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Tuned In: Newscasts cry wolf with 'breaking news'

Thursday, February 26, 2004

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I know I'm sounding like a broken record on how unnecessary the "breaking news" label has become on stories in local newscasts, but I'm not alone.

In today's TV Q&A, a viewer wrote to complain about "breaking news" coverage in New Jersey on WPXI's morning news Feb. 17 (at least one other local station also covered it and used the same label).

"Thinking that there may be a traffic accident somewhere, I turned to see what was happening," wrote a viewer from Pittsburgh. "Well, it turned out to be a structure fire somewhere in New Jersey! No injuries, just a fire. Why do they think that a person in Pittsburgh, preparing to go to work, has any concern about a fire in N.J.?"

Excellent point. So why do it? WPXI news director Pat Maday had no comment.

For my money, an even worse example of breaking news occurred Feb. 13 when all three local stations aired live video of a gas explosion in Philadelphia.

"I don't know where this is in Philadelphia, what neighborhood, what section of town," said Channel 11 anchor David Johnson. "We don't know about injuries as of yet, but you see huge flames coming out of what's believed to be a gas line that somehow caught fire."

Why force an anchor to bluff his way through a breaking story that fails to answer most of the questions -- Who? What? When? Why? Where? How? -- that are generally answered in a news report?

WTAE's Scott Baker played speculator on the same story.

"If you look in there, you can see what kind of looks like a truck. It kind of has the resemblance of a fire truck, but I don't know that to be the case."

Perhaps even more egregious an example, in light of heightened concerns about national security, were breaking news reports Feb. 16 about the closing of the border between the United States and Canada after explosives were found. Turned out a woman had a grenade in her glove compartment and didn't know it; her husband works for the military. So it was much ado about nothing, but that didn't stop local stations from rushing the story -- or half the story -- on the air with all the bells and whistles associated with breaking news.

Why not wait until you know all or even a few of the facts before whipping up a frenzy of hype and scaring viewers?

Incomplete sweeps stories

When it comes to fiction, I'm so willing to suspend my disbelief that gaping plot holes a truck could drive through often escape my attention. That's not always the case with news stories.

KDKA's Marty Griffin offered an informative sweeps report on a loophole in the law that allows the purchase of a particular type of gun without a background check. One quibble: Griffin cited the statistic that 1,000 violent crimes and 15 murders were committed with these weapons, but there was no time frame given. Was that in a month? A year? 10 years?

Griffin had another report on an interesting topic, one I'd never seen explored before. He reported on city residents who somehow get their kids enrolled in North Hills schools even though they don't live there.

Nowhere did he explain how this enrollment happens. He said each student could cost taxpayers who live in the school district $30,000, but then said many school districts ignore the problem because it's state money, not the school district's money. Doesn't that sort of invalidate the report? And what is the school district planning to do about the 13 students from the city who were caught attending North Hills schools? Griffin didn't answer these pertinent questions.

Say what?

It's bad enough that Channel 11 allows chief meteorologist Steve Teeling to shill for Seven Springs in commercials gussied up as weather reports, but last week Teeling's words didn't even match the graphic he was standing in front of.

"Looks like Seven Springs has been making snow," Teeling said, yet the chart showed zero inches of man-made snow.

Speaking of shilling for Seven Springs, WTAE's Winterfest, basically a big commercial for the ski area, gets covered as a news event at this time each year. It's not.

What about Bob?

At long last, this week's TV Q&A answers the question that seems to be echoing throughout Western Pennsylvania, judging by how often I get asked about it: What happened to the character Bob on "Becker"?

The TV Q&A is available online only, but I'll give you the answer to this question to keep my phone from ringing off the hook from readers without computer access.

It was never explained on the show why Bob left. He was just gone at the beginning of the season and then in came Hector, a friend of Jake's. A CBS spokeswoman said the actor who played Bob, Saverio Guerra, chose not to return to the series. In the season premiere, characters joked that Bob had gone on vacation and just never came back.

Of course, this is all moot because "Becker" is unlikely to return for another season.

Local animation on Discovery

Pittsburgh's Home Run Pictures created two minutes of animation for Discovery's Science Channel program "Science of the Deep: The Wreck of the Portland," which airs at 9 p.m. March 5. It tells the story of the Portland, which sank off the Northeast coast of the United States in 1898 during a blizzard, killing all 190 people on board.

Rating 'Sex'

Scripting a series finale is never easy and they rarely satisfy, as the producers of "Friends," "Frasier" and "Angel" are likely to discover in May.

Why is it so tough? Because so many series are designed to be just that: Ongoing stories. Trying to put a cap on something that's, by its nature, meant to continue from week to week is always a challenge.

Sunday's "Sex and the City" finale ended predictably -- did anyone actually think Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) would remain in Paris? -- but it left each of its main characters in a positive place. I especially liked seeing Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) showing love for her husband by caring for her ailing mother-in-law.

The episode's greatest flaw: It was poorly balanced. Too much of the episode was spent in Paris. By the time Carrie returned to New York, there was a rush to get the story wrapped up with a neat bow.

The "Sex and the City" finale on HBO drew almost 11 million viewers.


Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.

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