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TV News Gears for Coverage of King Verdicts : Media: After much reflection, sensitivity is the keyword as local stations prepare for the end of the civil rights trial.


Local television news departments are preparing to be all over the story--and all over the city--when the verdicts in the Rodney G. King civil rights trial are handed down.

But after nearly a year of reflection on the violence that broke out following the verdicts in the state trial of the four police officers charged with beating King, some local news executives are grappling with questions about how television can avoid inflaming the situation while at the same time responsibly covering anything that might occur.

Among the issues being debated in local newsrooms are whether live TV pictures of lawlessness invite others to join in, whether soliciting opinions about what's going on from people in the streets is potentially dangerous, and whether all the recent speculation on "is there or isn't there" going to be more trouble creates an atmosphere that invites just that.

Several news executives are also cautioning their staffs that should anything occur, they must take care to avoid editorializing, stereotyping and speculating.

One bone of contention from the start is whether TV trucks should fan out across the city to sample people-on-the-street opinions immediately following the announcement of the verdicts--and whether such reactions should be broadcast live.

Several station executives said that reactions in the various ethnic communities are important elements in the story, especially since the majority of Los Angeles residents has been closely following the trial and awaiting its outcome.

"I think that everyone knows the verdicts are coming down, and to say that we are doing anything to fan the flames is wrong," said Michael Horowicz, assistant news director at KCBS-TV Channel 2. "The story is the reaction, and we need to be in the black community, the Asian community, the Latino community, in every community. But we have spent the last year talking to community leaders and we need to do all of this with an increased sensitivity."

Other stations plan to do the same. One news executive, who did not want to be identified, added that providing an outlet for some people to vent their emotions might actually help them to feel better and to eschew more destructive reactions.

But Warren Cereghino, news director at KTLA-TV Channel 5, disagreed, contending that a live, random sampling of opinion is "potentially inflammatory."

"You don't know what you are going to get when you go live and there is a potential hazard in that," Cereghino said. "For instance, what if some or all of the officers are acquitted and somebody does a remote from a coffee shop in South Central and people are upset and say emotional things. That kind of coverage is not justified. Television's job is to show what has happened, and it's one thing to be on alert to cover things that might happen. But you can go too far if you are out enterprising reaction. That is potentially inflammatory."

Jeff Wald, news director at KCOP-TV Channel 13, said that reaction in various ethnic communities is an important element of the story, but it doesn't have to be done in the uncontrollable live format most local television stations favor.

"Doing it that way is dangerous," Wald said. "That story can be done but you can do it responsibly by going out to various locations, taping reactions and then assembling a representative sample of the opinions you find and playing that on the air. It's just much more responsible."

Wald added that the simple presence of a TV camera--especially at night with its strong spotlight--attracts attention, crowds and people pushing and jockeying to appear on TV. In a potentially volatile situation, Wald said, that alone might be enough to provoke someone to stir up trouble.

If the reaction to the verdicts does turn to action of any kind, the news executives left little doubt that it will go straight on the air live on most, if not all, local stations. All said they are obligated to go forward with such coverage, but several added that they must do so with a sensitivity to criticisms--even if most news bosses don't agree with them--that during last year's civil unrest, some anchors and reporters were guilty of inappropriate editorializing and stereotyping in the heat of the disturbance and of actually inciting some of the violence.

"We are asking everyone to be completely fair and accurate and not report hearsay," said Jose Rios, news director at KTTV-TV Channel 11, who added, however, that there is nothing that the station has pledged not to show for fear of inciting further trouble. "Viewers want to see it. . . . They want to see the heroes and the heathens and decide for themselves."

"I'm not going to disrupt the free flow of information," KCBS' Horowicz said. "I'm not here to censor the news. I live in this city too. I'm not here to incite a riot."

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