A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

The news held hostage

By Quill

This is the 10th in a series of case studies exploring how top media managers make difficult decisions. Where is the line between the good citizen and the independent journalist? That’s the question this case study explores, and it looks at it in an environment that is becoming more commonplace across the country – the multimedia newsroom. When a local paper in the Midwest also owns a local TV station and runs a cable news channel, print and broadcast journalists must work together under one executive editor in this hypothetical multi-media newsroom. The newsroom is challenged when an escaped prisoner from the state’s correctional facility threatens to shoot his way out of a hotel hiding place unless he is granted a live interview with the paper’s TV station anchor. The FBI has been unsuccessful in getting the escaped prisoner to surrender and calls upon the anchor to assist in trying to resolve a potentially dangerous situation. The FBI believes that the escapee is armed and willing to use his arsenal of guns if provoked. The news director of this multimedia newsroom faces several dilemmas. Who on the staff should do the story – and how should it be done? Can the news anchor both assist the FBI and be the reporter of record on this story? In today’s visual media environment, can a news organization turn down a dramatic live story opportunity such as this one? What are the news organization’s obligations to the public in this case? Panelists who are part of the Media Leaders Forum respond to these issues in their discussion of what they would do if they were executive editor for news in this case. The Media Leaders Forum is a project of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Several times a year, top managers in media organizations are asked to respond to organizational issues. The cases and responses are presented in Quill and are later posted at the Manship School’s site on the Web, www.jour.lsu.edu/manship, in an effort to encourage discussion and debate. You can participate by reading the case and visiting the Manship School’s site, where you can then e-mail your thoughts about the case. Let us know what you think about how news organizations should cover crises involving criminals. What role should the news organization play in this hostage negotiation between the escaped prisoner and the FBI? Does the changing nature of the news organization make a difference in how such a story should be covered? CASE STUDY
Converging newsrooms, converging values? Ronald Bass is the executive editor for news at The Prairie Gazette, a large newspaper in a Midwestern city. His paper is owned by a company that decided a few years ago to embrace media diversification as a way to improve its bottom line. As a result, it was one of the first to purchase a local news station and to create its own 24-hour cable news channel. The company immediately began to integrate its print and television properties by creating a multi-media newsroom. This model threw print and broadcast journalists together in a single newsroom without a wall. The large space still has news desks, but it also houses robotic cameras, digital and audio equipment and a television news set. But what has taken the most getting used to is the central command desk shared by editors from television, cable and print and the shared story conferences where stories are selected and story angles agreed upon. At these story conferences, journalistic news values held dear by print editors sometimes find themselves in conflict with those espoused by broadcast editors. In this multi-media world, it’s the executive editor for news – Bass – who has to make the tough calls and try to keep all sides of a news operation working together smoothly. The company’s business managers don’t see any room for conflict. In their view, the facts are simple – content is king, not the medium in which it appears. They want all employees to consider themselves information providers. Bass admits that in his newsroom this message has not been wholeheartedly embraced. But he has been satisfied lately with some of the efforts at integration. There have been instances of cooperation on stories across media and between the editorial and business side. But today something has occurred that may shake up the peace. A convicted rapist and murderer, Chad Little, who broke out of the state’s correctional facility and has been on the run for 40 days, has been located at a hotel in the city. Police have a tip that there is an arsenal of weapons in his room. He is threatening to shoot anyone in his path unless he can have his grievances covered by the media. Because Bass’ newspaper owns the local TV station, he must consult with Benny White, the broadcast news director, about coverage of the story. White has an office a few doors away. Bass is surprised when White informs him that Candy Barlow, one of the station’s most popular news anchors, has just received a call from the FBI. It seems that the FBI has been negotiating by phone with Little for five hours. Little has requested a live interview with Barlow as a condition of his surrender. Furthermore, he insists on being given the opportunity to make statements about the state prison system. Little already has a life sentence with no possibility of parole. The FBI has asked for the anchor to be the go-between to bring this tense situation to a peaceful conclusion. At a hastily called story conference to discuss the handling of this story, another wrinkle appears. While news director White pushes Bass to have Barlow do the live interview, an experienced police beat reporter from the newspaper named Sam Snead insists that this story should be his. Snead accuses Barlow of lacking the journalistic skills needed to keep from sensationalizing the story. As an executive editor trained as a print journalist to believe journalists should stay independent of law enforcement, Bass does have some reservations about doing the story the way Little wants. He’s also concerned for the safety of his reporters; Little attacked one of his lawyers who was visiting him at the prison a few years ago for not getting him a bail hearing quickly enough. White assures people at the story conference that Candy Barlow is up to the job and in no danger. He explains that the escaped prisoner will not appear on camera with her in the same room. Instead, she will be in an office on camera conducting a live phone call with Little, who will be in a room about 400 feet away. The FBI will be sitting off camera. Barlow has agreed to participate. White’s enthusiasm to do this story, he says, comes from the opportunity for the media to protect public safety. But he also admits that the station will have a tape that all the cable networks will be interested in, and the paper will have an exclusive interview and photos. White tells Bass: “People who would criticize us for doing this exclusive are just jealous. Given the chance, they would do the same thing.” As executive editor for news, Bass has the final decision on this story. What would you do? THE RESPONSES
How the leaders handled the case Would you let your broadcast station do the story live? Why or why not? Would you shoot the video and air later? Never air the interview? Who should be assigned this story – the broadcast news anchor or the paper’s police beat reporter? Doug Clifton: Yes, I would allow a live broadcast of the interview with a number of caveats. I would make it clear to the FBI that the interview is proceeding because of its news value, not its value to law enforcement. I would insist on the option to terminate the interview based on editorial judgments, and I would make that clear to both the FBI and the prisoner. I would assign the broadcast journalist on the grounds that she – for whatever reason – got the FBI call making the interview possible. Sensationalism is a concern of the editors whether a print or broadcast person does the interview. Bill McCloskey: The decision on the impact of the live interview on the situation at the hotel is for the police to make. So far, in the case study police have only asked that the anchor be a “go between.” “Live interview” is a whole lot different than “go between.” Unless a strong case can be made by police that airing such an interview would be beneficial in ending the standoff, I would not do it live. If police thought live a useful way to go, it would be worth a few minutes of airtime to save lives. In that case, I’d use a seven-second delay or more to allow consideration of blocking inappropriate words or actions. Editorially, I don’t see much news value in a potential rant, if one occurred. If there is news and not just a rant, it can be broadcast later. Thus, I would order a live-to-tape interview. There is no indication that the TV anchor is unqualified to do the interview; therefore, the TV anchor, trained for television, should do the story. Arlene Morgan: This is a tough call because on one hand I don’t want a convicted criminal manipulating my news judgment. Yet this is a news event whether I like it or not. I would run it as a tape delayed broadcast to make sure that Chad Little’s interview is done with good taste and that he does not go off using foul language or make charges that we could not investigate. My concern is that we are fair to everyone involved. Given Little’s background, I think the station must maintain editing judgment on this interview. The issue is to broadcast what is news worthy, not sensational. Yes (I would shoot the video and air later). I believe that is what I would do – as long as there is a news value to the interview. At the very least we should find out how this man lived on the run for 40 days. How did he escape? Who helped him? Where did he sleep, eat, go to the bathroom? How did he evade capture? That alone says something about the inadequacy of the law enforcement agencies that were looking for him. Put Candy Barlow and Sam Snead on this together as a team with a good set of instructions on who does what. If they are professionals, they should be able to do a great story. I think this episode indicates the need for training on both sides since this certainly will happen again. If you are going to run a converged newsroom, then the staff had better be trained to act accordingly. If either reporter refuses this option, then that is their decision. Reporters work together all the time so there is no reason why this story should be any different. James Shelledy: If the news organization has embraced media conversion, then it must go live with the interview. Television covers the situation live – as a news story. If the anchor is part of the negotiations, then she becomes a source for the story. She can’t be both a source and a reporter. Bass should assign the police reporter and a TV counterpart to “team cover” the event. David Weir: Yes, I would let the broadcast station do the story live because this is what I consider a “TV story.” Every form of media has its own strengths. This is not a print story; that means that the broadcast news anchor should be assigned. Keith Woods: It seems there are several issues entangled into one. There’s clearly a story, and there seems to be no good reason for the TV station to avoid going live, assuming they stayed out of the way of law enforcement and kept out of harm’s way as well. I also think the alliance of organizations would benefit from having both the print and broadcast journalists involved in coverage. Snead will bring depth and breadth to his print story and might be among those interviewed live by Barlow. There’s no reason for Barlow to be involved in interviewing Little. A live interview would seem to offer no significant insight that couldn’t be achieved by interviewing him from a prison cell. There’s no evidence that Barlow’s involvement would guarantee an end to the standoff. Yet, agreeing to such an interview would surely inspire other convicts to do the same thing. If the TV station is going to risk that kind of impact, it should come in a case with far more compelling reasons to act than this one provides. Do the paper and the station have an obligation to investigate Little’s grievances about the prison system? Is granting a request to speak live an appropriate way to do that in this situation? Clifton: Yes, both the paper and the station have an obligation to look into complaints about prison conditions as they do an obligation to look into the workings of all public and private enterprises that have an impact on society. That an unusual unfolding of a news event hastens that investigation doesn’t seem to be germane. The interview could surely be a starting point for the inquiry, just as Tom Wicker’s role as an intermediary in the Attica Prison riot was the starting point for an investigation of conditions there. McCloskey: Reporters have no legal obligation to investigate anything. If they believe there is a story there, then they can put the inmate’s grievances in their normal priority in the newsgathering activities of the outlets. Impeachment hearings notwithstanding, a thorough investigation of grievances is not usually properly handled through live broadcasts that are little more than initial research. Morgan: I don’t think either newsroom has any more obligation to cover this story more than any other news story. But this man escaped from a place that is designed to hold criminals, not allow them to escape. How did that happen? What are the problems at the prison? We do so little to cover prisons and the human rights issues surrounding them. This provides context to get behind the story. So, I for one, would like to hear what he has to say and then take it from there. But obligation? Certainly not. I don’t have a broadcast background so I can’t make a pronouncement about what’s appropriate for television or radio. But with talk radio and television so dominant these days – when we watch war being waged live on TV – I don’t see that this is much of an issue. I suppose I am dealing with this by broadcasting the interview in a 10-second or so delayed format. Shelledy: Under the First Amendment, there is no obligation to report on anything. Any news organization worthy of the name, however, would follow up on Little’s allegations. Having Little speak live allows him to make his points – and Bass ought not allow such to occur unedited – but in no way would that pass for anything other than high theater. Weir: The paper and the station have no obligation to investigate, but they should anyway. As to the “live” aspect, this is not about prison conditions. The interview is about a police drama in real time. Woods: I think the journalists should ask questions about prison conditions and determine if there’s anything to investigate. But the news organizations have the same obligations they have every other day: to allocate their journalistic resources in a way that best informs their readers. They should not be in the practice of making decisions at gunpoint. The TV station could look into other means of getting information from Little beyond yielding to his terms for an interview. They might tell the FBI that they’ll consider running excerpts from Little’s remarks if his thoughts were recorded by the feds. There might be other alternatives available, but a live interview should not be an option. What is the tipping point for news organizations in deciding how to balance reporting news with helping society? What determines how much – if any – assistance journalists should give to law enforcement in a hostage situation? Clifton: The “tipping point” is ever changing, though in general the guiding principle should be “news value,” not “helping society.” That said, news organizations routinely cooperate with law enforcement in kidnapping cases and with the government in the classic “troop ship movements.” Still, many have argued persuasively that press cooperation for society’s sake in the Bay of Pigs invasion allowed a fatally flawed plan to go forward, with disastrous results. If loss of life can be stopped or lives saved because of cooperation with law enforcement in hostage situations, that cooperation should be very seriously considered. The key: how real is the threat that lives will be lost or saved on the strength of news media action or inaction? That’s always a judgment call based on a multitude of facts. McCloskey: Good citizenship dictates cooperation with reasonable police requests during a hostage or other dangerous situation. Good relationships dictate that police accommodate legitimate needs of reporters in such situations as well. The relationships and training that allow these opportunities to be handled successfully by police and media should be ongoing. When national media parachute in to cover a breaking story, the relationships developed by local police and media should be used as guidance on how to proceed. Morgan: In considering this I thought about the Unabomber story and the dozens of instances when criminals gave themselves up in Philadelphia through the help of former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Chuck Stone and Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Acel Moore. Frankly, I did not think this story was all that unusual. I would have to consider the alternatives we face by refusing to interview Chad Little. Could he do something violent? Kill himself? A cop? In this instance, I have to consider the options and the benefits to all sides. I also have to consider the safety of my reporters. I would never put them in a position that could be harmful. So I suppose my concerns must be satisfied – that our assistance must stay within the bounds of doing journalism and that my reporters are safe. Shelledy: If public welfare or safety is demonstrably served by a journalist’s intervention, it is justified. Once the journalist puts on another hat, though, she or he ought not be allowed to cover the situation. He or she becomes a player and a source of information for other reporters. You cannot cover the parade if you are one of the floats. White can take his choice: Barlow aids the cops or independently reports from the scene. Weir: As to the “tipping point,” we are citizens first. In regard to our determination of how much to help law enforcement, we should consider what we would want done if it was our own loved one held hostage. There is not an independent principle involved here that justifies endangering lives just because we may be criticized in some journalism class somewhere. Woods: High on my list would be the significance of the threat to the public, weighed against the threat to the journalists. One man barricaded in a hotel room does not represent the level of threat worth surrendering independence to a convict or to law enforcement officials.

This case was written by LeAnne Daniels and Judith Sylvester, faculty members at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.