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Tuned In: News chiefs differ on standoff coverage

Saturday, February 23, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

In an era when even the most trivial story -- house fire, traffic jam, politician stubbing his toe -- is likely to be labeled "breaking news" by local television stations, the phrase itself has lost a good deal of meaning.

What is breaking news?

On Wednesday, KDKA and WPXI decided a man who fled to his roof when police tried to arrest him was breaking news. Both stations covered the standoff live.

WTAE did not. The station had a crew on the ground, and its helicopter hovered over the scene during the 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts, news director Bob Longo said. But the station didn't report what was happening in Homewood.

"You've got a guy on the roof with a gun who's not threatening anyone for a couple of hours, there's no traffic situation, no threat to anyone except himself," Longo said. "We had an active discussion going on the whole time. We chose the higher road because it impacted no one. If it was a danger to anyone, we would be all over it."

WPXI news director Pat Maday disagreed, pointing out people might have been in danger. "The guy had a gun, and we all know bullets can travel far."

KDKA news director Al Blinke said the story warranted coverage because it affected an entire neighborhood.

"Was this guy going to commit suicide? Do we cover suicides as a general rule? No. But when you hear a man with a gun is on a roof and the SWAT team is there and they've evacuated people, it becomes a story," Blinke said. "It ended up becoming a big story."

Longo stood by his decision.

"When a TV station goes on the air and hypes it repeatedly over a two-hour period, and the guy [on the roof] has a cell phone and probably knows he's on TV, it heightens the whole thing," Longo said. "News organizations that do that drive the news, and I think it's dangerous."

Longo contended the other stations went live only because it's a ratings period and they couldn't resist "tantalizing breaking news."

Maday disagreed, saying his station's helicopter flew by once to get shots and then flew away and that the gunmen couldn't see the Channel 11 news van.

"We were very mindful of what our role might be in a situation like that," Maday said. "We pointed out the pictures of the scene that you saw were not live and had been taken sometime before."

Blinke said KDKA never showed the gunman live, either.

He recalled the suicide of a former state official that was captured on film and later broadcast on WPXI, the station that first brought him to Pittsburgh. "I won't allow that to happen again," Blinke said. "I wasn't there when it happened, but I had to live with it."

When KDKA decided to cut away from live coverage of the Ronald Taylor shootings in Wilkinsburg, there was much second-guessing inside local stations. Longo sees the Homewood standoff and Taylor shootings as distinctly different.

"Taylor had shot and killed people. He was a dangerous, murderous suspect on the loose. The news had already happened when we were on the air," Longo said. "With this, the news didn't happen until after everybody was off the air."

Maday agreed the two situations were different.

"The threat to the public in Wilkinsburg was almost innumerably times greater than [the Homewood] threat," Maday said. "A stronger argument could be made by WTAE about this one, but you still can't escape the fact that something fairly significant was happening. And you need to tell people when something significant is happening. That's our job."

Once shots were fired, Channel 4 covered Wednesday's standoff with prime-time news breaks, and the story led the station's 11 p.m. news. Longo said he considered covering the story in the 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts without putting any video on the air or just using footage from the station's helicopter.

"We almost did that six times and decided against it," Longo said. "We just played it totally safe, and I'm still comfortable with the decision I made."

He acknowledged he could just as easily argue the other side and someday might.

"You know me, I'll put Scott Baker in a house and burn it down around him. I'm not a virgin on this stuff," Longo said. "I've done much worse and been in newsrooms where the opposite decision was encouraged. But we're not going to yell, 'Look at the guy on the roof with the gun who's doing nothing with it.' "

So how does Longo define "breaking news"?

"It's not in cement, or at least the cement hasn't dried. But we have a bunch of different criteria: timetable, locality, immediacy."

Maday said Channel 11 has no checklist per se to determine whether to use the "breaking news" label, but there are some basic principles.

"If something happens at 1 in the afternoon and it's over, that's not 'breaking news' in my mind on the 5 p.m. news," Maday said. "Just because you find out about it 3 1/2 hours later and it's news to you at that point doesn't make it 'breaking news.' "

He pointed to KDKA's decision to label a story at 5 p.m. Thursday about the Homewood gunmen's inadvertent parole in June 2000 a misuse of the "breaking news" label.

"We've known about that since this morning," Maday said. "I don't think that's breaking news."

Blinke said it was the first time viewers were finding out that news and it warranted the label.

"I like to think when we put 'breaking news' on, it's actually happening now and worthy of being called breaking news," Blinke said.

Just for a snapshot, Thursday during the 5 to 6:30 p.m. news block, KDKA labeled three stories "breaking news," including the report that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was dead. WPXI labeled the Pearl story "breaking news" at 5, 5:30 and 6 p.m. WTAE called it "breaking news" at 5 and 6 p.m.

But given that Dan Rather broke in with news of Pearl's death during the "Rosie O'Donnell Show" at 4 p.m. with an initial report, is it still breaking news two hours later? More details may have emerged, but why not label it "continuing coverage" or "developing details"?

That doesn't sound as urgent, of course, and TV stations know urgency will keep viewers tuned in. As Blinke said, "I think when you say 'breaking news,' people perk up and pay attention."


Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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