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No-win coverage of hostage crises.

No decisions are more challenging for television news executives than those made during live coverage of hostage or terrorist situations. With lives at stake, there may be only a few seconds to decide whether or not to give air time to unpredictable, often crazy, hostage -takers.

Television stations and networks have had the technical capability to cover hostage incidents live for about 20 years. But despite much industry self-analysis and debate, the decision to cover such events has not gotten any easier. It's one that is always open to criticism and second-guessing.

The dilemma for news directors has been compounded by technological advancements that allow incidents to air worldwide and increased pressure to achieve higher audience shares. Whatever the news director decides, it's a no-win situation. One may be praised and another lambasted for airing the same live video.

One problem is that the presence of cameras during hostage and terrorist situations frequently exaggerates their news value. The recent siege of the Branch Davidian religious sect headquarters in Waco certainly was newsworthy, especially in its initial stages when government agents and sect members were killed. But it probably became a bigger story than warranted due to the numerous live reports broadcast daily by CNN and other networks.

Although technically not a hostage situation, the Waco event had all the elements of one. CNN's exclusive, live 20-minute interview with sect leader David Koresh on the second day of the standoff illustrated a typical predicament for news executives. The interview was a competitive coup. But CNN was criticized by some media observers and law enforcement officials for becoming a participant and giving up some control of its broadcast.

Until the mid-1970s, television coverage of most hostage incidents was on a delayed basis, usually during newscasts using filmed reports. Live video was rare. But the advent of microwave technology made it easier for stations to transmit live from miles away. In the winter of 1977, two widely different hostage situations showed how the decision-making process for coverage had changed.

In Washington, an unknown group took more than 100 hostages at three locations; for hours no one knew why. The Israeli prime minister was visiting President Carter and rumors abounded that foreign terrorists were involved. Local stations reported live and the networks aired special reports.

During the WTOP evening news show, the leader of the hostage-takers telephoned the station requesting to talk with anchor Max Robinson, whom he knew.

"I made the decision in about three seconds to let him go on live," recalls Jim Snyder, then WTOP's news director. "I knew Max could control the situation. Max asked precise questions and for the first time we learned what the hostage-takers wanted. After three minutes we ended the interview. I've never regretted putting him on the air. We helped calm the city and we were always in control."

The hostages were ultimately released, but a radio reporter was killed.

A few weeks earlier a hostage was taken in Indianapolis. There were no fatalities, but there was some controversy over how local stations handled their coverage. One station cut its broadcast because of the hostage-taker's foul language and the potential for violence. It may have done the right thing, but it lost its audience to the competition.

A man named Anthony Kiritsis kidnaped a real estate executive he believed had cheated him. Kiritsis wired a double-barrel shot-gun around his victim's neck, paraded him through the city and for three days threatened to blow the man's head off unless given time on television.

After lengthy discussions with the three local stations, the police arranged a late night news conference. All the stations went on live just before 11 p.m. Kiritsis, his shotgun still wired to the hostage, proceeded to scream obscenities, rambling on for nearly 10 minutes. The networks were transmitting the local stations' signals and some other affiliates were carrying it live.

WTHR cut local transmission after a few minutes.

"I was proud of that decision," says Bob Campbell, the WTHR reporter on the scene and now news director. "I can't even imagine the trauma of the public with this guy yelling and swearing and the distinct possibility he would pull the trigger and kill his hostage on live TV."

WISH broadcast Kiritsis' entire tirade. It almost cost Lee Giles his job.

"My general manager was out of town but he was ready to fire me and my anchorman for letting it go on so long," says Giles, now in his 25th year as news director. "As punishment I had to personally answer all the telephone calls and write personal letters to all those who complained.

"[But] this was the biggest story in the country and it was compelling drama," he adds. "Whenever a viewer called who had been watching WTHR, I asked what they did when WTHR dumped out. They all said, 'I switched to you.'"
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Title Annotation:when the press grants air time to hostage takers
Author:Prato, Lou
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Column
Date:May 1, 1993
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