Okay, Is It Time To End the Coverage of the Big Chase?

I’ve been puzzling over whether to post about the crash of the news choppers over Phoenix and my friend Jack Church helped sway me to speak up.  Folks, if you’re looking for a time to collectively pull the plug on coverage of car chases, now is the time.  For those not up to speed on this story, four people died when two news choppers collided over Phoenix while covering a car chase!!!!!!.  Granted, these four people were killed while covering things they are supposed to cover but at what point in time do you say it is time to “Stop the Madness”.   I can’t tell you the number of times I have turned on some cable news network and they break away to show live coverage of the law chasing some yahoo.  It’s not like this is some celebrity such as Paris or Brittney leading the law on a trip around the city.  These are usually some no-name idiots who fail to understand that in 99.99% of the chases, THE LAW WINS!!!!!!!.  Have these pinheads not figured out that you “can’t outrun a Motorola” and you sure as heck can’t outrun a chopper.  I know, I know, everyone likes to rubber neck at a traffic accident and these chases are wrecks waiting to happen.  But at what point in time do you say “Hey, this just ain’t worth it.  I don’t want to put our people at risk for something so stupid as a car chase.  Have we no better use for a million dollar chopper with the sooper-dooper zoomer ultra-stabilized camera than to follow a car-chase?”  Maybe they don’t have anything better to do with a chopper.  Maybe it’s either that or hover over the scene of a fire that was extinguished hours ago where the reporter had time to put together a piece on the ground, get it edited and then go get in the chopper for the live shot.  Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the need for a chopper at all.  Perhaps the time used to promote the chopper could be used instead to sell commercial time.   I think the chopper crash was something that was inevitable, especially in larger markets where everyone has a news helicopter and when everyone is in the air, it can be like a swarm of bees.  Yes, I know Air Traffic Control can help keep people separated but in any Visual Flight Rules or VFR environment, it is up to the pilot to maintain separation and to be aware of other traffic in the vicinity. The Bottom Line: It’s a tragedy that the crash happened and my heart goes out to the folks who were killed along with their surviving families.  While crews died doing their jobs, IMHO,  it was such a waste that they died in this manner chasing such a worthless story.  Chasing the car chases is right up there with having some reporter/videographer crew standing out in a hurricane for the live shot.  It will take somebody getting impaled by a flying 2×4 while standing out there for the “money-shot” or getting decapitated by a stop sign that was propelled by the hurricane force winds to get management to reconsider how they do the news in these situations.  Hey, how many IEDs and car bombs did it take to prompt news operations to scale back their crews in Iraq?  It all comes down to risk assessment and the question one has to ask himself (or herself):  Do you feel lucky or is this supposedly simple assignment going to be your last one?

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9 Comments on “Okay, Is It Time To End the Coverage of the Big Chase?”

  1. Jeff Says:

    Some Car chases are staged for profit also,How low can folks go.

    http://www.kansascity.com | 07/23/2007 | Car chase allegedly filmed for profit

  2. JD Says:

    I normally do not comment on blogs, but I feel so pasionate about this topic. I was the EP at a television station in Alabama several years ago when our chopper (rented, but used regularly during “sweeps”–and we weren’t even a metered market) crashed while flying back to the airport from our 6:00 live shot. The pilot and photographer were killed. It was the day before Thanksgiving. We were covering the predictable “the busiest travel day of the year” story. When the crowded interestate live shot was over, I told the pilot and photographer (who was not an employee of our station, he worked with the chopper pilot) over the 2-way radio to have a happy Thanksgiving. It was cloudy and cold (for Alabama). About an hour after I got home , our 10:00 producer called me in hysterics! The chopper crashed as it was landing just outside of Birmingham. Apparently the fog rolled in so quickly, they hit a tree. Suddenly, not only were we dealing with the loss of friends and colleaguers, but we were bombarded with calls from the media. Our station BECAME the news! Our management had to put together a statement, approved by attorneys of course, and that was the only comment made. That ranks up there with one of the lowest moments in my broadcast career. I thought to myself for many months after that, why did we have to do that live shot? Why do we need choppers at all? Trust me, in that market, there are few stories that would warrant chopper coverage. When I read the news about the Phoenix accident this weekend, it made me sick to my stomach.

  3. joelarkins Says:

    There are a handful of stories that I have seen where a newschopper made a huge difference in a story. One of those occurred in West Tennessee about eight years ago when a little boy wandered away from his home in Tipton County. It was cold, wet and overcast and the little boy had been gone all night. Both WMC and WREG had choppers in the air and one of the other stations might have had rented one as well. At the time, WMC’s chopper was outfitted with a stabilized camera (this was before NC3 had acquired the Red Chopper). It seems to me that the Search & Rescue chopper had just spotted the boy but had to leave to refuel. WMC’s chopper was broadcasting live and hovered over the little boy who had a couple of large dogs sticking with him. At NC3, we were watching AN5’s coverage and all we could see was the little boy NOT moving on the ground. Then, a cheer went up in our newsroom when the little boy looked up into the camera. We knew he was safe and while the News Director was pissed that we had gotten beaten by the so-called evil doers on Union (his words) I thought it was a great coup and the video and its timing was great. I consider it THE best use of a news chopper I’ve ever seen. A lot of this other stuff that newsrooms use helicopters for is usually “live for live” sake, a marketing and promotional tool and nothing more. It’s tragic when people die in news helicopter crashes. It’s utter nonsense when they die in pursuit of a non-story.

  4. BJV Says:

    I was lucky to have flown with probably the two safest helicopter pilots in the business. I trusted my life with them on a daily basis and they trusted me to watch their back. Be the second pair of eyes scanning the skies. We turned down assignments when it was unsafe and in my opinion never took chances. I left the news biz for several resons but one was I felt unsafe at times on the ground, and once (with a stand in pilot from another state) in the air. Management needs to listen to their crews both on the ground with metalic poles climbing into the air and in the air hovering above when they have reservations about an assignment. I have a friend that was killed in a helicopter accident. I also had the joy of flying in the back and assisting MPD Avation and the rescue teams on the ground as they rescued the boy. If the two men who I trusted my life with called today, I would fly with them in a heartbeat. Our only goal was coming home safely. If we got good images.. that was just a bonus. I grieve with the families and friends of those who were lost. Godspeed.

  5. Doug J. Says:

    I noticed or heard about several stations (including the Action folks) promoting stories today on how they keep their chopper crews safe. Apparently, the major markets claim to use on-board spotters in addition to their regular crews. I suppose those types of story were to be expected.

    I do remember one of our former news directors making the point he’d never use a semi-rigid helicopter (the kind with the blades attached to a mast several feet above the cabin), because they couldn’t auto-rotate to the ground in case of engine failure. Of course, that wouldn’t have made a difference in Arizona.

    I’ve only actually been in two helicopters, both on stories. In Savannah, the Coast Guard took crews up to shoot an oil spill over the Savannah River. I should have been a little bit more concerned than I was, hanging out of the door, shooting video, held in place by a harness. But I was a lot more daring (or stupid) 20 years ago. The second time was as a quick way to get a crew to Jonesboro after the school shootings there. No obvious risks, but I had to argue with the pilot to follow the highway, rather than his GPS, which was about to send us in the wrong direction.

    Anyway, while I haven’t found a police chase interesting since O.J., I know stations will continue to cover them, because it will allow them to help justify the cost of helicopters. As far as safety, it has to be the primary concern of the crew on board, just like with any other news endeavor.

    No one suggests getting rid of microwave trucks when an unlucky operator puts a mast into a power line. And no one suggests getting rid of news cars when one is involved in a traffic accident. I could be convinced to agree with outlawing doing standups beside busy road ways. I’ve had cars pass by a little too close going a little too fast for my taste.

    Anyway, I feel strongly that NO story is worth unnecessary risk. Working in a war zone is risky in itself, but many of those correspondents received special training and don’t look for trouble — but in a situation like that — it’s hard to stay safe, as we’ve seen. But domestically, keep your eyes open, protect yourself, avoid dumb mistakes — you’ll still get a story. The news director isn’t going to give you a medal — or even a raise — if you narrowly avert death for a great shot.

  6. Me and countless others in the biz have been predicting what unfortunately happened in Phoenix for years. When you’re the only bird up there it’s tough, when there are 2,3,4,5 it is impossible. Speaking as a helicopter pilot myself I can tell you the Phoenix chase was 100% predictable, and silly. Also, don’t get me wrong here, the guy on the ground running from cops is slime. I have no sympathy for those types also having been a cop as well in the past. However ….. charging this guy with the deaths of those chopper news crews, no way! I certainly can see if the police crews were killed as a result of their job, protecting the public, but this doesn’t extend to news choppers who used poor judgment. If the guy running from police is charged with that, then let’s charge the news directors who put those guys there in the first place! This may be an unpopular view, but any pilot will tell you this is pilot error, nothing more, nothing less.

    I never flew as a pilot in command when working back there for WMC or WREG (they didn’t have the chopper back then) but I remember when the previous news director would ask the WMC pilots to do some of the silliest things. To their credit, Miles & Jim many times said no acting as a pilot first and a new person second. I logged lots of hours in that WMC chopper when they first got it. Early on safety was always top consideration, later it kept getting questioned in pursuit of a story. I agree there is a place for news choppers, they provide a great service and Joe I was there that day “Little” Dwayne Johnson was found up in Tipton County. I was just about to pack up and leave when Miles and I think it was Blake Johnson spotted him. You are right, it was a good television moment. We did the same thing one night back in Dyer County by assisting the sheriff there in locating a missing hiker at night. They couldn’t get a state chopper. We were at the county fair doing a PR stop and flew out to help them, guy was located within an hour. That was when Gaylon Reasons was there and happened to be on board. He didn’t think twice about helping out. That’s another good example of good use, and obviously they had the exclusive!

    It is a terrible loss of four lives in Phoenix. But let’s shine a little light on news management that insists on putting these guys out there chasing these silly traffic pursuits.

  7. joelarkins Says:

    I was scrolling through Shoptalk ( http://www.tvspy.com ) this morning and ran across an interesting item about the chopper crash in Phoenix shared by Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute. It’s a good article and some excellent points were made. I’ve cut and pasted the two lines that caught my eye. Here they are:

    “While the tragedy is profoundly distressing, it is even more depressing to realize that the deaths of these men were as pointless as the story they were covering.

    Four good men lost their lives because unimaginative television news directors over the years have come to prize live video collected with expensive toys over stories characterized by greater subtlety and significance.”

    Well put IMHO.

  8. Ready Camera One, Take Two Says:

    So who will be the first one to stop doing it?
    It’s all well and good for everyone to say “it’s tragic”, “awful”, “shame on the NDs for such coverage”, but if the accident did not happen and if something significant came of the chase it would have been deemed “wonderful coverage”, “compelling television”, and as Peggy would say “confrontational”. It’s like the pass thrown in the big football game. If the receiver catches it, it was the greatest play ever. If he drops it, “what were they thinking!!”
    Trainwreck TV News lives on.
    Someone please reinvent 30 minutes of substance.

  9. joelarkins Says:

    Covering a car chase is the equivalent of self-gratification. Yah, it’s easy to do, it’s going to occupy some of your time and there will be some people who will get
    off on it and you get to say “look what we did” isn’t it great? But if you’ve got the time and money for that, why not invest that into something a little more meaningful.
    As to who will be the first to stop doing it:nobody. It’s like covering the murder of the day. It’s easy to do and not a lot of thought has to go into it. Plus it’s great for promotional value. Aren’t those the benchmarks of TV news?

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