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San Diego Spotlight

MEDIA : Fallbrook Tragedy Sparks Complaints Over Coverage

September 17, 1990|KEVIN BRASS

In television news, a few seconds can make the difference between sensational and poignant, maudlin and compelling.

Last week, all three local TV news operations had video from the scene of a tragic hit-and-run incident in Fallbrook that took the life of a young skateboarder. It was a gut-wrenching scene--the mother, crying and holding the hand of her dead son.

It was the type of story that shows television at its best and worst. No medium can convey the power of a moment quite like television. And no medium can seem so intrusive and voyeuristic, invading the privacy of a grieving mother.

On a daily basis, newspapers and radio editors also struggle with the question of when coverage becomes too private, too emotional. But it is television that has the overwhelming power to bring a very personal tragedy into people's living rooms.

Although some viewers may disagree, there is little doubt that the scene of the mother's grief needed to be shown. To mention the incident without showing its very human ramifications only serves to demean the tragedy. Viewers have a right to see the pain that irresponsible actions can cause. It was worth it if one person who saw the pictures drove a little more carefully the next day.

Channel 10's goal, assistant news director Bill Gray said, was to "evoke emotion from the viewer that this is a terrible, terrible tragedy and something has to be done about it."

KGTV (Channel 10) was swamped with complaints from viewers, and Gray didn't necessarily disagree with them. In the first report, which aired at 11 p.m., too much time was spent on audio and video of the mother's anguish, Gray agreed.

It was a tough scene, and a line had to be found that made the point without assaulting the sensibilities of viewers.

"You've got to show it, but a second and a half less makes a lot of difference," he said.

Gray said Channel 10's video of the accident scene was shot by a stringer, who didn't completely follow the station's guidelines for photographing these types of incidents. Channel 10 photographers are trained to be more discreet when photographing bodies, to use softer focus and shoot from farther away in such situations, Gray said.

KFMB-TV (Channel 8) news director Jim Holtzman said his station's coverage also might have been more sensitive if produced differently. Channel 8 warned viewers that the scene might be disturbing, but then they lingered on a close-up of the mother. And it was that pause, more than anything else, that made the coverage seem exploitative.

Holtzman said photographing the scene from a distance could have conveyed the same message without intruding on the mother's grief.

"I think there were shots that were wider or more tasteful that would have been more acceptable," he said.

KNSD-TV (Channel 39) also used pictures from the scene, but only briefly showed the mother.

"My opinion is that in these situations, less is more," Channel 39 news director Don Shafer said. "A little goes a long way."

San Diegans may not have Paul Bloom to kick around much longer. The Channel 39 reporter, best known for his gleeful re-creations of crime scenes, has taped a talk-show pilot for Multimedia, the same company that produces Sally Jessy Raphael's talkfest.

Bloom worked with Raphael at WPIX in New York, and he was brought to the attention of Raphael's producers earlier this year when she was taping her show in San Diego.

The show format is much like Raphael's, featuring Bloom as a ringmaster with a live audience.

Producer Burt Dubrow hopes to test-market the show in one or two cities to work the kinks out and gauge interest in syndicating it.

"Paul has an interesting way about him that I'm not sure (Channel 39 viewers) are seeing at the moment," Dubrow said.

Bloom's contract has expired at Channel 39, and the station has fashioned an interim deal while Bloom finds out the fate of the talk-show concept.

Channel 8 has decided to drop the slogan "The news you want from people you like."

Given the recent ratings, it would be more accurate to say Channel 8 offers "Some of the news you want from people you think are OK."

Instead, Channel 8 has settled on the scintillating "Good reasons to watch" as its slogan. According to Channel 8 promotions director Tim Hnedak, the "news you want . . . " line, which was simply an "interim" advertisement, was "too cumbersome, too wordy and not very flexible."

On the other hand, it wonderfully summed up all that is wrong with television news.

Once upon a time, television news was a public service, intended to give people news they need to know, not what they want to know. Nobody ever wanted to see a City Council meeting, but sometimes it's good for them.

The Channel 8 slogan suggested they'd given up the ship, that the station was willing to pander to the wishes of its audience.

Originally, the station considered using "the news you need to know," but "it would be presumptuous of us to tell people what they need to know," Hnedak said.

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