Causing Trauma on Live TV; NBC Makes a Child Cry

A New Low on Live TV

It’s not permissible for any adult to make a child cry — anywhere, and especially not by a professional team of journalists on live, network television and stay on the shot, continuing the interview even as the guest breaks down.

Shame on the TODAY show. Shame on the hosts, the field producers, and the control room because they should have known better.

NBC’s TODAY Show interviewed a survivor of yesterday’s shooting at a Florida high school beginning by asking the condition of her best friend who was shot next to her.
The young woman, just a junior of perhaps 15 or 16 years, softly answered, “she didn’t make it.”

As any one would, her lips quivered. Her eyes watered. She wiped her face with the sleeve of he sweatshirt.

Yet NBC chose to stay on a single picture of her for an interminable several seconds before going to double boxes showing the hosts in Korea along side the student as she broke down and tried to regain composure.

Rather than simply end the interview, NBC chose to continue. It felt more exploitative than journalistic inquiry.

Rather than say, “we’ll be back in a moment” with the decency to allow her to recover her composure, NBC stayed on their shot to continue the interview. Whether the young girl wanted to stay or go, as a child she was given no choice, the adults offered her no option.

Would it have been reasonable for her to know she had a choice?
Would it be defensible for the network to say, “well, she could have asked to end it?”

To her credit, the young woman did recover but had to do so before millions of the audience.
To her credit, the young woman was an eye witness who had valuable insight to share. And she did.

It’s just not to NBC’s credit that it risked causing her trauma and embarrassment in order to save their interview. They continued the interview while professing “their sorrow for her loss,” but the fact is, they continued.

An unanswered question? Why didn’t the producer in Florida tell the control room and anchors in New York NOT to ask about her friend, that “the friend had died.”

Or worse, did they know and chose to ask the question? Whenever I produced network live shots, and I was responsible for hundreds over 30+ years, I made it my responsibility to tell the program when/if there were ‘hot buttons’ to be aware of, mindful for, and how to handle lest we trespass over someone’s emotional line.

An unanswered question? Was there any consideration of changing the program as it played across other time zones? A thought that perhaps if this was a bit raw when aired live in the East, it ought to be edited or deleted or framed with a new introduction before it played in the Central, Mountain or Pacific time zones?
And for any who might say this is fair game, that “we need to see the faces of victims” and “understand the horror of a school shooting, in order to appreciate the damage.” Phooey.

There is never an excuse for professional journalists to add to a victim’s pain.

There is never a sufficient apology for “not knowing” what someone is about to say, especially on live TV.
There is a higher duty for all professional journalists to make their coverage as immersive as possible, but always within the boundaries of human decency.

Sadly it seems that NBC’s TODAY show plumbed new depths of what appears to be exploitative television.



The Missing Story: Maybe the fact is – if there is a nuclear attack, there may be nothing the public can do to save itself. Maybe that’s the story no one wants to really look at.

The most alarming picture Sunday from Hawaii experiencing an incoming ballistic missile wasn’t the highway billboards or chyron crawl over a sport program on local TV, but rather the panic in the streets. People were running for their lives, hiding in bathrooms or closets, and saying “good byes” to their families. Why or where were they running, or simply – in a nuclear attack – would it have mattered?

And why isn’t that the most prominent question for Day 2 of this story?

While the cause of Sunday’s false missile alarm in Hawaii needs to be investigated, even more shocking is the fact that no one seems to have known what to do, where to go, or how to react.

And that confusion and panic is frighteningly still unaddressed in news coverage.

It is knee-jerk to point fingers and decry the accident. And goodness knows there are been countless ‘national security consultants’ who have flooded the airwaves wringing their hands offering arm chair speculation about the accident safely from Washington, a distance of 4,826 miles from Honolulu. But their emotionally delivered insight hasn’t shed any light on the larger question… in this day and age of ever-larger nuclear buttons on desktops, what is left for the rest of us to actually do?

Many in the news business will recall the hackneyed phrase oft-spoken when there is a screw up on air, “Broadcasting will stop while we assess the damage and assign the blame.”
Today we are witnessing the mea culpa, the governor taking responsibility, the President assuring us “we’re going to get involved” in the inquiry, but really. So what?

The recent wildfires in California, the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Houston and more remind us of the necessity of having an escape route from imminent danger along with packed bags of our most important papers. But in a nuclear attack… escape where? And will there be any one left to inspect our papers.

Anyone growing up in the 50’s and 60’s will remember Bert the Turtle and “Duck and Cover.” Many of us remember practicing in our classrooms hiding under desks while being shooed away from the windows. As if, now looking back on that, would it have mattered in the least? There was a day when the yellow and black nuclear fallout shelter signs adorned buildings on every block… today, I wouldn’t know where to even look for a shelter in my community.

Once again, a lot of media is focused on the ‘what happened,’ or the ‘how did it happen”? Both are important questions but fall short of the more important — so what do we do?

Absent the distraction of politics or personality in either Washington or Pyongyang, Sunday’s incident in Hawaii proves that we may have early warning detection systems… even notification protocols… but what is it the public is supposed to do to save itself?

And why isn’t that prominently included in today’s media coverage?

As an old assignment managing editor, I’m just asking…

Why does the public think media misbehavior is new? Or is the media to blame?

Lauren McGaughy has written a thoughtful story in the Dallas Morning News about how the media’s onslaught on a story can be as traumatizing as the tragedy they’re covering.

A town, even a neighborhood is transformed by a media scrum, and as a consequence the media often gets a black eye in the aftermath.

Sure stories like this are often true, or have an element of truth to them. More true now by electronic media than even 30 years ago when there were just 3 networks and a handful of local affiliates, contrasted now to 5 major English language networks (6 if you include the Associate Press’ TV service), 2 Spanish language domestic networks, and literally scores of stations reporting in multiple languages to a global audience.

Plus radio… plus wire services… plus newspapers.

It is easy to criticize all this. The din of the media is overwhelming. The press of the pack is as unrelenting as their deadlines.

Live shots, exclusives, TV bookers clicking along the sidewalks searching for and enticing victims and their families with free trips to New York to sit on the set of morning talk shows where anchors can profess their emotion and sorrow, sometimes even offered on behalf of “all of us” in TV land.

We do live in an era where the technology has altered the way stories are covered. What used to be a more measured, even methodical pace has been transformed into an unimaginable pressure cooker of competition for the infamous and unrelenting 24/7 news cycle.

The audience expects, partly because we in the media have created this expectation, that entire stories from crime to investigation to resolution can be completed in a day, or perhaps as quickly as a 48 minute episode of Law and Order.

But Ms. McGaughy, criticism of the media is not new. The earliest reference to press-misbehavior (that I can remember) stems from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page. But in this single graph it reminds us that we should keep check on our behavior with an eye to the larger picture of life.

“Bunch of crazy buttinskies with dandruff on their shoulders and holes in their
Peeking through keyholes, waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them
what they think about Aimee Semple McPherson.
Stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that get raped in Oak Park.
And for what?
So a million shop girls and motormen’s wives can get their jollies.
And the next day, somebody wraps the front page around a dead mackerel.”

The people of Sutherland Springs certainly did not ask for the spotlight on their community. They deserved to be treated fairly and professionally, their stories shared but their grief not exploited.

Ethics classes and discussions can prepare this intellectually, but some of that seems to be bent and challenged in real world applications. We’d like to see all this in Manichean terms but we live out lives in the nuance of grey, and can only do our best to do it well in every respect.

Wait wait – the story is about US (the media)! KTLA leads with news about itself – after all, what’s more important?

When KTLA TV News in Los Angeles discovered itself in the uncomfortable position of covering a vigil when the crowd turned its anger on the media, the station made that the foal point of its story. Was this necessary? Or hype? Is the main story that there was a shooting followed by an autopsy followed by a predominantly peaceful vigil, or was the story that a single loud-mouth protestor took objection to the cameras?
See for yourself. KTLA News opted to lead with the ‘threats’ in its anchor lead, its reporter’s on camera toss, and in the opening sequence of the video itself. A trifecta of self-indulgent ‘we are the the story.’
Only then – after that non-event was exhausted – did the story go on to cover what was a peaceful expression of the community’s sadness.

Maybe at worst this is poor judgment and self indulgent – the consequence of emotion running rampant over judicious news judgment. But – where were the elders of the news department? Where were those with more experience to know that the real story was not about the media, and never was, nor should it ever be. As witnesses to an event we are not supposed to become as important as the event itself. And when, for instance, does a stupid person’s threat become more important than the event itself?

The station may counter that the community’s rage was a part of the story… really? One loud-mouthed person now represents the entire community? It just seems lame to suggest that even as a supposed defense for poor news judgment. Just saying.

Fallacy of international news reporting

When networks say they are “monitoring” international news there is a significant difference from the era when they covered it.

Monitoring means saving money and human resources by remaining in London and piggybacking on all other international news sources.  Monitoring means reading the wires – AP, AFP, Reuters among others, and aggregating as many mutually agreed facts as possible while ‘packaging’ that information in to unilateral reporting.  What’s worse is then the reporter says, “We have learned…” Oh yes?  Learned from who?

Reporting and coverage once meant doing one’s own work – asking questions – using one’s 5 senses – following leads and owning the story as best one could.  Covering any story is about “learning more”… but now, as a verb, it is often a cheap substitute for real work.

Coverage meant something — it meant an investment of time, money, responsibility and staff.  Monitoring a story is the lazy approach to news gathering.  It is the way news is covered today.  It is the sad result of cost cutting for a product that many people don’t seem to value… the news.

While we profess to know more than ever before, and we do have greater access to timely news sources than ever before, US audiences receive fewer and fewer actual reports from network correspondents and more ‘monitored’ and ‘repackaged” news.  It just feels less and less honest.

Misplaced Priorities – More Engagement Is Not a Substitute for Content

The announcement that The New York Times and Washington Post will cooperate on a new platform to manager reader’s comments is no doubt a leap forward in building opinion sharing and engagement. I suggest the $3.9m price tag paid for with money from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation however, going to do very little to advance knowledge or – as it is promoted – advance innovative journalism.

Ask any one what they think and no doubt they will be happy to tell you whether they have expertise or not or first-hand knowledge. Talk radio demonstrates this hour after hour. We have become a nation of people who want to share opinions before the full scope of a story has been reported. Frank Bruni wrote this. “We no longer have news. We have springboards for commentary. We have cues for Tweets. Something happens, and before the facts are even settled, the morals are deduced and the lessons drawn. The story is absorbed into agendas. Everyone has a preferred take on it, a particular use for it. And as one person after another posits its real significance, the discussion travels so far from what set it in motion that the truth — the knowable, verifiable truth — is left in the dust.

Here’s the point – and no, this isn’ t a tome on the need to develop alternative funding models for contemporary journalism although that is a worthy subject for future consideration. The point is simple — once upon a time and not that long ago, major global media entities paid reporters to work and live all over the world in bureaus and to report on the news and business and politics and personalities and comings and goings that went on in those locales. That investment in human intelligence and resources paid dividends in the reportage, the understanding, the depth and context of what was happening. That investment helped to assure that there would be multiple reports – with differing views and yes, sometimes opinions, but it was all first-hand knowledge. That investment helped assure that individuals anywhere in the world could see and hear and read professionally acquired news. I embrace citizen journalism. I was among the very first to introduce it along with my colleague Mitch Ratcliffe in an ill-fated and under funded experiment called more long before it became ‘fashionable.’ But citizen journalism is not enough by itself. And asking for readers/viewers comments – even managing them superbly – is insufficient too.

So there goes almost $4m to build a platform to aggregate, manage and distribute the thoughts of the average man… the common Joe… the guy on the street who can’t wait to tell us what he thinks… but do I care? Do you? Really? Again quoting Frank Bruni, “Grandstanding is booming as traditional news gathering struggles to survive: It’s more easily summoned, more cheaply produced. It doesn’t require opening bureaus around the country or picking up correspondents’ travel expenses or paying them for weeks on end just to dig. So it fills publications, websites and television airtime the way noodles stretch out a casserole, until we’re looking at a media meal that’s almost all Hamburger Helper and no beef.”

We can bemoan this absence of beef but we’re not investing in making a difference.