Cops and Cameras
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TERENCE SMITH: The television coverage of the shooting rampage in Columbine High School was live and graphic.
KMGH ANCHOR: Look! There’s a bloody student right there in the window.
TERENCE SMITH: All-news cable channels like CNN transmitted the live signals of local Denver stations as audiences around the country watched.
KMGH WOMAN ON PHONE: Now I see a bunch of kids coming out, so it looks like their bringing students out in a hurry.
TERENCE SMITH: As it played out in Littleton, there is no suggestion that the live coverage actually affected what happened. But law enforcement officials argue that real-time coverage can compromise the safety of officers and hostages in scenes like this. Last year in Tampa, Florida, a gunman killed four people, including three police officers, before taking a hostage at a gas station. A radio newsman became an actor in the deadly drama when he interviewed the gunman on the phone, making it impossible for police negotiators to get through.
NEWSMAN: What is preventing you from putting down that weapon and just walking out?
MAN: I don’t have the weapon. The weapon is laying right here beside me. I haven’t had the weapon in my hand for over fifteen/twenty minutes now. I’m not in no way threatening this lady. She’s pretty calm. I mean, she’s visibly upset but she knows she’s going to live. She will live.
NEWSMAN: Why don’t you just open that door and walk out very slowly.
MAN: Well, there are sharpshooters, and they’re all laying under their cars and all. The place is surrounded. There’s cops there, where I’m not going out there. They done shot at me all day. They’ve been shooting at me for the last 30 miles.
TERENCE SMITH: In the end, the gunman released his hostage and killed himself. And in Salem, Massachusetts last February, a tense hostage situation became worse when Boston’s WHDH, Channel 7 reported on the tactical positions taken up by SWAT teams.
REPORTER: But we can see several police officers crouched behind large rocks in the vicinity of that house.
TERENCE SMITH: And a reporter passed along a critical piece of information while the gunman was watching television.
REPORTER: The house is owned by an Essex County deputy sheriff, of all people; now how ironic is that?
TERENCE SMITH: It was more than ironic to the hostage, Officer Paul Hardy, here leaping to freedom. When the gunman learned Hardy’s identity, he panicked.
PAUL HARDY: He jumps up, now the gun starts waving around again, demanding to know where my gun is.
TERENCE SMITH: Hardy and his sons ultimately escaped, but WHDH was sharply criticized for its coverage. In the wake of the Salem and Tampa incidents, Boston news organizations and police have hammered out an innovative agreement to govern the live coverage of future hostage-takings and barricade events. Peter Brown, news director at WBZ-TV in Boston, negotiated the terms of the agreement with local and state police officials.
PETER BROWN: The initiative came from a concern that I had for this television station that we never put someone’s life before a news story and seeing how it had happened elsewhere. What the police and law enforcement are asking the media to do is, before you put it on TV, ask some questions.
TERENCE SMITH: The agreement with the television stations in Boston requires the media to pool their resources during an ongoing incident and to “not air either critical ground or aerial videotape until after the incident has been resolved.” In exchange, the police have agreed to provide the designated pool cameras with greater access to the site and frequent briefings about what is going on. Peter Brown says the agreement is a carrot-and-stick arrangement.
PETER BROWN: The stick is if you don’t cooperate, you get frozen out, and you would not get access to the pool pictures.
TERENCE SMITH: And the carrot?
PETER BROWN: The carrot is you get the access to the pictures and again, our station’s policy is no one’s life is worth a news story.
CAPTAIN ROBERT BIRD, Massachusetts State Police: Basically, the news stations have agreed to limit the information, limit the coverage while the event is ongoing, while its alive.
TERENCE SMITH: Captain Robert Bird of the Massachusetts State Police:
CAPTAIN ROBERT BIRD: It doesn’t mean that they can’t interview all of the people they’d normally interview. They just won’t play that until the event is over.
TERENCE SMITH: The agreement here in Boston is similar to understandings reached in Portland, Oregon; Tampa, Florida, and other communities where the competitive impulses of live television have collided with the safety concerns of law enforcement agencies. Also, in the wake of the Colorado shooting, the Radio-Television News Directors Association has sent out guidelines similar to the Boston agreement to its 1,800 members around the country
EMILY ROONEY: I think it’s a great idea in theory. I’m concerned about the practicality of it, just competitively, alone.
TERENCE SMITH: Emily Rooney is a former Boston news director who now hosts “Greater Boston,” a public television broadcast that includes media criticism.
EMILY ROONEY: My second concern, though, has to do with the role of law enforcement. How closely do we want them monitoring and deciding for us what we should and should not be putting on television?
TERENCE SMITH: We went to Boston police headquarters to understand how the Boston agreement might have worked in a situation like Littleton. There, we screened tapes of the live transmissions with Sergeant Margot Hill of the Boston Police Department and Captain Bird of the state police.
SERGEANT MARGOT HILL: That’s very problematic, right there.
TERENCE SMITH: Where you can see the officers behind what looks like an armored car –
SERGEANT MARGOT HILL: Not so much that, but the person taking the person out.
CAPTAIN ROBERT BIRD: The officer taking the person out of the school – the person escaping.
SERGEANT MARGOT HILL: He’s rescuing somebody. He’s doing the most dangerous aspect of his job. He’s getting a person from a hot location into a safe location and that area of space in between is a very vulnerable area.
TERENCE SMITH: And what is the danger from your point of view?
CAPTAIN ROBERT BIRD: The gunman could be shooting.
SERGEANT MARGOT HILL: The gunman could be shooting at them.
CAPTAIN ROBERT BIRD: The gunman could have been two classrooms over, saw that someone was escaping. They could have been shooting out the window as they were making their escape.
TERENCE SMITH: Diane Mulligan is the news director of KMGH, the ABC affiliate in Denver.
DIANE MULLIGAN: I went back and reviewed that tape very closely, and I will tell you that the length of that tape that was on our air was less than one minute from the time that you can tell the position of the SWAT team when they’re driving up. In fact, when they’re driving up, the SWAT team is behind an armored car, they get there in a matter of seconds and Patrick is out of the window in less than 30 seconds. Even during that incident that was going – moving that quickly, we cut away when he started to fall.
SERGEANT MARGOT HILL: That’s way -
CAPTAIN ROBERT BIRD: Way over the top.
SERGEANT MARGOT HILL: That is — I have a problem with that.
TERENCE SMITH: Why?
SERGEANT MARGOT HILL: Because the students are vulnerable as well.
TERENCE SMITH: Seeing the students running out of the school.
SERGEANT MARGOT HILL: Yes.
CAPTAIN ROBERT BIRD: They are targets.
SERGEANT MARGOT HILL: They are targets.
CAPTAIN ROBERT BIRD: They’re showing their escape avenue.
SERGEANT MARGOT HILL: They’re escaping and they could be potential targets. Those students had high-powered weapons with a tremendous velocity and range.
DIANE MULLIGAN: When we were watching the students run out, for the most part they were running out by the hundreds. So, I believe that if there was a gunman in that area, they would not have lined up hundreds of students at that exit. But I do think that that is a valid concern and I think that it is incredibly important, especially when you are in a breaking news situation, that you constantly have everyone’s safety uppermost in your mind.
TERENCE SMITH: KMGH was only one of four Denver affiliates to cover the Littleton shooting live. But Diane Mulligan wants no part of a formal agreement similar to that in Boston.
DIANE MULLIGAN: I would rather police myself than have anybody policing me as far as what kind of coverage I can do and can’t do.
TERENCE SMITH: Voluntary agreements on live coverage guidelines between the media and police are being considered in several locations around the country. But to some that’s not enough. State legislators in Florida and Oregon have drafted laws that would make it a felony to broadcast a critical incident live.