Duck boat disaster: How smaller market stations broke major news

August 9, 2018 11:00

On Thursday evening, July 19, 2018, Collin Lingo, a dayside reporter for Nexstar-owned KOLR/KOZL-TV in Springfield, Mo., and his wife, who also is employed at the stations, had just gotten off work and were in a supermarket grocery shopping.
 
That’s when Lingo’s cell phone rang. It was his mother-in-law. She, his wife’s grandmother and wife’s sister were all on board the Showboat Branson Belle, a large riverboat-style restaurant and theater docked on Table Rock Lake, a reservoir built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1958. The Showboat Branson Belle is one of dozens of tourist attractions on or near the waterway that straddles the Missouri-Arkansas border.
 
So is Ride the Ducks, a fleet of amphibious vehicles – officially known as DUKW boats – first built to help Allied troops and supplies make beach landings in World War II. Since then, the vehicles have been used extensively by the tourism industry at destinations throughout the world.
 
“She said, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you know this, but a couple of those duck boats are out there on the water and they’re sinking,’” Lingo said on a KOLR-TV podcast about the station’s coverage released one week following the tragedy.
 
Lingo immediately called his newsroom. The producer who took the call asked a question that News Director Chuck Maulden has made a mantra for his staff: “How do you know what you know?”
 
“So, I call her back,” Lingo said. "There’s a lot of noise on the other end of the phone, and I say, 'Listen, how do you know that those people are drowning?’ And she said, ‘I’m watching bodies float to the surface, and they’re face down.’”
 
It would turn out that only one duck boat sank, with, as they say in maritime and aviation parlance, 31 souls aboard. More than half of those passengers, 17, would die – nine of them members of one Indiana family – all of apparent drowning. The boat went under during a severe thunderstorm, for which warnings had been issued by the National Weather Service and relayed to the public by television and radio stations well in advance.
 
Lingo relayed the additional information from his mother-in-law to his newsroom, which then went into full crisis coverage mode. It was something for which Maulden and his team in the 75th largest DMA were as prepared as they possibly could be. He has the station’s breaking news plan posted on the newsroom wall. It asks the question, Are we ready? It is a constant reminder that reporters and photojournalists should always have their “go-bags,” cellphone chargers and ear pieces, among other things, ready at a moment’s notice.
 
Maulden also has the plan printed on tear sheets and placed around the newsroom so that anyone can rip one off and instantly use it as a guide. His approach is used in a number of other Nexstar stations across the country.
 
More: Questions to ask when building your newsroom crisis plan.

 
Shortly after the relevant authorities confirmed Lingo’s mother-in-law’s eyewitness account, Maulden’s stations broke into regular network programming – CBS on KOLR, which was airing an episode of the reality show “Big Brother” at the time – with a series of special reports. They also devoted practically their stations’ entire 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. newscasts to the tragedy.
 
 
Coverage continued throughout the night, and into the next morning, when the Missouri governor, local law enforcement and representatives of other investigating agencies held a news conference.
 
The duck boat sank shortly after 7:00 p.m. CDT Thursday. State police divers didn’t recover the 17th and final body until about 11:00 a.m. the next day. Some of the victims had been trapped in the boat, which had sunk to a murky depth of 80 feet.
 
Across town from KOLR/KOZL, Gray Television-owned KYTV, an NBC affiliate, and KSPR, an ABC affiliate, had been engaged in their own around-the-clock coverage since shortly after receiving word, at first on a police scanner and then confirmed through phone calls to authorities, that the boat had sunk and there were deaths.
 
Fortunately for News Director Bridget Lovelle, she and much of her dayside news team were still at the station, covering the aftermath of the line of severe thunderstorms that had ravaged much of southwestern Missouri before striking Table Rock Lake and dooming the duck boat.
 
In fact, the stations’ chief meteorologist, Ron Hearst, had ended KYTV’s 6:00 p.m. newscast with a specific warning for people to get in touch with anyone they knew who was on the lake to instruct them to get to shore immediately. The station’s weather radar showed the storms were still packing winds of at least 60 miles per hour as they approached the reservoir.
 
Hearst also posted a warning via Facebook Live.
 
 
Those broadcast and live-streamed severe thunderstorm warnings, from Hearst, his colleagues and their competing local Nexstar meteorologists, have drawn the attention of federal investigators, including the National Transportation Safety Board and U.S. Coast Guard. Why the captain chose to embark on the water portion of his journey that evening, despite the approaching storm, has become a principle focus of the local, state and federal inquiries.
 
KYTV and KSPR-TV, like their competitors, broke into prime-time programming with special reports, devoted virtually their entire late newscasts to the story, and were fully staffed with fresh reporters and photographers the next morning.
 
That’s a point of pride for Lovelle, who describes herself as a strategic thinker who immediately begins planning not just the immediate coverage, but upcoming newscasts and follow-up story ideas. In fact, at 9:30 the morning after the tragedy, Lovelle convened a large meeting just to brainstorm any and all conceivable angles to the story that were likely to occur in the coming days and weeks.
 
One advantage that Gray’s Lovelle and Nexstar’s Maulden each have is that their newsrooms staff bureaus in Branson, Mo., much closer to Table Rock Lake than Springfield, which is 44 miles away. Maulden’s team immediately dispatched its Branson reporter, Chrystal Blair, to the scene. Lovelle’s Branson reporter, however, had just gone on vacation and couldn’t be reached. So Lovelle sent a reporter from her newsroom’s bureau in Harrison, Ark., only 33 miles away. Both newsrooms also dispatched crews from Springfield.
 
As is always the case in major breaking news stories, radio played a critical role in covering the duck boat tragedy. KTTS-FM in Springfield, one of the last radio stations still owned by Scripps, which is getting out of the radio business, kept listeners abreast of relevant developments. That meant, in News Director Don Louzader’s words:
  • Immediate communication with Southern Stone County Fire and updates from their Facebook page. 
  • Several check-ins/interviews with Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader on the growing fatality count and an update on rescue/recovery operations. 
  • Pulled scanner traffic audio from Broadcastify and used [an] expanded version in digital coverage with excerpts on air. 
  • Set up ongoing communication with Cox Medical Center in Branson for information on how many patients they were treating and [the] severity of injuries. 
  • Numerous follow-up stories over the next several days on calls for greater safety measures, weather service angle on severe thunderstorm warnings for the lake that were in effect well over a half hour before the boat encountered high waves, [a] woman who survived but lost most of her family, [the] emotional-psychological impact on community, Branson mayor's emotional comments on the city's connection to these victims and their families, and many more. 
 Perhaps the most unique aspect of our coverage was the communication between our news and digital team and the digital teams at Scripps television stations KSHB (NBC/Kansas City) and KJRH (NBC/Tulsa).
 
Our TV stations shared their stories with us and the rest of the group, adding to the depth of our digital and social media coverage. 
 
One of the angles Louzader mentioned – the “woman who survived but lost most of her family” -- would actually become a significant scoop for KOLR/KOZL-TV. The stations had a crew posted at the hospital in Branson where several of the survivors had been transported. So did other stations from throughout the region.
 
But the day after the tragedy, a relative of that woman, Tia Coleman, sought out a KOLR/KOZL-TV reporter outside the hospital and said Coleman wanted to tell her story. After obtaining the required permission from medical center administrators, the stations interviewed her from her hospital bed. Portions of that conversation aired on the stations’ evening newscasts.
 
 
It was most certainly a good get for the stations, but it did not come without criticism. Some viewers complained that it was inappropriate for the stations to invade Coleman’s privacy by going into her hospital room and imposing themselves on a woman coming to terms with the fact she survived the sinking while grieving the loss of her husband, three children and five other relatives.
 
“We don’t stick cameras in people’s faces,” Maulden told me. “They reached out to us.”
 
That wasn’t the only thing about KOLR/KOZL-TVs’ coverage that provoked viewer blowback. Maulden and his team were blistered with criticism about using a short piece of video of a survivor on a stretcher being tended to by first responders. It was user-generated video sent in by a viewer. Maulden decided to stop using the clip, and to remove it from the stations’ website and Facebook page.
 
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Then there were the complaints about breaking in during CBS’ airing of a live Thursday night episode of “Big Brother,” which, if you’re not a regular watcher, is the night of the week when one of the reality show’s “house guests” is evicted.
 
Anchor David Oliver decided to use his weekly “KOLR10 Insider” segment to commit a flagrant act of transparency by explaining his newsroom’s coverage decisions – the “Big Brother” preemption, the survivor video and the hospital room interview with Coleman.
 
 
At KYTV/KSPR-TV, News Director Lovelle was busy dealing with viewer backlash as well – not about interrupting prime-time programming (she says she got no complaints at all), but about running a piece of user-generated cellphone video from a passenger on the nearby Showboat Branson Belle that showed the duck boat in peril, moments before it sank.
 

 
The video, as you can see, was eventually shown on television, online and on social media all over the world, but many of Lovelle’s viewers thought it was inappropriate for her stations to show video of a boat carrying 31 people moments before 17 of them would die.
 
“We got obliterated” by the reaction to the video, Lovelle told me. She calmly explained to everyone who complained that she felt her stations had an obligation to show what had actually happened, much like movie theater newsreels had shown the Hindenburg explosion in 1937 and television news operations had shown video of the collapse of the World Trade Center twin towers in 2001.
 
Besides, she said, “the sheriff had just asked for people to turn in any video” they may have taken before or as the boat was sinking. KYTV/KSPR-TV got requests from federal, state and local investigators for some of the video they showed that day, including the severe weather warnings from the stations’ meteorologists.
 
Lovelle and KOLR/KOZL-TVs’ Maulden also paid close attention to how their newsroom employees were coping with having to cover the tragedy. Each spoke one-on-one with anchors, reporters and photojournalists who were having trouble dealing with the situation, especially because a number of children were among the dead. They also made sure each and every employee knew the numbers to their companies’ Employee Assistant Program, where they could be connected to further counseling, if needed.
 
More: Are you ready for trauma in your newsroom? New research may help.


Both news directors said there were many lessons learned about how to cover such a major catastrophe in the 75th DMA and other-sized local markets. They acknowledge that some of these points seem like just common sense, but they stress the importance of learning them before the story happens.
  • Have a breaking news plan that clearly lays out the basics of major breaking news coverage but leaves plenty of flexibility for varying circumstances. Make sure the plan includes your website(s) and social media channels.
  • Have weekly meetings to reinforce the elements of your breaking news plan.
  • Conduct occasional drills on how the newsroom should respond in the event of major breaking news.
  • When a breaking news story happens, quickly prepare and circulate a spreadsheet that includes information on crews’ locations, IFB frequencies, etc.
  • Have a phone list of all newsroom employees readily and easily accessible to everyone on your staff.
  • Pause for a moment when you get new video into the newsroom, so you can make the most responsible decision possible regarding how/whether to use it.
  • When it comes to social media and scanner traffic, separate the wheat from the chaff. Do not report anything until it is confirmed, even if that means your station isn’t the first to go on the air with it.
  • Don’t throw your entire staff into covering the story immediately. Keep some anchors, reporters and photojournalists in reserve so they’ll be fresh for the next set of newscasts and breaking news cut-ins.
  • Have a plan for handling requests for video, talk-backs or other interviews from the countless out-of-town news organizations that will call you asking to help them cover the story.
  • Talk to your staff to make sure they are coping with the tragedy. If they’re not, take extra time to talk through their emotions. As much as possible, make sure your staff members get their regular days off so they have time to decompress before jumping back into the coverage.
  • Distribute your company’s Employee Assistance Program information right away, or physically bring in counselors, to ensure your staff has people other than just you with whom to discuss their feelings.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out to other departments at your station to ask for help answering phones or performing clerical tasks.
Finally, as Maulden has done with his reporters, producers and other newsroom staff regarding countless stories, whether they be major breaking news or not, drill into everyone on your staff that they have to ask the question, “How do you know what you know?”

RTDNA Executive Director Dan Shelley is a former news director of KTTS-FM and worked for 15 years in the Springfield, Mo., DMA.