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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 Warner Cable.

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 have not.

This article was originally published by American Journalism Review, January/February 2002.


 

 

Page Last Updated
January 15, 2009
 

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