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TV Stations Discuss Columbine H.S.

October 19, 1999

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ When the three executives responsible for what most Americans saw on TV in the horrifying hours after the Columbine High School massacre share their stories, what’s most striking is what they leave out.

There’s little boasting, no talk about who had the best camera angles, whose news helicopter was first on the scene or who was quickest to divulge the names of the two boys who killed 13 people and themselves this spring in Littleton, Colo.

Instead, they’re more apt to talk about what didn’t make the air. Or why a psychologist was secretly sent to speak to reporters. Or why three people who live to beat each other on stories actually met to plan coverage together when Columbine reopened.

The lessons that news directors of KCNC-TV, KMGH-TV and KUSA-TV in Denver offer today have more to do with sensitivity than speed in telling the story.

``For the most part, we sort of put the competitive situation behind because we all wanted to see this come out the right way,″ said Angie Kucharski of KCNC at a recent panel run by the Radio and Television News Directors Association in Charlotte.

Each of the stations covered the developing story live on April 20, and their reports were fed to the world via cable news stations and broadcast networks.

By no means was the coverage perfect. KUSA goofed by putting on the air in a live feed a young man who said he was a student calling on a cell phone from within Columbine. He turned out to be an impostor, but if it had been real, it was a situation that could have put him or others in danger.

Stations aired helicopter footage of SWAT teams moving in and students fleeing in panic _ risky pictures if the gunmen were still alive and had access to television.

But two experts who went back and reviewed the coverage praised how the local stations handled it.

``I think they did a remarkably good job, considering the situation, considering the stress and the kind of pressure they were under with live television,″ said Alicia Shepard of American Journalism Review, who is devoting a chapter to Columbine in a journalism textbook she is writing.

``They were tremendously sensitive to the culture and the audience,″ she said.

Bob Steele, an ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute in Florida, said that despite some mistakes, the coverage held up well compared to similar major breaking stories. The local journalists were appropriately aggressive and thorough, yet were respectful to people caught up in the tragedy.

Each of the stations held back reporting the names of victims and assailants, in some cases for hours, until they were confirmed by authorities. Some reporters who interviewed students urged them not to identify who they saw in school. Cameras were often left behind when students were approached for interviews, or they weren’t approached at all.

The news directors said it was important not to fill air time with speculation for fear of terrifying parents.

``The magnitude of the story forces you to take that step back and say, `We don’t need to be wrong on this,‴ Kucharski said.

After the first day, the news directors _ aware of community resentment against national reporters _ met to plan coverage for when Columbine students returned. The news executives also watched the emotional health of their employees; Diane Mulligan of KMGH-TV brought cookies and coffee to the scene and arranged for post-trauma counseling.

``The question I have is what would have happened in Los Angeles or New York City?″ Shepard said. ``Would the same thing have happened or would the competitiveness have gotten in the way of sensitivity?″

What’s also striking when watching the three news directors discuss their coverage is that each of them _ Kucharski, Mulligan and Patti Ann Dennis _ is a woman.

Discussing whether that has anything to do with their story coverage is, in itself, a sensitive issue. Kucharski’s back seemed to stiffen when she was asked about it, as if guarding against an oncoming professional slight. Her decisions were in the service of journalism, not gender, she said.

To Shepard, the question is not out of line.

``I think that they were very solid journalistically and the fact that they were women may have enhanced their sensitivity,″ she said.

Steele noted that there has been some academic research into the question of a masculine and feminine approach to decision-making and moral reasoning. Neither approach is always connected to gender, he said.

``The fact that these were three women news directors may have had something to do with the quality of the coverage and the sensitivity that the stations brought to it,″ he said. ``They were good leaders and decision-makers.″

Ultimately, how a television station performs when tested by a breaking story of this magnitude has much to do with the staff’s experiences and grounding as journalists, and the direction set from the top. There’s only so much that can be done in advance, Kucharski said.

``When the scanner goes off,″ she said, ``I have yet to see a newsroom where they open up their drawers and get their binders out to look at a plan.″


Elsewhere in television ...

MILLENNIUM FEVER: Everybody who works at ABC News knows where they will usher in New Year’s 2000. The network announced its plans for a 23-hour millennium marathon broadcast, anchored by Peter Jennings from the network’s new studio overlooking Times Square in Manhattan. The program begins at 5 a.m. ET on Dec. 31, and will feature Barbara Walters in Paris, Charles Gibson in London, Connie Chung in Las Vegas, Elizabeth Vargas in Rio de Janeiro, Diane Sawyer in New Zealand and Cynthia McFadden in Havana. Dick Clark will continue his tradition of presenting entertainment acts from Times Square.


EDITOR’S NOTE _ David Bauder can be reached at dbauder″at″ap.org

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