'Live' Suicide in L. A. Forces Questions of Broadcast Ethics

A grisly shooting raises concerns about media's hot pursuit of news via helicopters.

The suicide of a man on live television here, after a brief freeway chase by police and TV helicopters April 30, has reopened the intense debate on the ethics of broadcast journalists caught between ratings pressures and community notions of a "right to know."

Coming a year after the live-TV suicide of a bank robber - and just days after the last of a string of regular, high-speed chases covered by local broadcasters - the episode has also given fresh urgency to soul-searching questions faced with increasing regularity in Los Angeles and other congested cities:

At issue is whether the coverage of highway chases serves any value to the audience, or is simply a way to boost TV ratings - which in turn allow stations to charge advertisers more. Also, does the knee-jerk coverage of such events create an incentive for those who want to draw attention to personal causes and issues?

"This is another indication that the ethics and responsibility of the press over these paramount concerns need to be seriously examined in a formal way in our increasingly confused contemporary environment," says Mardi Gregory, associate director for the Center for Communication Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Beginning about 3 p.m., a maintenance worker named Daniel Jones parked his pickup truck on the transition loop between two large freeways. As highway patrol and helicopters were called to the scene, Mr. Jones, who had tested HIV-positive, unfurled a large square banner with white letters that read: "HMOs are in it for the money. Live free, love safe, or die."

He then lit his pickup on fire using several gasoline-filled bottles, walked across the roadway, placed a shotgun to his chin, and pulled the trigger.

"There was a reporter in the background yelling to the helicopter cameraman to pull back," recalls Ms. Gregory, who happened to be watching TV at the time. Noting that the reporter seemed to be indicating that the man was about to do something untoward, and that he wanted the cameraman to show restraint, Gregory says: "The cameraman paid no attention. It was one of the most surprising, grisly things I have ever seen."

Because several local stations cut into their regular programming - including cartoons for children - to show the coverage live, scores of viewers are now incensed that young children were submitted to the horrifying, graphic images. Such criticism has resulted in pledges by local newscasters to rethink their protocols for live aerial coverage.

"This will be a defining moment for chopper-type coverage," says Steve Cohen, news director at KCOP-TV. "What we have proven today is that journalists have no control over events and can't react fast enough to protect the public from what they saw. We have to be much more careful where we go and what the end possibilities are."

Despite such pronouncements, broadcast watchdog groups say the amount of such coverage remains on the rise. According to Mediascope, a nonprofit public-policy research organization that works to improve depictions of social and health issues in the media, 30.2 percent of the news broadcast by local television news departments across the country is crime reports. Meanwhile in Colorado, another recent study found 42 percent of local TV news is focused on crime, disaster, and war.

"Local TV newscasters are investing heavily in helicopters," says Laurie Trotta, executive director of Mediascope. "You can bet they have increased incentive to get a ratings return for their big-ticket items."

Ms. Trotta and other media watchers say a formal self-analysis of broadcast and other media is needed to properly address issues raised by last Thursday's suicide. Part of the problem, they say, is that the competition between media outlets almost forces more coverage because if one outlet ignores the chase, another gets all the ratings points.

"There needs to be a cooperative spirit [among outlets] to in effect say, 'We are not going to allow terrorists to hijack us,'" says Sari Thomas, director of the Institute of Culture and Communication at Temple University in Philadelphia. She adds that such cooperation cannot be forced by government threat and is not, properly followed, an act of censorship.

"There are so many things happening of import that journalists do not cover, that I find it either bizarre or pretentious for them to suddenly claim [these chases] have to be covered 'because it is news,'" she says. "This is something that needs to be handled from within [the media] ... who have to expand their notions of community service."

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