In Houston on Wednesday, television stations were covering what has become a familiar scene: Police chasing a vehicle through the streets. Since the days of O.J. Simpson's white Bronco and before, the ability of large-market stations to put helicopters in the air and follow along has made the images commonplace. Viewers have become accustomed to seeing police use "stop sticks" to deflate a car's tires, use police cars to bump into suspect vehicles to put them in a spin to stop them, suspects jumping out of cars to run away, and police wrestling suspects to the ground to handcuff them and take them into custody.
What was different in Houston was the end of the chase. This time, the suspect did not surrender. After striking another car and coming to a stop, the suspect got out of his car, and when he appeared to reach for something in the car, he was fatally shot by police, and the shooting was broadcast live.
The last sequence of events happened quickly. KTRK-TV reports it was only a matter of seconds between the time the suspect jumped out of the car and when shots were fired, which gave producers in the control rooms of Houston's TV stations little time to make a decision.
Instances of fatal shootings on live television are rare but not unheard of. Several years ago in Los Angeles, a man took his own life with a gun while live cameras captured the scene. Bob Long was managing editor at KNBC-TV at the time. When the man set his car on fire and picked up a shotgun, it became clear what would probably happen next, and Long ordered the helicopter's camera operator to pull back to a very wide shot.
Long is well known for his opposition to carrying car chases live, saying the spectacle does nothing for a station's ratings, offers no public service and disrupts viewers from seeing other important news of the day. He says he'd prefer that stations didn't broadcast chases, but if they do, he recommends empowering every producer to pull back wide or cut away to an anchor when guns are raised.
"If you've been in the news business for any length of time, you know how it's going to end," Long said. "If you go wide, you reduce the chance of showing viewers a terrible situation. Or better still, if you cut back to the anchor, you can still record what the helicopters is seeing offline, and allow senior news managers the chance to edit any video before it's broadcast."
RTDNA offers guidelines to aid stations faced with these kinds of situations. It's important to consider them ahead of time and establish agreement on a plan every member of the team can follow on short notice. During breaking news situations, anyone from the news director or executive producer, to a line producer working alone on an early morning or a weekend might have to make the call.
Live coverage: http://www.rtdna.org/content/live_coverage
Shootings/hostage situations: http://www.rtdna.org/content/shooting_hostage_situation
Covering law enforcement: http://www.rtdna.org/content/covering_law_enforcement
Does your station have a policy for live coverage of police actions in which there is a possibility shooting may occur? Let us know in the comments below.