By Lynn Walsh | June 28th, 2011
By: Mike Brannen
The last, truly great advantage TV broadcasters have over other media is the ability to air live pictures. A satellite feed, a microwave signal or a picture from a helicopter takes viewers to an event they would otherwise not be able to witness firsthand. More recently, live pictures that turn comical become fodder for YouTube and other Internet sites. If I speak on behalf the biz, I think we are okay with that, as long as it doesn’t embarrass the station.
Live pictures aren’t always sources of hilarity. TV crews are often faced with the challenge of following crime, or violence, or activity posing a threat to our communities. Part of our job is to let viewers know what’s going on in their neighborhood to ensure their safety. I feel this is where we are fulfilling our utmost duty. However, covering precarious live situations come at the risk of jeopardizing viewers’ sensitivity.
On June 6th, at 6:00 A.M., our station got word of a bear roaming between houses. We sent a helicopter to the neighborhood to follow the bear and monitor the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s efforts to track the bear. Live on air, the bear emerged from some brush, and scrambled toward local police officers.
They shot the bear, and the bear went down.
We broadcasted it live as our anchors and helicopter reporter looked on. Immediately upon the bear’s shooting, our helicopter photographer zoomed out. Moments later, our producing team asked the photographer to slowly zoom in on the bear one more time. We were confirming if the bear was killed or tranquilized. We saw the pool of blood and again hurriedly zoomed out. You can see the video of all of this at KIROTV.com
Viewers flocked to our Facebook page, Tweeted us, and e-mailed us in response. Reaction was widespread. Some were angry at the police officers. Some found no fault with us. Some were angry at us for airing it. A few of those said they would never watch our show again.
I come from a journalism background in which a key principle of reporting is to minimize harm. I was taught to believe this is not a black and white issue. If it was, then our fear of offending our audience would have demanded we drop the bear coverage and report our other stories. Yet, this would be a disservice to the people in the neighborhood where the bear was roaming. Bears force schools to lock-down. They are unpredictable and pose danger. We owed it to our viewers to make certain the bear situation was controlled.
A few comments suggested we should have known the officers would have bullets. Did we know without a doubt that police would shoot bullets? No. Could we have assumed that they had bullets? Yes. But, our duty is to confirm, not speculate. We zoomed in on the bear one more time not for juicy TV, but for the sake of having the right facts. Since the live airing, we have not broadcasted again on air the shooting or the pool of blood.
Keep in mind that if the bear wasn’t shot and killed, there wouldn’t be any discussion, and no one would have angrily second guessed our decision. Since the bear was killed on air, suddenly our broadcasting choice appeared callous, insensitive, and blood-thirsty. We were at the mercy of live news, where outcomes are not always picture perfect. I support our decision because the duty the serve the community was the greatest interest in this story.
Any final advice or warning I can give, is to tread carefully. The stories we cover may get dicey, but our mission remains the same. We must remain dedicated to informing our viewers, while recognizing their sensitivity to what we air. Despite this burden, we in the TV biz are privileged to provide live pictures to our audience.
Mike Brannen is a morning newscast producer for KIRO7, the CBS affiliate in Seattle. He recently received a Master’s Degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia and completed his thesis, Motivational Use of Twitter. He previously worked multiple positions at KOMU-TV in Columbia, Missouri during the past four years.