Cutting to the Chase

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

One recent afternoon as KTLA-TV News Director Jeff Wald was headed to his Los Angeles-area home, his pager went off: The newsroom was alerting him that a police chase was under way about two blocks from his location.
For Mr. Wald the commuter, the chase presented a headache of traffic snarls.
For Mr. Wald the news manager, it presented a more serious problem, one shared by many of his news colleagues: Do we take it live?
While police chases have been coming under increasing scrutiny-and criticism-around the country, for Los Angeles news directors, the situation is critical.
On one hand, they are programming to an area where the “chopper chase” is the ultimate reality programming. In fact, 2,000 Southern Californians shell out five bucks a month to a private company that will send news of televised police pursuits directly to their pagers.
“We as viewers just sit there glued to these things, especially when they are so drawn out over time,” said Eric Scott, a Los Angeles advertising executive who sheepishly admits to watching “one or two” of them.
On the other hand, police and politicians say they have seen enough. In late February Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn, Police Chief William Bratton and representatives from other Southern California law enforcement agencies publicly pleaded with Los Angeles television stations to stop live continuous coverage of police pursuits.
“We just want [news managers] to use some discretion, because it may encourage others to participate in this type of behavior,” said Julie Wong, spokeswoman for Mayor Hahn.
This is hardly the first time California politicians and the news media have been at odds over live coverage. In 1997, a state senator introduced a measure that would have allowed police to ban live broadcasts from any crime scene. It failed in committee.
Calling All Cars
At just about any moment of any day, a Los Angeles TV station is airing a newscast. If one station throws up a live shot, others feel compelled to follow. And word of live chase coverage gets around quickly.
It’s hard to deny the level of audience interest. Ratings frequently spike during chases. Some Los Angeles area bars go to happy-hour prices whenever a pursuit is on TV. Suspects being chased have signaled to helicopter pilots through the car’s sunroof. Other suspects have stopped briefly to chat with obsessed observers.
“Chases are emotionally compelling to watch because no one knows how it’s going to turn out. Anything can happen,” said Ken Kuwahara, a police detective who founded PursuitWatch in 1999. For $5 a month, PursuitWatch members can get a page, an e-mail or a text message on their cellphones when a chase is under way. About 2,000 subscribers receive an average of four messages a month.
Most pursuits end the same way. The chasee pulls over within a minute or so, long before a TV camera can get there. But in about one-third of the cases-36 percent by the Los Angeles Police Department’s count-a chase results in a wreck or a collision. More than 130 people were hurt during 780 police pursuits in 2001 in the Los Angeles area. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 314 people were killed nationally in police pursuits in 1998, including two police officers.
Los Angeles police, like departments in many other cities around the country, are reviewing their policies on when they will pursue a fleeing driver. Most jurisdictions try to avoid racing after someone for a minor traffic violation or misdemeanor.
Now the Los Angeles police are asking news directors to use some discretion as well-something they apparently believe has been lacking.
“It is almost like they are packaging it as entertainment,” Ms. Wong said.
Chase-by-Chase Basis
Such statements make news managers wince.
“In his news conference regarding televised pursuits, Mayor Hahn himself described chases as `life-and-death’ situations, which threaten public safety. A story that fits that description is generally worthy of live coverage,” said Arnold Kleiner, president and general manager of KABC-TV, in a written statement.
KTLA’s Mr. Wald disdains the notion that news directors look forward to putting chases on the air, even during a newscast. “The audience loses, because all the other news that we have slaved and worked on all day goes down the tube, and the only thing we’re going to show is a car chase,” he said.
That’s a lesson Mr. Wald learned early on. During what was arguably the first live televised car chase in 1992, Mr. Wald, then at KCOP-TV, made the call to break into the station’s afternoon lineup. As the pursuit drew on, KCOP resumed normal programming, only to be flooded with viewer calls to put the chase back on. TV was there when police stopped the fleeing suspect and shot him. The next morning the Los Angeles Times called the episode “a marriage of technology and tragedy.”
Because of that rabid audience attraction, the station faces financial considerations as well. Once a station commits to live coverage, it typically blows out its commercials, lest viewers turn to a competitor during a commercial break.
But despite the topic’s new urgency, news directors seemed reluctant to discuss the issue. Most Los Angeles news directors contacted for this story either declined to comment or simply didn’t return repeated calls.
Given the debate over policy and public interest, Mr. Wald finds his colleagues’ silence puzzling. “I think it is our responsibility to talk and to explain why we do these things,” he said.
However, media ethics watchdog Bob Steele of The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., said that if news directors won’t talk publicly about the issue, they should be holding court internally, developing guidelines and protocols to deal with live coverage.
In Pursuit of a Policy
Newsrooms should have guidelines in place to deal with all breaking news situations, said Mr. Steele, who advises a two-tiered system: guidelines to set benchmarks on live coverage and protocols to lay out the decision-making process.
“The top news manager at the station should make the decisions, not a line producer, a show producer, a reporter or a helicopter pilot,” Mr. Steele said.
Hard as it may be, news managers should eschew the temptation to give ratings too much consideration.
“If you decide to cover it, make the decision on sound editorial reasons, and have systems in place so that you don’t end up showing something live that you don’t want to show,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
While Ms. Cochran consistently comes down on the side of journalistic independence and freedom, she does question the practice of routine live chase coverage. “It’s one thing to cover them, but it’s another to put them on television,” said Ms. Cochran, who also admitted to being drawn into a televised chase during a recent visit to Los Angeles.
That advice might have helped avoid a bad moment in 1998, when seven Los Angeles TV news helicopters broadcast live as a deranged man pulled a gun and shot himself in the head. After the incident, most stations adjusted their policies, promising to avoid a repeat. Barely a year later, however, three stations were live when police shot a fleeing suspect to death.
For voyeuristic viewers, perhaps, such a denouement is the payoff for sitting through dozens of “routine” pursuits.
“I can’t sit here and argue the journalistic merits of a car chase. It’s pretty mindless,” Mr. Wald said. “But it can become news.”
Mr. Scott concurs. “There is always the possibility, isn’t there?”