Reporter’s Harrowing Escape Stirs Up Critics

Nov 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

KNBC-TV newsman Chuck Henry’s decision last week to wait until the last possible second to evacuate, despite pleas from firefighters, has raised questions among viewers and media pundits about the value of the one-foot-in-the-flames reporting style on display throughout the California wildfire news coverage.
While all other crews except one departed the area in the San Bernardino Mountains north of Los Angeles after being told backfires were being ignited nearby, Mr. Henry remained, sending back images with the blaze in the background. That decision ultimately put his life and that of his cameraman in jeopardy. When he finally raced to the news van for a last-minute escape, it would not start, apparently because of the smoke and heat. (The theory is there wasn’t enough oxygen for it to start.)
Mr. Henry was pulled to safety by a nearby fireman. Then the truck burst into flames.
Weeping openly on camera after the incident, Mr. Henry told viewers: “I have such empathy for what these people have lost-their homes and their possessions. You know, what we did was a part of [our] work and it was probably really stupid.”
And some observers wholeheartedly agreed.
In a market known for sensationalistic local news style, the fires were almost fetishized in wall-to-wall coverage, with each crew jockeying to get closer to the raging furnace. Though the televised images were inarguably dramatic, often the on-screen drama was not about the victims of the fire but about the reporters looking awfully brave by putting themselves in seemingly perilous positions.
The morning after Mr. Henry’s narrow escape, the incident was subjected to ridicule on local radio stations and message boards.
“What a complete idiot for risking not only his own life, but that of his cameraman, while covering a story instead of leaving a dangerous fire area,” read a typical comment on the KNBC message board. “Numerous times this afternoon while on the air live his co-anchors told him to leave the location he was reporting from and get to safe cover. But Chuck’s ego got the best of him and he refused to leave in the interest of reporting more worthless live shots.”
News Director Defends Henry
Robert Long, VP and news director of KNBC, defended his reporter. He said Mr. Henry did not defy orders from fire officials on the scene, despite press reports to the contrary.
“It was a close call, but I don’t see how anybody could blame Chuck,” Mr. Long said. “He was with at least one other TV crew.”
As far as the repeated on-air urgings to move, Mr. Long replied, “He doesn’t take his direction from anchors, but from firemen and cops. … He was moving around a lot-he would never disobey directions of fireman or police.”
Jeff Wald, news director at rival station KTLA-TV, also defended Mr. Henry. “I have a lot of empathy for him,” he said. “I heard some talk-show hosts making fun of him, but I’m telling you, he risked his life to bring people a firsthand explanation.”
Some of Mr. Henry’s other colleagues, however, were less forgiving. “He’s a drama queen who’s all about trying to look macho for the camera,” said a news team member at a rival station. “There are some cameramen who won’t work with him at his own station. They feel he is unsafe.”
Mr. Long did not deny the accusation about reluctant cameramen, but noted, “He loves to chase a story and some people don’t.”
Kelly McBride, a member of the ethics faculty for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said it’s easy to make errors covering wildfires. “With wildfires, it’s harder to avoid the danger than it looks,” she said. “They are unpredictable; communication is not always good. Sometimes you can do everything right and still end up putting yourself at risk.”
Inform the Public
That said, Ms. McBride noted reporters have a responsibility to not make themselves the focus of their stories.
“The principle here is to be able to inform the public, to be able to tell the story, without becoming the story,” she said. “Also, you are obligated to not impede public safety, and when you need to be rescued, you’re putting other people in danger.”
Michael Parks, director the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, declined to comment on Mr. Henry’s specific situation, but noted that in general the wildfire coverage seemed to be centered on the flames more than on the victims.
“There’s clearly in local television news a competitive drive that pushes TV crews to get the best pictures and the best visuals,” Mr. Parks said. “My question is: Are the best visuals always those with the most flames? The human drama, to my mind, is more important. That’s what grips me as a viewer, rather than a repetitive image of flames moving.”
Bob Calo, an associate professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and former producer for “Dateline NBC,” countered that Mr. Henry’s eagerness to get closer to the fire was entirely understandable.
“This is the good stuff,” Mr. Calo said. “You’re in a culture that wants to have this experiential moment on camera. You want to be there until the very last second. Can you cross the line and be stupid? Sure. But to be honest, you don’t want to come back [to the newsroom] with shots from the freeway.”
“It’s a fine line,” he added. “It’s such a fine line, we don’t know where it is anymore.”