As L.A. Rioted, Cameras Rolled
LOS ANGELES — THE fury that aroused the recent rioting in this city first began with an amateur videotape. When television stations all over the country picked up the Rodney King incident last year, they contributed to the proliferation of coverage that ultimately caused the trial to be relocated to Simi Valley.
Again, when the riots started after the police officers' acquittal, the cameras were rolling. Live footage of fires, looters, and the National Guard flickered on TV sets in living rooms. The stations were juggling the public's desire for information against the commercial pressure for ratings.
Scholars and media watchers are beginning to explore the latest twist to familiar questions: Does advanced video technology contribute to or remain removed from the events covered? Does the medium blur the distinction between information and entertainment? And does the added number of lightweight, professional and amateur mini-cams distort reality with visual overload?
"The Rodney King riots underline the notion that 'the-whole-world-is-watching,' " says Garth Jowett, a professor of communications at the University of Houston.
Howard Myrick, chairman of the radio, television, and film department at Temple University, gives the local and national coverage of the Los Angeles riots good marks. "Riot coverage in this country has come a long way," he says. However, Dr. Myrick does not absolve TV from its mistakes in highlighting the emotional over the reflective and the immediate over the contextual. But he notes, "unlike 1965, [Rodney] King TV coverage did a very creditable job of reporting the causes behind the moment, rather tha n merely fan white-black fears."
One technique in local coverage that has come under fire is the use of talking-head insets paired with full-screen images of mayhem and looting. When Mayor Tom Bradley admonished citizens to express their anger, but to do so in socially acceptable ways, his message was undermined by the larger images of looting on the same screen.
"To put a little picture calling for responsibility on top of a big picture showing the opposite belittled Bradley's message," notes Brian Stonehill, a media specialist at Pomona College. "For citizens to hear their anger shared by [the] leadership could have done much to avoid the riots."
Though media experts agree that such techniques are unavoidable in a ratings-driven environment, others say viewers must take into account the sell factor.
"Though it is true that the commercial pressures of TV can produce a view of the world that is more frightening than reality, the alternative - editing out those images ... would also be a distortion," says Myrick. An experienced television reporter who has been stationed in several countries, Myrick says the opposite extreme is a state-controlled press. "It was not uncommon in the former Soviet Union for massive catastrophes to happen and no one found out until far after the fact."
As has been the case in other riots, local leaders and residents here fault some newscasters for what they see as unfair or inappropriate mix of images and descriptions.
"You've got a bunch of upwardly-mobile whites labeling people hoodlums, thugs, and looters," says Bishop Carl Bean, a local black leader who says that several newscasts mistakenly identified a black shop owner who was trying to salvage his own looted store. Mr. Bean is also irked that several stations brought in top black athletes to appeal for calm.
"They bring in millionaires from Beverly Hills who haven't visited the 'hood in a decade saying 'this isn't the way to solve your problems,' " he says. "But they offer no solution of their own."
South Central resident Richard Brown, an African-American, is forming a media task force to compare the number of inflammatory images presented by each station to ratings and revenue earnings. If it weren't for on-scene coverage of a small demonstration at police headquarters hours after the verdict was read, Brown says riots would not have escalated as they did.
Nancy Valenta, news director of KNBC here, disagrees.
"We did everything we could to minimize our presence," she says, including the use of unmarked vans, and keeping flood-lights turned off whenever possible, pulling back from altercations. "We explained to viewers why the pictures were grainier," she says. "We didn't want our reporters to be unsafe or add any fuel to the fire."
Newspapers fared better in providing depth to coverage, and radio served well for both public-service announcements and - through call-in shows - catharsis. "Television got people angry," notes Mr. Stonehill. "Radio let them let off steam."
Stonehill adds that the use of video itself in the trial proceedings raises a dangerous precedent. Noting that jurors were quoted as saying the slow-motion replays of the taped beating "made all the difference" in their decision, he says: "Our own familiar TV and VCR technology distorts the dimension of time, and then, by its very familiarity, conceals that distortion from us. That's how aberrations of judgment can occur. In real time, there's no question of what's happening on that tape."