A kinder, gentler news media

Post-war coverage shows sensitivity to families

Some broadcast and print journalists put competition aside out of respect for the feelings of relatives who lost sons and daughters in the Gulf war.

By Robin Hughes, editor

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 4 (April 1991), p. 3.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

On any given day, in any given TV newsroom, news directors and reporters will jump at the chance to beat their competition on a story. War — and especially death — can change that.

Television stations across the country including Denver, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Detroit, Louisville, and Atlanta — jumped into pools for coverage of funerals of those killed in the Gulf war and for contacting and interviewing families of victims. In some cities, the pool arrangements extended to POWs and MIAs.

“We didn’t want a media circus. The victim’s family had already been through enough,” said Bob Freeman, assistant news director of WAVE-TV in Louisville.

“Our goal is to spare the families repeated phone calls from various TV newsrooms and from news teams ‘camped out’ near their homes,” states the Milwaukee pool agreement.

Stations involved in a pool rotate interviews and coverage of events. The station shooting the videotape makes it available to other pool members.

The originating station is not supposed to hold back anything, including information gotten off-camera, that would give it an advantage.

“We have used the pool six times,” said Tom Luljak, news director of WTMJ in Milwaukee. “The only problems were a couple of miscommunications with crews in the field and with producing dubs in an orderly fashion.”

David Zurawik, television critic for The Baltimore Sun, said technical problems involving the pool have cropped up in his city which may not have been inadvertent. Zurawik said a television photographer told him that “on paper the pool looked great, but in the execution of it, everybody sort of nickeled and dimed so the station doing the interview gave itself a competitive advantage.”

Zurawik said he was told about a situation in which interviews done with relatives of a Gulf war victim early in the evening were not fed to the pool members until a half hour before air time. “The feed had the audio messed up on one of the interviews and they couldn’t use it but when the interview showed up on the station that did the interview, the audio was fine.”

Bob Feldman, news director of WMAR in Baltimore, said he thinks he knows the incident about which Zurawik is talking. “I’ve been in this business for twenty-six years and I’m not naive. I don’t think they were trying to beat us, I think it was a communications error.”

In Detroit, stations built in safeguards. “We have a rule that if everyone doesn’t have the tape a half hour before the show, then no one can use it,” said Nelson Burg, managing editor of WJBK.

Despite some problems, the television news managers believe the pool arrangement worked well. Most said they would consider using it again in situations where grief-stricken families were involved, for example, a plane crash. Some noted that it would be hard to work out pool details for a spot news story; pool coverage for the war aftermath took several days of advance planning.

“I think it (a pool) should at least be discussed in situations involving multiple deaths,” said Burg. “It certainly is a good thing for grieving families — anything which would keep them from having to do five or six interviews.”

While the pools, no doubt, were of primary benefit to families, they also had a secondary benefit to the image of TV stations taking part. News directors said they received favorable comments from the public as well as the families.

“One of the (Baltimore) news directors told me that they were doing the pools partly in reaction to public opinion polls that said people didn’t like the way the press was covering the war, that they were being too aggressive,” Zurawik said. “Local TV has long endured the stigma — I think that it’s an undeserved stigma — that when a horrible thing happens, they stick microphones in people’s faces and say, ‘How do you feel?’ Print does the same thing, you just don’t see it.”

While broadcast journalists usually get the criticism for insensitivity, few of their print colleagues have taken extra steps to be sensitive to the feelings of families suffering losses in the Gulf war. An exception is Dennis A. Britton, editor of the Chicago Sun-Times.

In an open letter to readers, Britton announced the newspaper’s policy: “We will afford family and friends the opportunity to talk to us if they like, but we will not bother them with phone calls, nor camp out on their front steps, nor invade the privacy of their funerals.”

The policy was prompted by Britton’s feeling that “grief is an extraordinarily private event.”

“We’ve had the opportunity to cover funerals and body bags coming back and we just didn’t do it. If families want to invite us in to talk, then we should do it because it is cathartic for people to talk. But when we’re not invited in, I don’t think we should insert ourselves.”

Britton’s “call us/we won’t call you” policy has not been picked up by competitors or widely embraced by other editors.

“The problem with that kind of policy is you’re assuming that people are thinking of the newspaper when that might be the farthest thing from their mind,” said Bruce Frassinelli, editor of The Express in Easton, PA. “I think you miss out on some good opportunities by not calling. They always have the option of saying no, they don’t want to talk or don’t want us at the funeral.”

Britton believes his readers are not being deprived by his policy. “We’re still covering the story. The only thing they are not getting is the victim’s family’s reaction to death. I cannot think of any valuable piece of information our readers will lose by not attending a funeral or knocking on some poor family’s door.”

“I don’t mind being lonely in this one,” Britton said. “I truly believe it is the right thing to do.”

 

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