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Analysis: For once, media coverage focuses on good news

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It was that rare news story with a happy ending, and the world was watching.

Broadcasters from as far away as Australia kept tabs on the rescue of the miners at Quecreek. Nationally, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC had live coverage Saturday night. Even Geraldo Rivera showed up.

Weekend ratings for the cable news networks, which thrive on events like this, were unavailable yesterday.

Locally, at 11 p.m. WTAE was on top with a 14.1 rating (percentage of TV households) and a 23 share (percentage of sets in use), KDKA had a 13.8 rating and 23 share and WPXI had a 12.0 rating and a 20 share. (Before 11 p.m. WTAE was first, followed by WPXI second and KDKA third; from midnight on, WTAE was first, KDKA second and WPXI third.)

At 10 p.m., the two local broadcast stations with news programs performed above average with WPGH drawing a 5.9/10 and WNPA scoring a 2.2/4.

With the national media presence and the use of pool reporters, it was difficult for local stations to break news Saturday night. Instead, they mostly echoed reports from wire services.

KDKA, which led local stations early on last week thanks largely to the work of John Shumway, was caught short-staffed Saturday night between 10 p.m. and midnight. With only Jennifer Antkowiak in the studio (Ken Rice arrived after midnight) and two reporters appearing regularly from the scene, KD's reports were bland, relying too much on stale video and graphics.

Before word leaked out that the miners were alive, WPXI's David Johnson was forced to vamp between press conferences, at one point showing off a cylinder of rock and saying he could demonstrate how hard it was by using it to knock himself out.

Fortunately, he didn't. Soon Johnson had reinforcements, including Keith Jones, Rick Earle, Renee Walisch, Jodine Costanzo and Karen Wells on the scene and Gina Redmond in the studio.

"The reality is your people can't just be on the air," said WPXI news director Pat Maday. "They've got to get more information."

WTAE had the most compelling coverage Saturday night, though not necessarily the most professional.

If KDKA was overly sober, WTAE was at the other end of the spectrum as Michelle Wright and Wendy Bell reacted volubly to news of contact with the nine miners.

"What!" Wright shouted.

And later, "All of them!"

"Yes!" Bell added.

"Holy cow," Wright said. "That is so unbelievable!"

Scott Baker wisely urged restraint despite the glee of his colleagues, but that didn't dampen the mood. Bell and Wright were jubilant, hugging one another and smiling, which made for better TV than journalism. Viewers have responded by both cheering and jeering, with some comparing the pair to cheerleaders.

"We'll all be hard-pressed to find another moment like this in our professional lives," said WTAE news director Bob Longo.

"The people involved were emotional, the people covering it were emotional, and the people watching it were emotional. I think they honestly represented the emotion and drama of the moment. They might have let it get the best of them a little bit, but all in all they should be proud and we should be proud of the work they did out there."

On KDKA, Antkowiak's voice cracked when she read the news that all nine miners were alive. WTAE's Sally Wiggin got choked up, too, and let Baker finish her sentence.

Soon after, stations changed the titles on their coverage: "Trapped Miners" became "Mine Miracle."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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