TV news folk like to talk about their “responsibility” to cover the news. Occasionally, that’s true. TV stations cover the legislature because of that responsibility, not because viewers are clamoring to see the daily play-by-play of lawmaking. But typically, when they talk about responsibility– they really mean that they have a responsibility to the stockholders who own the TV station to maintain their ratings and beat the competition. When TV stations stake out the home of the aggrieved next-of-kin of a murder victim, what “responsibility” is being undertaken? In Union Co. SC Tuesday, WSPA reporter Charmayne Brown was attacked by the family whose home she (and other stations) had staked out:
This story was complicated by the fact that the family also harbored a suspect in the case. Think they were a little tense? And the attack was exacerbated by some ugly race baiting.
By any definition, this killing was news. No disputing that this family was an essential element of the story. Ms. Brown was on public property, though such legal niceties are often lost on the bereaved and the inflamed. And in the above clip, you hear the news director talking about the station’s “responsibility” to tell the story, as if by doing so the station was contributing to the public safety of the community. Nice try.
How do you cover the story, yet use discretion? TV news managers talk about “respecting” victims, but give little quarter to their crews on the ground.
They insist on sending brightly logo-ed live trucks, with masts extended 40 feet high, planted on public property within eyeshot of the bereaved;
When a victim / bereaved talks to only one TV station, it’s insensitively touted in endless promotion as an “exclusive”;
When the station that fails to get the exclusive sees the interview on the competing station, its managers demand that their crews browbeat the bereaved into playing fair and talking with them too.
Ms. Brown was doing her job and, it appears, doing nothing untoward. But if she and other TV folks were lingering at the home, then such a stakeout isn’t just about getting the story. It’s also about making sure that the competition doesn’t get something you don’t. It’s playing defense. For TV viewers, it’s a popcorn-munching public spectacle. But the folks who run TV newsrooms can be plenty responsible without playing this game.