gleason, associate journalism dean at the University of Oregon, says the KGW incident was "very troubling and very dangerous," and says that news organizations must remain independent of police.

But independence may not have been KGW's top priority. In a metro area lacking law enforcement helicopters, the station, working with local law enforcement, is in the process of arranging to use a new helipad being built in Gresham, a suburb of Portland. A key byproduct of the arrangement would be compelling video of police work.

Rausch defends the arrangement and the station's new reporting style, asserting that technology inevitably raises ethical questions. "This whole ethics thing is pretty gray," he says. "If we just go up on our own..and we see a guy walking toward [the police], and we can tell he has a gun, and he's pointing it at police officers, would it be 'unjournalistic' if we told the police?"

Rausch says he has no plans to let police "go tour the skies looking for bad guys" in the station helicopter, but that he does believe the infrared camera will help his staff broaden the role of the traditional news pilot, from reporter to reporter/rescuer. Rausch says the technology will allow reporters to help locate missing persons and is confident that "this system will save some lives over the next couple of years."

Indeed KGW is playing the role of pioneer in nocturnal aerial news gathering, seeking at the same time to boost its community image in a tight ratings race as a result. But Gleason, a media law specialist, warns that the infrared night vision could expose the station to claims of invasion of privacy.

To the Oregonian's Schulberg, the pitfalls of journalists teaming with law enforcement are clear. "What if the activities of those police agencies come into question, and all of a sudden the news organization is in cahoots with the police agency?" he asks. "Then what happens?"