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Tuned In: Rush to air news has high cost for one family

Thursday, October 09, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

This column has devoted a lot of ink to criticizing the overused cliche of "breaking news" on TV, mostly because it's annoying and creates a boy-who-cried-wolf environment that desensitizes viewers.

But there's another side effect: The rush to be first, no matter the cost, can have unintended consequences. It's bad enough to learn your father has been killed in an automobile accident, but to get the news from the cold, unblinking eye of a local news camera can only make it worse.

Two weeks ago, Sandy Gongaware's children were watching the early evening report on WPXI when a "breaking news" report of a fatal traffic accident in Monroeville aired. Video from Channel 11's helicopter and a camera on the ground showed the vehicle. The station did not name the victim, but nine of Gongaware's 12 children -- ranging in age from 6 to 23 -- recognized their father's work truck by its ladders and by his lunch box.

Gongaware's biggest concern was the use of the word "fatal" before the family had been notified.

"I didn't tell them he had died, the TV did," Gongaware said. "Don't show anything, just say there's an accident on 48. They didn't have to zoom down in there. It was like quick, fast news."

Was Channel 11 being intentionally insensitive? I don't think so. It was inadvertent. But it resulted from the bat-out-of-hell drive to get news on the air as soon as it happens. Reporting a resulting traffic snarl is news, but all that's needed for that is a location, not close-up video.

Gongaware said Channel 11 news director Pat Maday sent her a letter of apology and came to her home to apologize, a rare if not unheard of act for a TV news director.

"Responding to your viewers is critical," Maday said. "The relationship between the station and viewers can be a fragile one at times and we were reminded of that. It's critical to accept the responsibility for that. We made mistakes that day, no question about it. We don't shy away from those mistakes. We learn from those mistakes. I felt so strongly about it that when I was asked to apologize in person, I didn't hesitate."

Maday acknowledged a need to take greater measures to prevent inadvertent notification of family members of an accident victim.

"We have good policies in place to deal with situations like these," Maday said. "We need even more policies and I'm going to work with my managers and my staff to develop them further because we need to keep the public informed and at the same time protect individuals and families from unnecessary pain."

In addition, the Gongaware family was upset because of something reporter Yolanda Hawkins said that could have been interpreted as blaming heavy equipment in the vehicle for the accident. It turned out Gongaware had had a heart attack.

"His excuse was his reporter had a bad day," Gongaware said. "I just looked at him."

She thinks the problem wasn't that of a single reporter, but of the station's internal systems. She hopes all local stations will be more careful in the future. "I was thinking about that when they were showing some accidents lately. We'll see, huh?"

Although Channel 11 was the station on the hook in this instance, it could just as easily have been another local outlet. WTAE news director Bob Longo said every case is different and precautions must be taken.

"It's one of those sanctity of life issues," he said. "People should not be told by the media that someone [in their family] has died. They should know that from someone else."

But neither he nor KDKA news director Al Blinke blamed breaking news in this case.

"I'm not so sure that couldn't have happened even if it wasn't labeled a 'breaking news' event," Longo said.

"Breaking news did not play a role," Maday said. "We simply did not handle this story with enough care and it caused the family pain and the implications of that are abundantly clear to me. ... Handling the facts with care and handling stories with care is our first priority. If you're always thinking about the implications of what you're going to say and what you're going to show, you get better and better at handling stories with care."

Maday said removing close-ups of the vehicles' contents -- inside and on the ground -- was the first step to preventing inadvertent notification in the future. As for referring to an accident as "fatal" so soon after the fact, Maday said he's thinking about it.

Maday said if the story were to air without pictures, it could unnecessarily worry viewers who knew they had a loved one on the road at that hour.

"There is a lot of thinking that has to get applied when you start removing facts from a story to protect those who are impacted," Maday said. "There's a fine line. Easily finding the answer to 'Do you remove "fatal accident"?' isn't as simple as it may sound."

On-screen clutter

Clutter, clutter everywhere. It's an inescapable part of the television landscape.

From the "bug" logos that float in the bottom corners of the TV screen to promos that magically appear, there are more graphic elements mucking up TV screens than ever before.

Long ago I gave up fighting the bugs. Most are transparent and blend in like so much wallpaper. And not all on-screen graphics are bad. Sometimes weather warnings are necessary -- though perhaps not as often as local stations like to think.

Channel 4 wisely put a graphic on screen throughout ABC's prime-time programs on Sept. 28, notifying viewers that because WTAE was picking up the Steelers game from ESPN on Oct. 5, the Sunday night ABC shows would be seen at a different time. That was a valuable service.

But there's another bit of clutter that's more insidious. WPXI has begun flashing news headlines during some of NBC's 10 p.m. dramas. The on-screen ads are bad enough. What's worse is that the promo graphic disrupts the flow of closed captioning. It simply stops while the graphics hang around long enough -- 10 to 20 seconds -- that a viewer could miss integral plot information.

WPXI's Maday said he was unaware of the problem.

"Now that I know it's taking place, we can take a look and see what we can do about it," Maday said.

I'll keep you posted on what solution the station finds.

'Boomtown' yanked

Boo! Hiss! Just two episodes into its second season, NBC has pulled critically acclaimed drama "Boomtown" from the 10 p.m. Friday time slot due to low ratings. Reruns of "Law & Order: SVU" will air in its place.

To get out of the way of CBS's hit "Joan of Arcadia" at 8 p.m., NBC's "Miss Match" will move to 9 p.m. It follows a rerun of Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" at 8 p.m. this week. NBC's newsmagazine "Dateline" takes over at 8 p.m. next week.

NBC says "Boomtown" is on hiatus, not canceled, but its future doesn't look bright.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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