sree's lowercase world | stuff | chopper journalism

London Times
May 8, 1998

Flying In the Face of Taste
By Tunku Varadarajan

A suicide broadcast live has inflamed the US news debate, reports Tunku Varadarajan

A gruesome suicide broadcast live on Los Angeles television has brought to a head the dispute in America over so-called helicopter journalism. Last week a deeply disturbed man named Daniel V. Jones, allegedly unhinged by the callousness of a private health insurance firm which had refused to pay for his treatment, killed himself under the cameras of an aerial armada hovering above him.

To many critics it was helicopter journalism's equivalent of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, with the paparazzi: a deeply unsavoury turning point which tarnishes an entire genre.

The helicopters which clustered over Mr Jones's death on the freeway first gathered because the police had closed off the road. In Los Angeles, a blocked freeway is big news.

Although probably few people even remember Mr Jones's name, the images on television were searing: a burning pickup truck, out of which Mr Jones leapt, tearing off his burning trousers; a moment where he contemplated a plunge from the freeway to the concrete below; and, finally, when he shot himself through the head. There then followed in newspapers, on radio talk shows and on television, an impassioned debate on the ethics of the coverage. A few local TV stations were excoriated for interrupting children's cartoons and switching to live pictures of Mr Jones's last moments.

Other local stations, as well as the NBC national network, also ran live pictures - to a storm of public protest.

Many TV stations apologised; NBC, for example, said: "We did not anticipate this man's actions in time to cut away, and we deeply regret that any of our viewers saw this tragedy." A number of stations have promised a seven to ten-second delay in future, whenever a potentially unsavoury live story unravels, to enable them to cut unpalatable scenes. But few observers are taking the apologies or the promises seriously. Professor Bryce Nelson, of the University of Southern California School of Journalism, says: "I wouldn't think this is the proudest day for those who absurdly call themselves helicopter journalists."

Professor Sreenath Sreenivasan, of the Graduate School for Journalism at Columbia University, says: "Helicopter journalism has its roots in urban traffic stories, with aerial observers providing drivers with an account of rush-hour traffic."

With time, the "hacks in choppers" were enlisted by news editors as the most efficient means of reaching stories that required clear, bird's-eye coverage. The genre came of age in 1994, when 95 million Americans tuned in to watch live pictures, filmed by news helicopters, of O.J. Simpson being chased by police cars.

Now the enterprise seems to have gone sour. Peter Herford, a former vice-president at CBS, says: "Technology is giving us the means to take greater risks, but we have not kept pace with the editorial challenge. Every station with live capability must move towards standards above the current chaos. We are capable of setting our own standards, but if we do not, we are inviting the Government to set them for us."

Prof Sreenivasan says: "My concern is not with the technology, or the ability of airborne journalists to film scenes that were previously inaccessible. It is with news judgment. This is not a gadget problem, it is a news problem."

Unsurprisingly, the helicopter journalists have spoken out in defence of their genre. Robert Tur, perhaps the best known, said that credit must go where it is due. He pointed to what many describe as helicopter journalism's finest moment - and his own.

In 1992, at the height of the Los Angeles riots, he filmed a lorry driver, Reginald Denny, being beaten almost to death by a mob.

His pictures, broadcast live, caused a group of good and brave Samaritans to rush to the scene and pull Mr Denny to safety. Tur's helicopter pictures saved his life, just as surely as last week's inglorious footage recorded the hapless Mr Jones's death.

Caption: Airborne division: helicopter journalist Robert Tur, whose pictures of a Los Angeles riot helped to save a man's life, robustly defends the genre. Photograph by AP/KEVORK DJANSEZIAN

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