April 30, 1999
In the wake of the Columbine shooting, Terence
Smith talks with Diane Mulligan, news director for KMGH in Denver, about
media coverage of the tragedy. The following are extended excerpts from
that interview on April 28, 1999.
TERENCE SMITH: Diane, the Boston agreement is an exchange of improved access for limited coverage in critical situations. What do you think of it and would you consider doing it yourself?
DIANE MULLIGAN, News Director -- KMGH, Denver: I think that each individual market has to come to their own agreement and I am sure what they're doing in Boston is working real well for them. We have not had to have that type of agreement here in Denver. I would rather police myself than have anybody else policing me as far as what kind of coverage I can do and can't do. I am uncomfortable with an agreement. I want the authorities, the local authorities, to look at my station and know that we are going to act responsibly in any given situation; that we are going to use restraint and that we are going to get the best information out to our viewers but we're not going to put them in any danger. So I think any dialogue is fabulous, but anything that is going to specifically be on paper-- "you can do this and you can't do that"--that 's where I have a problem. What we have here now in this country is officers who are monitoring exactly what you can do and can't do and telling news directors "these are where the lines are." I would much rather do that myself and err on the side of conservatism than go ahead and have someone telling me to do that.
TERENCE SMITH: The news director. we spoke to in Boston felt that he was going to get improved access and that he felt that it was reasonable to ask him to restrain live coverage DURING an event. After the event all holds are off.
DIANE MULLIGAN: I am interested in what kind of improved access you would get especially in a breaking news situation of that type. When this [Columbine H.S.] story broke there was conversation constantly in my control room about exactly what pictures we should be on, how long we should be on them, and when we needed to cut away. And I think in that respect we're taking a very responsible approach. And then we negate the need for those types of agreements.
TERENCE SMITH: Do they constitute in your opinion, any sort of restraint on freedom of the press, any form of censorship?
DIANE MULLIGAN: I think it depends on how the agreement is written. Could it? Absolutely, if it goes too far. But I think that the authorities are out there, the journalists that are making the agreements are doing so with their hearts in the right places. They're trying to keep people safe and they feel that that's necessary in their market and I applaud them for it if that's what they need to do. I'm just uncomfortable with doing it in my newsroom because I do truly believe that we have a very good situation here.
TERENCE SMITH: We sat down with both the Boston police and the Massachusetts state police and we looked at some of your footage and I'll tell you some of the comments they had. Which were in a very constructive tone, not in an effort to be critical of anything but rather to explain how their agreement would work in such a situation. They had problems with the pictures of the young man, Patrick Ireland, the wounded student hanging out of the window as the SWAT team came up and ultimately rescued him. Their problem was that it revealed to the shooters inside the position of the SWAT team in an exposed moment and the position of the student. Their concern was if the gunmen were elsewhere in the school they could turn their weapons on that scene. What do you think of that?
DIANE MULLIGAN: Well 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 within a matter of seconds and Patrick is out of the window in less than 30 seconds. Even during that incident that was moving that quickly, we cut away when he started to fall so I would have to argue that we were very responsible. That really was the rescue, the most important rescue for the viewers to see and that we got on it and we got off of it. And, in fact, I've been criticized by some news directors in the country for getting off of it when we did. We did that specifically because of our experiences with the LA freeway incident where the gentleman was on the side of the road and ended up eventually taking his life. That was uppermost in my mind when we decided to cut away. And we did not go back to that scene on air, live at any other time during the day nor did we show that tape again at anytime that day. We didn't show that tape again until the next day.
TERENCE SMITH: Another area they were concerned about had to do with revealing the exits that the students were using as they ran out of the building. They felt that was a safety issue for those students that a gunman seeing them fleeing could go to a window and fire on them. So that was an area of concern for them, that's something they'd like to see not broadcast live.
DIANE MULLIGAN: I value that judgment completely. I think, again, 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 hundreds of students up at that exit. But I do think that that is a valid concern and I think that it is incredibly important when you are in a breaking news situation that you have everyone's safety uppermost in your mind. This is not a situation where you are trying to beat the other stations. This is a situation where you trying to cover the breaking news constructively, get the information out and not put anybody in any danger. That conversation was going on constantly in my control room and I'm sure in the control rooms around Denver. So I am very happy that we're sitting here and talking about this because I always think there are things we can learn from what we've done.
TERENCE SMITH: Did you have contact with law enforcement during the live broadcast?
DIANE MULLIGAN: No. We didn't.
TERENCE SMITH: Did you consider it?
DIANE MULLIGAN: No. To be really honest I thought we would be the last people in the world they would want to hear from. We have a longstanding understanding with them about what we can do and what we can't do. To take somebody off the front lines or even off the back lines to monitor what I'm doing because I'm not being responsible; if we get to that point, then I'm not doing my job very well so I'm comfortable with the fact that we didn't have contact with them.
TERENCE SMITH: Then when you've discussed this in the past that prior to this incident you've had discussions with law enforcement about what is a good thing to put on live and what is not?
DIANE MULLIGAN: Absolutely. As the helicopters and cameras have gotten bigger and as they've gotten more sophisticated and you can really zoom in certainly we've had discussions. With each incident you must learn something so that you can apply it so that by the time you get to an incident of this magnitude you know exactly where you're going. Where the line is and where you need to move so you're not putting anybody in jeopardy; that you're not causing any undue pressure for those valiant men and women that are trying to save the lives of these children and not putting the children in any jeopardy.
TERENCE SMITH: It sounds as though you've established some guidelines but stopped short of putting them into an agreement.
DIANE MULLIGAN: Absolutely. I would tell you that there's definitely dialogue that's gone on. That I was privy to a panel at RTNDA, the Radio and Television News Directors Association, last September, where they talked about the guidelines in Portland. I came back; we had a newsroom meeting about those guidelines and talked about how the camera that we have has to be an investigative, a news gathering tool and cannot be invasive and cannot put anyone's life in danger. So those discussions had already occurred in our newsroom prior to this happening. People knew what our standards were in this newsroom. Where the ethics were and where the safety issue was. And that's very very important because we had those discussions months and months and months ago and learned as we went along.
TERENCE SMITH: One alternative to these agreements that is developing elsewhere are legislative moves to pass restrictive legislation that would actually restrict and in some cases ban live coverage of critical events.
DIANE MULLIGAN: If you have your legislature that upset over what you've done then you have a problem, absolutely. It is our responsibility as journalists to look at a situation like this, act responsibly, show restraint, so that no one has to go there. That's the way I run my newsroom and that's the way I think newsrooms should be run around the country. And each individual area, each individual newsroom and each individual legislature or local authority is going to have a different dynamic. We are very very lucky here in Denver that we have the dynamic that we have and we haven't had to go there and I plan to do everything that we possibly can to keep it that way.
TERENCE SMITH: Diane, as you review everything you did put on the air is there anything you regret or would do differently?
DIANE MULLIGAN: Actually no. I will tell you that I am very, very proud of our coverage, I have to be real honest with you. I'm very very proud of the team here, the operations team. I was amazed at the level of discussion in the control room about "get off of that shot, we've been there too long, we have to move here." I was amazed and pleased at the reaction when I said 'cut away from Patrick Ireland.' I didn't want to see him hitting the top of that truck and I didn't want our viewers to have to see that. The support that we've received and now the reaction that we're getting nationally, is absolutely phenomenal. I will be real honest with you: for me as a journalist to be able to be in a newsroom that made the decisions that we made and do the kind of work that we did. I am very very proud to be here.