The sport of breaking news

dekalb jailTuesday, Atlanta TV crews gathered at the DeKalb County jail to witness a man submitting himself for arrest for causing a fatal accident.  The accident, days earlier, was horrific.  It killed three people and injured six more in a van pool during rush hour on the Stone Mountain freeway.  The TV crews had been waiting for this moment since Monday night.

The reason is obvious to those who adhere to traditional local news sensibilities.  This was a one-time chance to photograph a guy who was behind a breaking news story that had led several newscasts.  But the likelihood was this:  The guy would scamper from his car to the jail intake, with cameras giving chase, mic-wielding reporters firing questions as he clammed up on the advice of his attorney.

WXIA absented itself from this scrum, as it frequently does.  I come before you to defend and, yes, praise this practice by my employer.

TV news is competitive on two levels.  TV stations compete for viewers.  TV reporters, assignment desks  and crews compete for scoops.  Sometimes they compete to tell the best stories.  But the competition is fiercest to attain elements of coverage.  Who has the interview with the victim’s family?  Who has the photo of the dead guy?  Who has the “get”– the elusive interview, typically with a tragic figure.

Some of this certainly represents the best of journalism.  Jackie Kennedy never talked to reporters about JFK’s killing.  The mothers of the Columbine killers have never have never answered questions from the press.  Those are story elements that any newsroom would want.james miles waga

But mostly, they are fragmentary and forgettable.  Yet they are the essence of the scorecards kept in the sport of breaking news.

Are there more than a handful of people in the TV audience chomping at the bit to hear the words of a guy who caused a traffic accident?  Or to watch him get chased into the jail by TV cameras?

The answer, clearly, is no.  The exception is among folks in the TV audience who’ve watched coverage of buildup to the moment:  “Jack is at the jail, where the suspect is expected to turn himself in.  Jack?”  “That’s right Jill.  He’s not here yet….”

It then becomes more sport than story.  The competitive feedback loop requires each station to be there, because the other stations will be there.  It’s like the arms race.  Your finger is on the button because you’re afraid of the other guy, afraid he’ll get something you won’t.

The sport, then, becomes the adrenaline-rush moments for the crews on scene, and their cheerleaders / tormentors managing their respective newsrooms.  The competitors are on the field.  They stake out favorable position.  They devise some small-scale strategy.  And the play begins.

The object of your story becomes a part of the game.  In this case, the suspect showed up in time for the noon news, and was clearly unnerved.  Is he scared shitless because he’s checking into the jail?  Or is it because he’s surrounded by TV cameras?   Regardless, it gives the story a jolt of emotion, always a welcome element.

In this case, he stopped and chatted briefly.  He expressed remorse.  He got peppered with tough questions, mostly sidestepped by his lawyer.  It lasted only a few seconds.  They moved on.james miles wsb1

As such, it’s about the competition, not the storytelling.  The elements are gathered.  The story is a by-the-numbers bore, told a thousand times on local TV news with interchangable names and circumstances that vary too little to distinguish them.

WXIA’s desk knows about these scrums.  WXIA simply chooses to skip them.  The station knows it may miss the accident-causer’s on-camera utterances before entering jail, and has made a decision that it would rather devote its resources t0 cover something else.  (In this case, the suspect’s attorney called a news conference after he bonded out of jail.  I believe WXIA attended.)

One may quibble with whatever the “something else” is.  WXIA’s bosslady would probably be among the first to say that the station has many hurdles to overcome before it can become competitive with WSB and WAGA, ratings-wise.

WXIA seems to be seeking an audience that views news as something useful and even helpful, rather than merely another episode in a nightly, local reality show that has little bearing on the lives of real people.  Like the premise or not, getting video of the guy who caused a fatal traffic accident helps nobody.  As information goes, it isn’t significant enough to lodge into the consciousness of the viewer for longer than an eyeblink.

But happily for the crews on scene, and their producers looking for something “hard” for their A-blocks, the guy talked a little bit.  They could fold in file video of the accident.  There was a story.  But was it better than the other stuff that those crews could have been doing instead?

It was an easy, safe lead story for the newscasts that begin at noon, four, five and 6pm.  And it fills the traditional expectations that TV news personnel have for themselves and their nightly product.

For WAGA’s coverage at 5pm, click here.

For WSB’s coverage at 5pm, click here.

For WGCL’s coverage at noon, click here.

Cartoon by Bill Richards, the Red & Black 10.22.09

Cartoon by Bill Richards, the Red and Black 10.22.09

This entry was posted in WAGA, WGCL, WSB, WXIA on by .

About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

43 thoughts on “The sport of breaking news

  1. August

    Last night I saw Ted Hall’s promo for 11pm. I saw nothing interesting that would make me stop and watch. It is noble to try and do something different, however, news is news. While we want it to be a Lexus, it is a blue Taurus. Reinvention will not happen 60 years down the road.

  2. Rod

    Well stated argument Doug. Nice try. In other kinder gentler markets this mind set can work, but in Atlanta, good luck with that. Note to Boss, don’t buy a house.


  3. jiller

    Come on…

    WXIA opts not to cover the man accussed of causing the death of three people and the serious injuries of 9 others because it’s a perp walk?

    Are you serious?

    He spoke about what happened and you don’t think that’s news?

    You didn’t cover it because boss lady doesn’t know news and know how to use crews. Or maybe you didn’t have a crew or actually missed it, like you missed the court appearance last night of the mother in law accussed of killing her daughetr in law.

    Doug, I have great respect for you. But come on.

    It’s clear what’s happening at WXIA/ They’re failing miserably and are looking for all excuses. Boss Lady and Walker are two pead in the bod.

    Look at the numbers, especially the marquee show at 11 pm. You’re getting run over by wsb and wgcl.

    Sometimes it’s better not to say anything than be the stooge for the newsroom and defend missing a story.

    1. live apt fire Post author

      The other stations did live shots billboarding the fact that the guy was turning himself in. So WXIA couldn’t have “missed” it. WXIA deployed its crews elsewhere, ignoring this event.

      The “perp walk” is a classic, traditional play in the competitive breaking-news sport that sheds no light. This one, viewed objectively and through a non-traditional prism, was a waste of time.

      Point to numbers. Call me names. That’s OK. I’m still serious, yes. Thanks for asking.

  4. Jim

    Aren’t there certain stories that are just “cost of admission” in the game of tv news? Aren’t there 2-3 stories every day that viewer expects to hear about? They have news everywhere they turn and they have a certain level of knowledge before they’ve sat down to see your news.

    You may choose to VO the perp walk while the other guys blabber on and on and package it. This gives you a chance to showcase you ARE different…..and you did know about what everyone else covered.

    I think people in the tv news business are smart enough to understand that there are resource choices every day. I think if your not careful the viewer will think you just didn’t know about it.

  5. rick

    I did see on ch. 11 video of the guy’s surrender. I think there was a comment from him. Anyway, they must have had someone at the jail because I saw it on their newscast. I don’t remember a reporter doing a whole story about it, the anchor read the story.

  6. dave

    If this is a reflection of the thinking inside the newsroom at WXIA it goes a long way to explain why they have become virtually irrelevant in the local news race. You asked are there more than a handful of people in the TV audience chomping at the bit to hear the words of a guy who caused a traffic accident? Judging by WSB’s ratings, the answer is yes…quite a few people are interested. It’s called news.

  7. English Major

    Jiller is missing the point. WXIA chose not to cover one aspect of a traffic accident – a bad one – but it’s a traffic accident. They chose not to cover one aspect of a murder – a nasty one – but a murder. Unfortunately we have way too many of both those things in Atlanta, and just because they are visually appealing to photojournalists does not make them uniquely newsworthy…at least to this viewer, who is not a member of the news industry. Give me the talking-head experts giving us solutions on how to prevent traffic accidents, murders, apartment fires and so forth, and I won’t flip the channel. None of us out here care which station got what scoop. We just want to be treated as if we had some intelligence.

    1. jiller

      BTW, the traffic accident guy WASN’T a perp walk.

      He turned himself in and made a comment.

      That’s not news?

      Come on folks, that’s a helluva a story, a van flips over with people commuting to work because a wreckless driver is swerving in and out of traffic?

      Oh, I forgot their on Stimulus Watch.

      1. tvb

        I hate to be the grammar and spelling police, but really, if you are going to fight the good fight on what is or is not news, at least use the proper words. I’m not familiar with the story but from reading this blo entry, I am confident the driver facing charges is no longer “wreckless”.

        And it’s “they’re” not their.

  8. Dirty Laundry

    I’m really on the fence with this one. I understand both arguments, however if I had to assess it (honestly) – and in this case, as a viewer – I’d have to say I had to watch him. In this day and age, most defendants/suspects, etc. are so media savvy, they “lawyer up” right away – so it’s actually pretty unusual for them to speak to the media (for more than one or two words). When he spoke, you bet I listened. I wanted to know what someone – who’s accused of actions that lead to three people’s deaths – had to say. Granted, he didn’t shed any light on the actual event, but we still got to see a small window of who he is (or how he portrays himself). In that regard, I felt it was as much news as any of the other stories that really have no direct impact on me (which is at least 90% of each of the local newscasts). It is a News SHOW after all. That’s my two cents.

    1. mj

      So if no news outlet covered the perp walk, would you have really thought, “hey! why didn’t they show that guy turning himself in?!” I think WXIA is on to something. I am tired of watching the same ol’ news… murders, fires, wrecks and trees. Let’s get to the real meat and potatoes. Instead of watching a man turn himself in, why not dig deeper into the lives of the ones that died, honor them, and get to know them? Who gives a rats a$$ what this murderer is like?? My life doesn’t thrive on hard-breaking news, and like Doug said, wrecks happen everyday. Let’s focus on another aspect of the story– dare to be different.

  9. Wonderdog

    Channel 11’s front line anchor team doesn’t match the concept.
    Think the ole phrase, ” The carpet doesn’t match the drapes.”

  10. Jim

    Okay, so, I’ll bite. What did we get on WXIA that we didn’t get on the other stations, as in where did the camera that would’ve been there actually end up going?

  11. tvb

    In most of these situations, I would agree with you Doug and sort’ve do in this instance. But considering whether to show up for a scrum or perp walk also takes some foresight beyond whether there is a crew available that day or not. In this situation, presumably there will be plenty of opportunities to get the guy on video assuming anyone bothers to follow the story beyond the first couple of court hearings.

    However, consider for a minute the only decent video of Bernard Madoff. It’s the one of him being pushed by the scrum and him pushing back a bit. Had no one bothered to show up, no one would know what the guy looks like; We would be stuck with a 10 year old image of him and a bunch of court sketches.

    But what if this guy went home and offed himself? Ooops, you don’t have any video of him. Now what?

    If the story is in the first block for more than one news cycle, I think it’s prudent to make sure you have some tape of him in the library.

    1. live apt fire Post author

      Jiller is technically correct. A “perp walk” typically has cops escorting the suspect. For the sake of brevity, we’ll used the flawed term “perp walk” to describe this event.

      I’m not arguing against staking out all perp walks. Madoff is a once-in-a-lifetime sheister. Sid Dorsey, the homicidal sheriff, was a perp walk nobody would argue against staffing and covering.

      But this guy was charged in a traffic accident.

      Part of the problem here is our ever-expansive definition of what constitutes “big news.” This is an era where a tree falling on a house, hurting nobody, is played like big news. So everything is amplified, including a guy who caused a traffic accident.

      I’m saying it’s OK to pull back, get some perspective, and save that kind of treatment for stories that really deserve it.

      1. GLCer

        3 dead, 9 injured and 3 charges of vehicular homicide seems a little more than a traffic accident.

        But then Boss Lady has the commuter dude and spends minutes each day talking about painted lines in the road.

  12. jsb

    Boss Lady has been there for over a year and the ratings have been in a free fall since late winter. Especially at 11 and in the morning. The morning show ratings are the lowest in the history of the station. I am sure she will be given more time, but if this trend continues at the time of her 2nd anniversary with the station, I think you can expect her to relieved of her duties as Gannett will not tolerate such abysmal ratings in this marquee market and the pressure on Gannett from NBC about WXIA’s poor performance will not help her cause. The sad thing is all that will happen is a new boss will come in and sweep out all the hires associated with the boss he or she replaces, rebrand the news, and it will just be unfamiliar deja vu all over again.

  13. johnny

    I have always had the greatest respect for you and appreciate how you call it as it is.

    But I’m most confused. If another station had not covered the man turn himself in and talk about what happened and your station did you would be lampooning the other station.

    Yes, the perp walks of the teenager arrested for a robbery or convenience store hold up is run of the mill and many times insignificant.

    But this story will live for awhile, and I would bet the trial will get significant coverage.

    WXIA is lost. They look it on the air.

    Their news sharing with WAGA won’t help 11alive survive.

    On the street, and now in the air and in the ratings wxia has been marginalized.

    Doug – might be time to work for a station that does real news.

  14. LBJ

    I, for one, look at 11’s open to see what they have and often stay. It may be that most people want to see details on yet another murder, but I’m sick of the fuzz and wuzz.

  15. rick

    Honest, I know what I saw and as I wrote in a post waaaaaay up near the top of this thread, I saw video of the suspect on ch. 11, with his wife and lawyer, turning himself in. And I’m pretty sure ch. 11 also showed tape of him making a brief statement before his lawyer took over. Anyway I don’t remember if a reporter read the story or an anchor person read it, but I saw it on 11alive.

  16. rick

    Sorry if my second post on this thread shows up twice, let me see if I can do it right. All I’m doing is repeating my first post near the top of the thread. I saw the video on ch. 11 of the guy that day, with his wife and attorney, turning himself in. And I think ch. 11 also showed him making his brief statement.

  17. Element

    All the while GCL continues to throw rocks in their boat, on the verge of mounting a cartoon variety campaign, morale has rarely been lower, burning bridges faster than organizations can tell them to piss off, and the biggest rock of all is on her way out the door and no one in management seems to know anything about her impending egress, but its true. [Just try searching her name in their Avid system and see what pops up (even though the damage is already done)].

    Keep doing what you are doing XIA.

  18. Sammy


    Are you a real reporter at XIA or just a temp intern? I don’t see you listed on the web site as a reporter.

    You may want to do some investigating or discuss with the boss lady.

    1. live apt fire Post author

      I’m told my absence on the site is due to my own failure to compose material, which I’m going to do shortly. Whether that will make me a “real reporter” is debatable.

  19. GLCer

    Yea, element.

    see how well you are in tune with local TV.

    We want WXIA to keep what they’re doing. They’re dying.

    Our numbers tell the story. Looking at our 11 pm demos and you’ll see we’re growing – and on most nights at 11 we’re number two and we have had a couple of number 1 demo wins.

    Our morning show is growing.

    Are we rhere yet? No.

    Are some of our managers a little “slow on the uptake?” Yes.

    But at least we’re moving in the right direction.

    Element, maybe you’re out of your element.

    1. Element

      Hey, “GLC”er-

      I’m going to guess that you are a producer there based on your grammar and lack of ANY conceptual ideas?

      That BMA bull$hit does nothing but insult intelligence. Period! It is an ABSOLUTE ABORTION!

      And their 11 is nothing more than rehashed bull$hit that pertains to ONE PERSON- Steve Schwaid. That is it! The rest of us got into this business to work for the people. WGCL’s animals work for ONE PERSON- Steve Schwaid. He has NO CONCERN for input, issues, or ideas! He still thinks this is 1980 and he lives on the east coast. Turns out he doesn’t! But his senility obviously allows him to believe he still does. Well guess what this is the south! Sh!t works differently and you will NEVER be able to understand that simple concept!


      Keep doing stories that actually AFFECT human beings XIA!

      1. Viewer

        Wow that post is full of hostility! Im a local tv viewer with an IQ definitely well above average and don’t feel insulted. My family and I love Better Mornings. It starts our day on a happier note. Although I do think they could get rid of Miss Sophia.

        That post sounds to me like a lot of jealousy over this guy who from what I gather is bringing ratings up over there. Jealousy and envy are great gifts to give someone to tell them how well they are doing. He should say thank you for the compliment you just gave him.

  20. chickie

    XIA sent a camera, and aired the intw with the man at 6 pm. They covered the event..they did not assign a reporter to it.

  21. longgone

    Whoa Douggie –

    You started a fire with this one…

    The Perp walk is a legitimate element of a story… hopefully a good story (Madoff, yea, certainly). But just ‘cause the guy walks and talks doesn’t make it news… sometimes it’s just an excuse to re-cycle other elements of the news story.
    But just ‘cause it’s the latest doesn’t reaaaaaly make it news.

    But so many people’s lives have been momentarily paraded up on the Tube as to totally marginalize much of what goes on the air nowadays. Most of it is a sad/dreary filler in bloated news shows; shows that have grown in length in hopes of justifying staffing in an effort to collect greater revenues thru ad sales.

    Several posters have made reference to certain stations shows “growing” viewership… at the expense of WXIA… therefore proof that that station is doing it right and WXIA is doin’ it wrong.
    Whoa… that isn’t what you should really be looking at… look at the overall decline of viewership in local broadcast news.

    That’s were the real problem is and that is the direction Mr. LAF was heading.
    Viewers are tired of the same ‘ol thing, and they have voted with their remotes and they have voted with the going to the Web.

    Local TV news needs to find a better way of telling stories or tell the stories people want to see and hear.

  22. jsb

    I think we all know that there is a decline in viewership for news programs. So many choices, so many venues, so many different schedules. However at WXIA the fall off in viewership is dramatic and to fall from a 2nd place station to a 4th place station behind former market benchwarmer WGCL is testimony to the fact the way WXIA chooses to cover news and create a news brand is not what the majority of today’s tv news consumers want to watch.

  23. mike daly

    I was there freelancing for WAGA. Another WAGA photog found the attorney by asking folks walking by if they had anything to do with the case. The attorney said he his client would arrive shortly and then make a brief statement, but that he couldn’t talk about the accident.

    I was setting up a live truck and photogs from WSB, WAGA and WGCL were standing at the top of the parking lot. They were going to let them walk up (that would gather the video without a “Pack” frenzy). They would let him make his statement. Then the group would follow him to the jail door. After all, that’s what he was there for. He was turning himself into authorities at the Dekalb County jail through a pre-arranged agreement. I grabbed my camera when he arrived and walked up to where everybody was waiting.

    But, as he arrived, one of the WSB photogs decided to walk down to the Attorney and the accused. This led to everyone moving down to the bottom of the parking lot to begin. Mr. Miles answered few questions, but did express his sorrow for what had happened.

    Since we all moved down the parking lot, this made for a longer walk shot and I think this lead to the “Perp-walk” look. It was less a “scrum” than it may have appeared. Nobody shouted questions while Mr. Miles, his wife and attorney walked into the jail. It wasn’t a walk-down like when the Snellville mother-in-law murder suspect was walked to a police car or when the suspect in the Clark-Atlanta shooting was moved to the Fulton County Jail from the Atlanta PD. But, at first glance it may have looked this way.

    Later, WAGA had a one on one interview with Mr. Miles and his attorney. There was no press conference and I never saw channel 11 at the jail.

    Newsworthy? Sure. Mr. Miles, accused of causing the accident, had something to say, albeit brief. Is this something the families of the victims wanted to hear? One or two responded to his remarks saying they were glad to hear he was remorseful and were glad he turned himself in. The accident was a big story. Following up a big story seems like a logical progression.

    Have the victims been forgotten? No. Each family has been given the opportunity to say something about the victims. This is not easy. It’s really hard to be the reporter that goes to the house to see if families want to say anything about the deceased. But, it’s important for the families to have an opportunity to say something, so we go. Some go more tactfully than others.

    For me, watching this man and his wife, I thought how quickly one’s life can change with an instant miscalculation. When I drove down HWY 78 to shoot some footage near the flowers left at the scene, I was conscious to drive more carefully. If Mr. Miles 15 seconds of TV had this affect on any other viewer, it was probably worth doing the story.

  24. honestabe

    This is an amazing string to read.

    If I worked at WXIA I would be embarrassed.

    They have no angle, they have no hook, they have no identity.

    WSB is clearly the market leader and they promote themselves as such. Fox lives off it’s past. It;s also simple to see what WGCL is doing and how they’re setting themselves up with a different identity – and it seems to be working.

    WXIA. The stimulus station. That’s what they call themselves. Stimulus? Puleeeze. They need Viagra to get stimulated.

  25. Jim

    Mike, thanks for the post, that clears up a lot.

    Doug, please thank the bosslady for not pushing the off button on this website. I know it’s pretty critical at times, but I also think that all four stations can learn a thing or two from it.

  26. arky

    This reminds me of NPR in the 1980’s. They would claim that they were better than the daily news scrum, instead focusing on an intelligent analysis of events. Only years later, once they actually got a sizeable staff in place, did they laughingly admit that their “analysis” was just an attempt to cover the fact that they missed so many stories as they were happening.

    I’ve worked at a couple of stations where we would say that we didn’t participate in this scrum or cover that murder because we just had more refined tastes. Only after I left those places did I realize we were only fooling ourselves… we sure as hell weren’t fooling the audience.

  27. honestabe

    I watched WXIA last night at 6 and 11 pm.

    The 6 pm show lede with the pilot story – a legit story but the video and sound was from the Today Show.

    At 11 pm there were no “night” day of air true news stories. I’m not talking crime or cheap stuff like that. I’m talking news.

    Either the boss lady has no resources or no sense of a newscast should have. It needs news that viewers care about.

    Gee, and I thought they were doing a different kind of newscast for viewers. Different yes, for viewers? No.

  28. Don B

    Poor 11 Alive has been reinventing itself since the days of the News Hawk. I think the hawk was there in the mid seventies….11 has some great people, but they have always been lead by snake charmers……………………

  29. Pingback: Why “I don’t watch” « live apartment fire

  30. Scott Hedeen

    “Perp Walks” are a crucial part of TV news.

    “hey… they’re walking Lee Harvey Oswald out this afternoon…”

    “ah… blow it off… we got a shoot with the anchor at a school reading to 2nd graders…”

    1. Snozz

      “ah… blow it off… we got a shoot with the anchor at a school reading to 2nd graders…”

      Almost worked for Bush…


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