Press Learns From Riot Coverage
Journalists develop strategy for reporting clashes without making them worse
WASHINGTON — FROM out of the turmoil of the Los Angeles riots, from the sirens, helicopters, TV cameras, mikes, trucks, orange flames, explosions, cries, the metal crack of gunfire, may yet come a quieter way to cover what's happening without inflaming the situation.
"One of the criticisms of the recent events in L.A. was all the [pictures] gave the mistaken notion that the whole town was aflame. It was not. Not enough was done on TV to keep it in perspective," says veteran NBC reporter Ray Scherer, co-author with Robert Donovan of "Unsilent Revolution: Television News and American Life."
"One of the things that [former CIA director] Bill Webster is charged with investigating is how, if in any way, the media affected the course of what went on, whether they in any way inflamed it," Mr. Scherer says. "Today all the stations have traffic helicopters they convert to cover all the riot stuff." He compares that to one of the first urban riots, in Watts, in 1965 when only one station had a helicopter.
"We use live cameras now. In those days it was all film, rushed back, put on the air. You can't edit it if it's live; you have to be very careful."
In "Unsilent Revolution" Mr. Donovan and Scherer have titled a chapter, "In the Eye of the Storm: Television News and the Urban Riots." They say, "As a practical matter, Watts was a turning point for television news. Each network devised guidelines for covering civil unrest, and they were much the same. In a potentially explosive trouble spot, beware of live coverage; film or tape can be edited; live coverage cannot. Be as unobstrusive as possible in a riot. Ride in unmarked vehicles. If underlying cause s of a disturbance are evident, report them in perspective. Avoid provocative language. Use compact equipment.... If a helicopter is used, let pictures tell the story."
Scherer cautions reporters to be especially careful about turning on lights: "At night it floods the whole scene and tends to heat things up."
He adds that TV trucks should not be parked near the riot scene. And that "Some people go ape when they see a TV camera ... TV cameras do change things simply by being there." At a Martin Luther King demonstration he recalls, "People were demonstrating simply to get on TV ... and the network crews were instructed that if someone were rioting just for the cameras, to turn off the cameras."Another thing that's helpful in a difficult situation, he says, "is to use African-American cameramen. They get along better with the local population, but we didn't have many of them" in earlier riots. "Many of the news crews now are black, are not so distrusted by them. That has made a difference."
SCHERER notes that the Kerner Commission Report on civil disorders in the late 1960s looked into the role of the media and decided it "helped shape peoples' attitudes towards riots but did not cause them." He believes there will be no more riots this summer like the one in L.A. "The L.A. one was such a shocker; it got out of hand with people burning down stores and buildings, and had some national cathartic effect." Scherer has been NBC's White House correspondent through the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy,
and Johnson administrations as well as the network's London correspondent and a vice president of the RCA Corporation.
Another news professional who answered riot-coverage questions recently is Chris Ostrowski, news director of WRC-TV in Washington.
"We have had a riot situation in Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan [neighborhoods in Washington]. For me it was a first experience [last year]. We learned a lot of things this May when it looked as though it was heating up again. We learned to diminish our presence, not to use any lights. Riots start at night, so we use low-light level cameras to try not to be conspicuous, not put the cameras on their shoulder, not to look like you're shooting something. We parked all trucks outside areas of disturbance. B asically we parked most of the cars with antennas outside those areas. The last time one of our cars was torched and burned....
"Our reporters were in with radios and directed the cameras when they thought they should come in. We also in both instances put cameras on the roof, so you still get what's going on, but they don't see us shooting. The last time everyone went live.... This time the first night it happened we didn't do live at all. Most of what we did was we had a reporter [with] a phone beeper, who said `I'm down here and this is what's happening.' No live shots...." she says, describing the coverage that kept things ta mped down in the area they were covering.