Tuesday, 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.
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.
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.