By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director
Bizarre and surreal. Those two words summed up the feelings of many—among them experienced reporters and producers—when journalists were given the opportunity to go inside the California apartment where two mass killers lived.
Once the FBI had finished its investigation into the Redlands home where the two lived, they turned it back over to the landlord. And then he turned it over to the media.
You may have seen it live on television—a crush of photographers, reporters and others pushing their way into the small apartment to get a glimpse at what was left after police stripped out everything they felt might help in their investigation of the San Bernardino shootings.
Few, if any, among us would have turned down such an opportunity if we were reporting this story. The chance to get even a glimpse of what was left inside the home of Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, was far too enticing to miss.
And, as became all too apparent on live TV Friday afternoon, no one there did miss it.
It’s an important piece of one of the biggest stories of the decade and viewers, listeners and readers have a right to share in it. But did they really need the right to see it live? That’s a bigger question and one that should bear discussion in every newsroom.
Past RTDNA Chair and RTDNF Treasurer Dan Shelley started a Facebook post on that question and linked to our organization’s guidelines for determining when to cover something live.
As we all know, live coverage provides journalists much less control and a far shorter reaction time than if it was being recorded for use later. No one who entered that apartment that day knew exactly what they’d see or what they’d find. They could only hope that whatever they were about to show would be suitable for airing.
Among the news organizations that went live with their coverage was MSNBC. Veteran correspondent Kerry Sanders, at one point, held up a photo of a child. Anchor Andrea Mitchell quickly asked to cut away from that, saying, “Let’s not show the child, Kerry.”
Now Sanders is a pro and has been through situations a lot tougher than this. Yet his response was particularly telling when it comes to the uncertainties of live television news coverage: “I’m sorry, Andrea, this is sort of unfolding live as we’re doing this,” he said. “I’m not sure what the next picture is going to be until I pull them open.”
That remark summed up the challenges we all face in this business when trying to determine how best to tell a story. While it’s unlikely most of us will face a situation like this again, it pays for every newsroom to have discussions in advance about the parameters for live coverage and, hopefully, be better prepared to make decisions about when to do it—and when not to—when the situation arises.
These are lessons best learned outside the heat and the competitiveness of the moment.
What do you think of the live coverage of the Redlands apartment? Let us know in the comments below.