WHAT NEW REALITY?
Copter-loving TV news is still wedded to "hover journalism"
by Deborah Potter
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, news managers around
the country faced what they called a new reality. Television news
had changed, they said, and there was no going back. But business
as usual, it seems, dies hard.
The predictions and promises certainly sounded good. "The
TV news business has taken such a hard right turn that it will never
be the same," says Kirk Varner, news director at Hartford's
WTNH, who was formerly vice president of news services for Time
Many local stations actually made good on that forecast during
the November sweeps, when they dropped plans for more typical, often
trivial, fare and stayed topical. "I can't see myself promoting,
'Do your friends make you fat? Tune in at 11,'" said John Cardenas,
news director at WBNS-TV in Columbus, Ohio.
But plenty of newsrooms were chafing over one major change they
couldn't control-the grounding of news helicopters, at first nationwide,
and then only in the 30 largest markets. The Radio and Television
News Directors Association urged the federal government to lift
the ban, claiming it violated the First Amendment because other
helicopters, not engaged in newsgathering, were still allowed to
fly. Officials said news helicopters posed a special security risk,
because they often don't file flight plans and tend to hover in
place. TV executives didn't buy the reasoning. "I can only
conclude that their concern is about journalism," said Phil
Alvidrez, executive news director at KTVK-TV in Phoenix.
But what kind of journalism? In the weeks just before September
11, the national cable news networks were chock-a-block with helicopter
video lifted from local markets. One day an apparently disabled
plane was tracked by news choppers for what seemed like hours, before
landing safely in Texas. The next day, it happened again-this time
in California, with the same outcome: a safe landing. A hostage
incident in Chicago and a car speeding along a West Coast highway
also made national news, for no apparent reason other than the fact
that live helicopter video was available on the satellite. In the
midst of all this, a friend asked a network news producer if he
was working on anything interesting for that night's broadcast.
His answer? "No, I don't have a helicopter."
A legitimate argument can be made that helicopters are necessary
newsgathering tools in large or congested areas. They're the quickest
way to reach the scene of distant news events, and critical to timely
traffic coverage. In some communities, the flight ban left stations
and viewers unable to get information they needed. Baltimore stations,
for example, were hamstrung in covering tornado damage at the University
of Maryland in late September because their helicopters were grounded.
So when stations started defying the ban, you might think they
had good reason-a story so important to their viewers that it was
worth risking a violation. Think again. The first apparent violation
of the no-fly rule came when two Miami stations sent their helicopters
up to cover what one news director called "an issue of immediate
safety." A fire threatening a populated area? A 20-mile backup
paralyzing rush hour? Nope. An SUV being chased by police in unusually
light afternoon traffic. And the second possible violation? Another
police chase, this one involving a stolen lumber truck in Dallas.
What's the real value of this coverage? Ratings, of course. It's
no coincidence that both incidents happened in November, during
sweeps. Fox News Channel and CNN doubled their usual audience when
they cut to the chase in Dallas.
Yes, there are times when helicopter coverage is invaluable. Aerial
video can bring home the scope of the impact of floods or a plane
crash in a way no other pictures can. But too often, helicopters
provide pictures that confuse more than they inform, because they
are slapped on the air live and narrated by reporters and anchors
who only know what they can see. Why is the man running from police?
What is burning, and why should viewers care? Helicopter shots don't
provide the answer.
When technology drives coverage, journalism often suffers. With
helicopters, we're one step removed from parachute journalism, produced
by reporters who drop in to cover stories without any background
knowledge. Now, it's "hover journalism" that offers even
less context and almost no meaning.
But the video is compelling, we're told. Viewers love it. Fine.
So why not be honest about the reason for airing it? And let's stop
talking about how everything has changed. Some things obviously
This article was originally published
by American Journalism Review, January/February 2002.