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Tuned In: Assessing May sweeps turns up a sensitive issue

Saturday, May 24, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Some worthwhile investigative stories, lots of hype about sextuplets and a little bull highlighted May sweeps coverage on local stations.

But first, something more serious.

Wednesday during its 10 p.m. newscast, WPGH reporter Bill Clack filed a story about skeletal remains found under a bridge in Schenley Park. At the time of the airing, police and family members suspected -- and it was confirmed to the family Thursday -- that the remains were those of Gail Platt, who was 80 years old when he disappeared from his Oakland home in May 2001.

Leading into the report, a WPGH anchor said the remains could be those of Platt. The story caught my attention because it included a shot looking down on the human skull that was discovered. It wasn't gruesome, no different from a skull in a museum, but it's not something TV stations usually show in this context, and for good reason. How would a family member feel if he or she saw a loved one's remains on TV?

Deborah Smith, Platt's daughter, saw the Channel 53 report and did what any concerned viewer should do: She immediately called the station to complain.

"I was horrified," Smith said. "It was totally callous and uncalled for. It wasn't like I was counting, but it seemed like my father's skull was [on screen for] six or eight seconds."

Smith said WPGH news manager Sharon Ritchey responded to her call within five minutes and was both gracious and apologetic. Yesterday, Ritchey said the package was written and edited in the afternoon before the station got word that police suspected it was Platt's body.

"When we found out early in the evening from several sources it may have been Gail Platt, I should have directed a change to be made in the package and edited out the skull once we had a name put to it," Ritchey said. "I take full responsibility for that."

Smith said she also saw coverage on WTAE, which she said was "very sensitively done" and showed the scene from a distance without displaying her father's remains.

Ritchey said she doesn't have a problem showing a skull as long as no name is attached.

"We've seen much more vivid images on the air in the past few months in Iraq with mass graves and skeletons," Ritchey said. "We do make a point not to show bodies or body bags."

The lesson Smith hopes news organizations will take away from her painful experience? It's a simple one: "Show some degree of sensitivity. So many times in life, if we just try to walk in someone else's shoes for just two minutes, you'll think how you might do things differently."

Ritchey said that in the future, WPGH staff members will look more closely at stories of a sensitive nature.


Like the bad old days

Insensitivity wasn't WPGH's only problem Wednesday at 10 p.m. Coming off a huge lead-in from Fox's "American Idol," the newscast had technical glitches that squandered an opportunity to impress viewers.

A Kym Gable report on home invasions in Oakland was without voiceover sound for far too long. Someone should have stopped the tape and explained that there was a technical difficulty. Instead, the report kept rolling until some sound bites made it to air after what felt like an eternity.

Channel 53 was notorious for technical faux pas in the early days of its broadcasts in 1997, but long ago cleaned up its act, eliminating routine gaffes.

The skull shot combined with the technical goofs gave the station a poor showing on what should have been a night to show off for a larger-than-usual audience.


Best sweeps reports

WTAE's Jim Parson reported on unscrupulous water filtration system salesmen who use lies and scare tactics to win customers. It was a thorough report that showed how a company can prey on consumers, particularly the elderly. The only irony: TV news stations frequently use scare tactics to lure viewers to watch sweeps stories.

KDKA's Andy Sheehan explored duplication of services by a variety of local police agencies and ways to achieve possible savings through consolidation.

WPXI's Rick Earle traveled to New Jersey for a story on the men accused of a home invasion in Washington County.

WTAE's Paul Van Osdol investigated the benefits of taller guardrails.


Trend alert

Sweeps features tend to run in trends. Identity theft was big in February and KDKA hit that topic again this month.

WPXI's Becky Thompson reported on bacteria in water bottles, a story that's made the rounds in other markets. Thompson tested three reused water bottles for bacteria. Two of them did not meet the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's standard for drinking water. But the report didn't say exactly what effect drinking such water could have on a person.

WTAE's Jim Parson's took WPXI's restaurant reports model and applied it to the lunchrooms of area schools, a worthwhile story for parents of schoolchildren.

Interestingly, Channel 11's restaurant reports this time seemed to elicit a higher level of cooperation from restaurant owners than in the past. Most restaurant managers invited WPXI's Thompson in to show her and viewers how they rectified problems for which they had been cited earlier. It's a more sensible, proactive approach by owners than the old days of holding a hand to the camera lens.


Babies!

All three local stations went nuts for the Perry sextuplets this month, going so far as to do live shots from the family's house when the first babies arrived home from the hospital.

Human interest stories have a place in local news, but live shots from the living room on every station seem excessive.


KDKA's bull

Poor Stacy Smith looked positively embarrassed to be reporting breaking news about a bull (or possibly bulls) that escaped from a pen and was running loose in Peters.

Maybe if the bull was in traffic or moseying down the streets of a town, the repeated coverage would have been warranted, but every live shot from KDKA's helicopter made it look as if the bull wasn't causing much disturbance as it roamed over green hillsides.

What next, breaking news about a cat up a tree?


Promo clarification

WTAE ran spots this month saying the station has given away $1.3 million in its contests that run during the early evening news and "Oprah Winfrey Show." What they didn't say was that's the amount of money Channel 4 has given away since the station started running contests in the mid-'90s.


You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to post-gazette.com's TV and Radio bulletin board.

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