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Hometown war pools.

While some news media were fighting the restrictions on pool coverage of the war in the Persian Gulf, others were voluntarily creating their own pools back on the home front.

Milwaukee was one of at least five TV markets where stations established pool coverage of families reacting to military casualties in the war.

"We wanted to balance being humane to the families ... with doing what we thought was journalistically correct, which was to contact them and give them a chance to speak if they want it," says Fred D'Ambrosi, news director of WISN-TV (ABC), which was part of a four-TV station pool in the nation's 28th largest market.

D'Ambrosi says discussion of pools came up as part of the station's general planning for war coverage. "We weren't going to badger (families) or do anything that would be perceived as insensitive," he says, adding, though, that WISN "felt an obligation to do the story about local casualties."

He called his counterpart at WTMJ-TV with the pool idea, and found that Channel 4 News Director Tom Luljak was thinking the same thing.

"Our fear was that this could be a very bloody war and that a lot of people in our area could lose loved ones," Luljak says.

Under the agreement, when word came that someone from the area was listed as killed, missing in action, or a prisoner of war, one station contacted the family and, if it got an interview, shared the tape with the others. Rotation of pool assignments was based on the station's channel number. Channel 4 (WTMJ-TV) got the first assignment, followed by Channel 6 (WITI-TV), then Channel 12 (WISN-TV), then Channel 18 (WVTV-TV).

The pool reporter would not be shown onscreen nor would any "mike flags" with station logos. All video, including family photos, were made available to pool members, as well as information gathered off camera. The audio portion was made available to the radio counterparts of those TV stations. No other stations in the pool were to attempt to interview the family until after the funeral, unless family members sought out media coverage. Friends, neighbors, schoolmates and others outside the immediate family were fair game for interviews by all members of the pool.

Pool video could be distributed by pool stations to their networks, affiliates in the same state, and other stations owned by the same company as a pool station. However, the rules specifically prohibited distribution of pool video to so-called "infotainment" shows without prior notification of families.

"It's a good idea," says a spokesman for Alex Molnar, co-chair of the Military Families Support Network, which was set up to provide information and moral support to people with loved ones in the Gulf. Molnar, a Milwaukee native, had a son in the Gulf.

"I don't think there's any information lost in the process," if only one reporter interviews a military family rather than several, Molnar says.

The impetus for the pool arrangement may have been the death of Scott Schroeder. The 20-year-old Marine from suburban Wauwatosa was killed January 29th during the battle for Khafji, just south of the Kuwaiti border with Saudi Arabia. When his parents declined an interview request, local media went to Wauwatosa East High School, Scott's alma mater.

Members of a camera crew from Channel 12 were called "vultures" by some students as they entered the building to interview the principal. However, while a crew from Channel 4 was interviewing classmates on a sidewalk in front of the school, Scott's brother, Skip, 15, approached the reporter and asked to be interviewed. He told the reporter of his anger at the war and his brother's death, saying "I wish George Bush felt as bad as I feel now."

The media have often been criticized for their apparent insensitivity to families of those killed either in war, plane crashes, or homicides. However, reporters point out that there are many occasions, Scott Schroeder's for example, where families readily consent to an interview or even seek out the media to provide comment.

"My concern is that this (pool coverage) is taken as an admission that approaching families is bad," says WMTJ-TV reporter Jeff Fleming.

He's a crime reporter and says "it's not rare" that a family member willingly consents to an interview. "It happens enough that I'm obligated to make the effort" to get an interview, Fleming says.

He also says newspapers reporters often have been as persistent, if not more so than television reporters, in trying to get comments from the bereaved, but complains that "TV gets the bad rap."

Fleming's boss, Luljak, shared the concern that the pool might be an admission on the part of TV news that questioning survivors is insensitive.

"A lot of people do think that we're vultures, that we take particular glee in exploiting other people's tragedies to create good television. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"Anyone who has worked in a television newsroom knows the agony that reporters and producers go through when they have to make a call contacting the next of kin about a death," Luljak says.

"We don't have the stomach for what, unfortunately, is a part of our job (but) somehow we find that stomach."

Pool arrangements were also developed in Seattle, Denver, Cleveland, and Syracuse, New York.

Dan Cummings, news director of WJXT-TV, the ABC affiliate in Syracuse, says, "Any grieving family would not have to field eight or ten phone calls in one afternoon."

He says electronic media in Syracuse created pools before, for the funeral of a police officer, and a memorial service at Syracuse University for students killed aboard Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988.

In Denver, KUSA-TV news director Butch Montoya says their pool developed statewide, including stations in Colorado Springs and a Denver station's bureau in Grand Junction. In Denver, it included three network affiliates, an independent, and several radio stations.

What wasn't clear at the war's outset was the quality of pool reports in competitive markets. The Milwaukee agreement contained a clause allowing any member to leave the pool at any time.

"What's most important is to maintain the level of journalistic integrity that we have a reputation for," says WTMJ's Luljak. "If it ever becomes evident tha the journalistic quality. . . is no longer possible because of the pool, then we will walk away from the pool."

Even after the war's end, however, pools remained in place in four of the five markets. Station officials in each market reported the arrangement worked well. The pool arrangements in Syracuse was dropped because the only known casualty from the area had been reported prior to the pool arrangement.

Robert Mullins is a freelance writer based in the Milwaukee area.
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Title Annotation:local news media pull together to duck "vulture" image
Author:Mullins, Robert
Publication:The Quill
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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