April 23, 2014

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"Let's Be Careful Out There"

Something for all of us in news to remember when we're-sometimes literally-chasing big stories.
Every now and then, something happens which re-asks the question: "Is any story worth this?"  Something out of Columbus did just that recently.
 
If you watch TV news (on our station or any other), you occasionally see what has been called "the ambush interview" or "gotcha" journalism.  We've seen it on local news-especially in large cities-or on newsmagazine shows ranging from 60 Minutes to Dateline to Inside Edition.
 
Columbus TV reporter Steve Levine tried that recently, in what his station called an "attempted interview" with a woman for what his station said is a story about people stealing packages left on home porches.
 
The woman-who Levine apparently had successfully interviewed before-drove away in her car, running over Levine's leg, breaking it in three places, before speeding away. She was later arrested, according to the station.  Levine is expected to recover, and I wish him a speedy recovery.
 
The station's news account doesn't specifically say this, but my impression is that the woman knew Levine was pursuing her, and her intent was to get away-regardless of any consequences. (The station's story says she has a long criminal record.)
 
Again, this is my own conclusion-but we're in the month of November, which is a big month for TV stations, because it's one of the four months out of the year ratings are taken for local TV (rather than year-round, the norm for the broadcast networks).  A lot of advertising money, and increasingly, the survival of local television, depends on those rating numbers.
 
Was this a story, in spite of its community impact, done for ratings? Probably.
 
Regardless of its impact, should a reporter's health and well-being be put in jeopardy for the "get" interview?  I'm not talking about covering a war in some far-off country?  There's a lot of crime in large cities, but it's still not to the point where it's the same thing.
 
I learned a lesson the hard way a decade ago, when, while on the way to a story, the news car I was driving went off the road and struck a utility pole. (I admit I was trying to do two things at one time, something I never do well under any conditions.) The car was totalled, but I was OK-physically, anyway.
 
Our station's corporate parent, Gray Television, has told its newsrooms, "No story is worth putting your life in jeopardy". It's something to think about.
 
After all, had the car moved a matter of inches in another direction, Levine could have had more than a broken leg.
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