The debate over death carried ‘live’ in L.A.

Wednesday, May 20, 1998

A national outcry over live coverage of a bizarre Los Angeles suicide has television news directors and journalists everywhere debating the nature of news and the dynamics at work in reporting it.

On April 30, six Los Angeles TV stations dispatched news crews in helicopters to record the incident that jammed afternoon traffic. Some even interrupted children’s programming to broadcast the spectacle of a naked man killing himself after setting his truck on fire.

“Editorial decisions are generally believed to be deliberate,” says former New York Times columnist and author Tom Wicker. “It’s important for journalists to make the point that most of the time it’s not deliberate. You’ve got to constantly make up your mind one way or the other, and that decision may very well be wrong, but not deliberate.”

Wicker, a First Amendment Center visiting professional scholar, participated in the roundtable discussion “Editing Ugly Images: Good Journalism or Censorship” Tuesday at the Center. Visiting professional scholar Wallace Westfeldt, who formerly produced NBC Nightly News and currently produces “Talking with David Frost,” moderated the panel which included John Seigenthaler, founder of the Center; Nashville Scene media critic Henry Walker; WSMV-TV photojournalist Tony Cook and Mike Schoenfeld, vice chancellor for media relations at Vanderbilt University.

Some news outlets have staunchly defended their decision to go live with the story of HIV-positive Daniel Jones, whose earlier experience with a health maintenance organization reportedly led him to display a banner reading: “HMOs are in it for the money! Live free, love safe or die!” Other stations have apologized for airing the episode in its entirety.

“I don’t think they have to apologize,” said Westfeldt. “I just think they made a mistake by going live with this footage. I would have covered it, but not live.”

While the incident was worth a story, it was not of sufficient importance to interrupt regular programming, he said. Instead it belonged on the six o’clock news.

Media critic Walker disagreed.

“Clearly it’s news, especially to the people who live in that area, [since] the freeway was blocked for miles,” Walker said. “… If it’s news and you’re there, you go with it. But, the more serious question is: If the camera hadn’t been there, would he have killed himself? I think in this case the cameras incited him. If the news cameras had just gone away, would this guy’s life have been saved?”

Seigenthaler, former editor and publisher of The Tennessean, agreed with Westfeldt that it’s impossible to address such decisions by adopting a single, one-size-fits-all policy for news reporting.

“The policy ought to be to discuss [each situation] as much as you can,” he said, nonetheless acknowledging that “the immediacy of TV doesn’t allow for that.”

It goes back to the judgment of the news directors, the studio directors, the reporters and so on, Schoenfeld suggested.

“You have to wonder whether images like that [have been treated with] the same discretion, the same judgment [accorded] a dirty word on the radio,” he said.

Noted Westfeldt: “You don’t have to use pictures. While it’s true that a good picture is worth a thousand words, it’s also true that well-chosen words can replace a bad picture.”

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