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imagesCreative CommonsTo Be or Not to Be …Live?? That is the question. 

Invariably, the answer in television newsrooms is, “Yes! Go live. Now—without delay!” No delay to edit; no delay to do additional research or reporting; no delay on videotape—no delay, period. “LIVE!!”

Breaking news reports to many masters: Competition, ratings, spot sales and the pressure to be first. Any of these forces can lead to the decision to go live immediately. But are immediate and live always compatible?

Clearly, the death of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 and the subsequent live broadcast of Oswald being shot, was a bellwether in the annals of television news; a transformative event from which there was no going back.

News directors don’t know what will happen when they go live. It’s exciting and unpredictable. Dramatic, immediate, and promotable. With it comes an adrenalin rush and often the rush to a lack of judgment.

As a print journalist and newspaper columnist in Boston, no matter the deadline, I always had the ability to temper phrasing and protect individuals from unwarranted exposure. As a local and network TV documentarian, I’ve had time on my side; time to evaluate an editorial decision point in a story, vet legal issues with counsel, and even blur faces of subjects when personal clearance or journalistic integrity are of concern. This hasn’t interfered with my ability to report or tell a story. It has afforded a safety net for me, news departments, the networks, and those individuals who are the focus of a story, a segment, or a production. 

But live television news doesn’t have such control. It used to, back in the Jurassic Age of the television news business. Up until the mid-1960s, to gather news for television, we shot reports on film, messengered raw footage back to stations, developed it in the “soup” (the film developing process that every TV news operation had), then screened and edited the story. On a quick turnaround, it might take 20-30 minutes. Typically it was longer, leading to the stereotypical announcer’s tease, “Film at 11!”

The mechanical routine provided for editorial oversight on script, footage selection, and tone. Generally, news departments would err on the side of caution. Having preparation time allowed for that. But, portable, lightweight video cameras, microwave and eventually satellite transmission from remote locations changed the picture of news gathering. Now, stories aren’t so much gathered, they’re fed right to telecast without the luxury—or requirement—of review. Whether they originate from neighborhood hotspots or danger zones around the globe; they are instant, in the moment, unedited; from camera to viewer, telecast without delay.

They travel at the speed of light—the time it takes to transmit live pictures from source to viewer takes only a fraction of a second. Providing accurate analysis requires experience in the producer’s seat, at the studio anchor desk and from the reporter on site. However, experience is not always evident.

 

Noise as News

As viewers, we become eyewitnesses to the crossroads of information and misinformation, where reporters scramble for something to say, and where anchors’ apologies often follow newsroom or location miscalculations.

In 2012, Fox News Channel picked up helicopter coverage of a high-speed car chase from Phoenix, Arizona affiliate KSAZ-TV. The pursuit ended as the driver jumped out of the car, ran into the desert, raised a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

Shepard Smith, the Fox network anchor apologized, explaining the video actually was on a 5-second delay so the video feed could be cut if there was bloodshed. However, the suicide still aired. “We really messed up, and we’re all very sorry,” he admitted to viewers. “That didn’t belong on TV. That was wrong. And that won’t happen again on my watch. I’m sorry.” Shepard continued, “We see a lot of things that we won’t let get to you because it’s not time appropriate, it’s insensitive, it’s just wrong. And that was wrong. And that won’t happen again on my watch and I’m sorry.”

Undeniably, car chases deliver high-octane drama. They’re local TV news’ equivalent of a feature film action scene. In the vernacular, “They’re good TV.” Yet, the coverage that stations preempt primetime programming for, in order to “go live”, often isn’t considered newsworthy enough for a local newspaper to carry the next day.

Marty Kaplan, the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication, told NPR’s All Things Considered that such reportage violates the public’s airwaves and caters to the lowest common denominator. Perhaps worse, it feeds the audiences’ appetite. “As long as we reward them by watching that stuff, it’s going to continue to be put out there.”

Robert Long, former news director for KNBC in Los Angeles gave an insider’s account in the same NPR radio story, one that may explain some of the news directors’ motives. “It’s lonely when you’re standing in the middle of a newsroom in the middle of a dramatic police chase and you’re the only one not broadcasting it.” Since the 2005 NPR report he was quoted in aired, automobile pursuits at any speed have become an even greater “go-to” live news story in L. A. and throughout the country. To Long’s point, what news director wants to be caught standing alone while other stations are in hot pursuit?

Law enforcement officials, including William J. Bratton, former Boston and Los Angeles and currently New York City Police commissioner, maintain that the televised chases give incentive “to individuals who want their 15 minutes of fame” to flee for the sake of the cameras, regardless of how dangerous such chases were to the driver, the police and the public at large. During his term in Los Angeles, Bratton appealed for TV news to reduce their coverage of such events. Not surprisingly, station news directors disputed any link between media coverage and likelihood of suspects to run.

 

Micro to Macro

While car chases get sensational attention on a local level, hostage and terrorist coverage plays out on a broader spectrum—national and international TV.

The lessons from Waco, Texas have filled textbooks. They should also fill newsroom procedures.

Television covered the Waco Branch Davidian standoff with law enforcement for 50 days as though it were a sporting event; ultimately a blood sport. David Koresh became a celebrity. Seventy-six people died.

According to Frank A. Bolz Jr., a leading expert in cults and hostage negotiation, David Koresh had no desire to surrender. In American Journalism Review Bolz argued that Koresh must have thought, “The hell with this. Let’s keep this going.” Surrendering would have meant giving up the national stage he commanded for weeks.

Following Waco, former CNN Washington Bureau Chief Bill Headline told journalist Jeff Kamen that goinglive always comes under question. In the 1993 article in American Journalism Review Headline stated, “Because of your inability to edit and think, to have a complete idea of what you’re dealing with; there are times when we in television should be restrained in our use of ‘live’ and we tend not to be.”

Adhering to the law of unintended consequences, coverage can create commanding and loud media platforms for people who might otherwise be without a voice.

A Rand Corporation study of 63 terrorist incidents concluded that terrorists achieve 100% probability of gaining major publicity through media coverage. The current news accounts of ISIS from Iraq and Syria further serve to confirm this analysis. Publicity is a powerful weapon and live television empowers.

Arguably, live can and does open the lens to deadly scenes, which is why training is just as important in the newsroom as it is at the police academy and the battlefield, and why there’s increasing dialogue between the government and the press.

A case in point is a 1997 study presented to the Research Department of the Air Command and College titled The Effects of Real-Time News Coverage on Military Decision-Making. This report, and similar Pentagon advisories, have had a definite impact on when and where cameras are allowed. The study presented four media instructions that military commanders should consider:

The approach to the battlefield coverage now has echoes on the streets. News directors at New York’s television stations have taken into consideration the risks/rewards of reporting live. In times of crisis situations, they generally subscribe to key directives from the New York City Police Department’s handbook.

  1. Always assume the perpetrator is watching the broadcast.
  2. Never include strategic or tactical details in the live telecasts or news summaries.
  3. Never describe a terrorist, hostage-taker or suspect’s state of mind.
  4. Never disclose the condition of wounded.

The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) has also examined the unique nature of going live. Their standards note that electronic journalists should “cover-react” in their newsrooms and “under-react” on the air. RTDNA’s Guidelines for Live Coverage ask:

The RTDNA guidelines should be viewed as a reasonable litmus test for coverage. Young reporters and executives can avoid stepping into editorial quicksand through crisis management training. Seasoned pros must also think the unthinkable and apply it to every circumstance when they throw to live, unedited reports in the field. Additionally, they can educate novice on-air talent in such basics as: 

If they see the camera, the camera sees them. If they’re wearing a microphone, the microphone must always be considered “hot.” When they’re live and in unchartered territory where they have no real control of the events, they should measure their words and stick to the facts. It’s not rocket science, it’s television, but there are proper procedures to follow. 

If on-air talent doesn’t use common sense and journalistic integrity when they believe they’re not on the air, it only suggests that both might be in short quantity when they know they are. Prime time examples of embarrassing and unprofessional gaffes are only a Google or YouTube search away.

 

Taking Cues from the Pros

In 1972, ABC Sports commentator Jim McKay reported the Munich Olympics Massacre live. He’d gone to Germany to anchor the network coverage. McKay, already a respected sportscaster, was full of facts on individuals and teams, records and record breakers. Soon, the events would require much more. 

It had been called the Olympics of Serenity. It was anything but. Terrorists from the Black September organization held Israeli athletes hostage. McKay recalled in an interview, “I particularly remember that I was conscious of a young man named David Berger who was from Shaker Heights, Ohio. He was one of the Israeli athletes who was captured and I realized that his family was sitting in Shaker Heights and I would probably be the person to tell them whether he was alive or dead.”

While on the air, McKay was given a false report that the hostages had been saved. He read it live. But then a correction came. Jim McKay looked into the camera and had to report soulfully, “They’ve now said, there were 11 hostages, two were killed in their rooms yesterday, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.”

There was no live coverage of the actual massacre, but audiences were nonetheless caught up in the moment and comforted by a humble, thoughtful reporter who summoned lifelong experience. Following the telecast CBS anchor Walter Cronkite wrote Jim McKay. “You brought honor to yourself, to your network and your medium.”

Only years later did we learn more. The tragedy could have been worse. One German police officer recalled in the Academy Award winning documentary One Day in September, “…we discovered that there was a TV in every athlete’s room and the terrorists had been able to watch us preparing live on screen. Thank God we called it (storming the building) off. It surely would have been a suicide mission if we had attacked.” In other words, the coverage gave the terrorists strategic advantage.

Though the deadly attack was not telecast live, Munich taught an important lesson. James Igoe Walsh, of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, wrote in a study for the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions (2010), “…terrorists and media outlets have a symbiotic relationship in which both can benefit from media attention to terrorism.” He observed in the paper titled "Media Attention to Terrorist Attacks: Causes and Consequences" that terrorist attacks can be “part of an indirect strategy for achieving their political objectives by influencing the audience.” As such, television news can become an unwitting partner. When the coverage is absolutely live, it can even inflame.

So the question becomes who is best served when TV is live, when there is no video or audio delay on a breaking news story? When there is no chance to evaluate? As Judge Lucius Cassius asked when he adjudicated arguments in ancient Rome, "Cui Bono?"---which we translate as "To whose benefit?"  Today, we would ask who has the most to gain if or when there is no control over a developing story? The terrorist or perpetrator? The news division? The viewing public?

We live in a free society. The press operates and reports with guarantees of free speech that are fundamental to the Bill of Rights. However, as responsible members of society, news organizations have to weigh the right to telecast live vs. the need to telecast live. Sometimes the difference comes down to a matter of seconds or less.

 

Just 9/16th of a Second

The media’s march toward more live coverage has expanded in today’s edgy, personality-driven 24/7 news cycle. How fast can a local station get the news van out or the helicopter up? Which network has reporters on the spot? Who’s ready now? Who will win the ratings?

There’s certainly no shortage of airtime (broadcast, cable, the Internet, and satellite home delivery), but in the competitive environment and escalating costs of operation, network news organizations have closed most of their domestic bureaus and many international posts.

Now, going live presents even greater chances for missteps as stringers report via Skype or feed their unvetted smartphone video into aired comment and commentary. Much of the news staff’s time is spent unpacking unconfirmed, unsourced information and relying on viewer-submitted video, Twitter and social media tips, framed with disclaimers that the “story is still developing.” Such was the case during the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent manhunt in 2013.

Rumors posing as facts are sure to be telecast live as the world reports a new war in the Middle East. The unsubstantiated threat against New York City’s subways in September, 2014 became a perfect example.

When it comes to live on-the-spot coverage, however, news can take a cue from another marketplace sector. After Janet Jackson’s 9/16th of a second “wardrobe malfunction” at the end of her Super Bowl XXXVIII performance in 2004, the networks agreed to employ a five-second tape delay on future halftime telecasts. There are similar delays on the Academy Awards, Grammys and other regularly scheduled event specials.

That 9/16th of a second was all it took to get the Super Bowl and awards’ telecasts on a delay! 

As a practice, radio talk shows use delays on their broadcasts. In years gone by, the delay was facilitated through an audio tape loop recorded on one machine and played back roughly seven seconds later on another. Enough time to cut off an abrasive caller.

Today audio and videotape are as dead as film. A computer program creates the delay. Even the three seconds delay I routinely work with on radio interviews and in my live entertainment TV events provides some assurance that we can quickly make a judgment call. However, the apology by Fox News anchor Shepard Smith regarding the aired suicide bemoans that fact. Whomever’s finger is “on the button” must pay strict attention to audio and video.

News, of course, is different from entertainment programming—or should be. News responds to the warnings of advancing armies and reacts to images of crashing planes. It crosses police lines and flies above crime scenes in helicopters and soon in drones. Some reporters are informed and embedded. Others are prepped, prompted, and peppered with facts that producers whisper in their earpieces.

So why not a delay in critical circumstances? If three or five seconds isn’t long enough, why not 10? Cui bono? Who benefits? I believe that law enforcement benefits. Hostages benefit. Soldiers deployed in battle benefit. The audience benefits.

But does employing a short delay mean news can’t title the coverage “live?” That should be the worst ethical decision we have to make. Of course, it can be addressed with a simple disclaimer that live pictures are temporarily delayed for (fill in the appropriate blank) editorial reasons. It won’t take away from the newsworthiness, especially when the news is not worthy. It won’t violate First Amendment rights or really impede viewing. After all, as viewers, we’ll still take our front row seats in the comfort of our own homes and demand to watch the next edition of terrifying theater unfold.

Theater indeed. To Be or Not to Be…Live?

It shouldn’t be out of the question.

 

 

References

The Radio Television Digital News Association has produced some 27 “Guidelines” for the practice of broadcast journalism. In particular, readers of this article may wish to read the guidelines for “Live Coverage,” “Covering Breaking News,” “Law Enforcement Action,” “911 Calls,” and “Bomb Threats.” All of these guidelines are available by logging onto: http://www.rtdna.org/content/coverage_guidelines#.VDltrRb698E 

Shepard Smith quotes attributed to multiple sources, including:
Bill Chappell, Fox News telecast and "Fox News' Smith Apologizes After Man Commits Suicide On Air," NPR report, September 28, 2012.

Marty Kaplan and Robert Long quotes:
Carrie Kahn, “Los Angeles News Station Broadcasts Car Chase Shooting”, NPR report, May 12, 2005. 

Police Commissioner William J. Bratton quotes:
Jill Leovy and Greg Braxton, “Top Cops Pan TV Car Chase Coverage”, Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2003. 

New York Police Department Directives, Frank A. Bolz Jr., and Bill Headline quotes:
Jeff Kamen, "A Matter of 'Live' and Death," American Journalism Review, June 1993.

Raphael Cohen-“Rand Corporation Study,” Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol. 30, No. 3, 2005. 
The Effects of Real-Time News Coverage on Military Decision-Making. Research paper presented to the Research Department of the Air Command and College, March, 1997.

One Day in September quote: 
Raphael Cohen-Almagor, Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol. 30, No. 3, 2005.
Simon Reeve, One Day in September: The Full Story of the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and the Israeli Revenge Operation Wrath of God.  New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000.

James Igoe Walsh quote:
"Media Attention to Terrorist Attacks: Causes and Consequences."  Research brief, Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, December, 2010.
Ray Sanchez and Evan Perez, "No indications of U. S. subway terror plot, officials say."  CNN.com, September 26, 2014.
Jonathan Dienst and Richard Esposito, "FBI, NYPD Find No Evidence of Any New Threat to NYC After Iraqi Prime Minister Indicates Attack."  NBC News,
nbcnewyork.com. September 26, 2014.

The interviews with Jim McKay and Walter Cronkite are from documentary segments the author produced for TV’s Finest Hours. Syndicated on Entertainment Tonight, 1984.