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Papparazzi versus mainstream press.

Although the furor over the media's role in Princess Diana's death has lessened in the last few weeks, the residue of concern lingers.

KMOV (Channel 4)'s news director, Steve Hammel sat down with SJR recently to discuss the differences between the tabloid press and mainstream media, the effects of tabloid television on local newscasts, and the decision to cover Diana's death and funeral so heavily.

Hammel has been Channel 4's news director for four years. He was news director at WHEC in Rochester, NY, for seven years before that.

SJR: Do you think that the death of Princess Diana received too much coverage?

Hammel: I think it received a ton of coverage and I think it bordered on too much. But given the world reaction, I did not think it was overboard.

SJR: But it bordered on overboard?

Hammel: It bordered on it. I think clearly it bordered on it. You pick up USA Today for days after her death and you have to go through four or five pages before you got to any other news. You watch the network news and you have to go through the first 10 minutes of the broadcast before you got to any other news. And it's not often networks send anchors on location but every network obviously chose to do that.

SJR: Do you think that was justified?

Hammel: Yes, I do.

SJR: Why?

Hammel: Because of the outpouring of reaction in England. I think it was justified because there was this inordinate amount of reaction in the United States to her death. And I have not seen recently that kind of a reaction for anyone dying.

SJR: Doesn't this story cut to the heart of whether professional journalists should be the gatekeepers of information? In other words, where do we draw the line between giving people anything they want to increase ratings or circulation and exercising more sober news judgments?

Hammel: I don't think a network news division sits around thinking about how a story will increase ratings. I don't think the journalists who sit around the table at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch say, "You know we better cover this story because circulation will go up." And I know in our newsroom, we don't sit around saying, "You know, if we cover this story our ratings will go up or, if we don't cover this story, our ratings will go down." We have morning and afternoon editorial meetings daily and I can't remember the last time we said, "We better cover this for ratings purposes." What we say is, "We better cover this because the public might need to know, the public might want to know." Or we say, "We're doing too much on this, we're doing too little on this." I don't think Newsweek or Time changed the covers of their magazines because they thought about circulation. I think they changed the covers because they recognized this was a huge story.

SJR: Do you think that journalists have allowed the mentality of the papparazzi to seep into the mainstream press?

Hammel: No. I believe that we're all citizens first and that, as citizens, we shouldn't be breaking the law. You shouldn't be trespassing to get a story, you shouldn't be speeding to get a story, you shouldn't be taking part in any illegal action to get a story. That said, we all want to get the story. But we want to get the story by being smart, not by being lawbreakers. We want to get the story by having good sources, by knowing who to call, where to go, where the important public figure might be, so that we can ask them the important question. And, I think we can be aggressive, but I think there is the fine line between being aggressive and of being rude and being a lawbreaker.

SJR: So you think there's a complete disconnect between mainstream media and what the papparazzi do?

Hammel: I don't think professional photojournalists were chasing Diana and those in the car. I think papparazzi were. And, in my mind, there is a large difference between the two.

SJR: Are you saying that you don't think there's any real lesson for the mainstream media to reflect on here?

Hammel: I think if a plumber in your home makes a mistake there's probably a lesson to be learned. I think it's a good reminder that journalists can be aggressive but better not be breaking the law and better not think that they're better than other people.

SJR: Do you think that the tabloid press, both print and electronic, has had any effect on the mainstream press? Do you think that what "Hard Copy" does has an affect on your newscast?

Hammel: Absolutely. I think the lines are blurred in the public's mind between what a local newscast is versus a national newscast versus a magazine show of the caliber of "60 Minutes" versus a tabloid show. And I think they do have an impact on us. While I am differentiating between paparazzi and photojournalists, I don't know if the public differentiates between them.

SJR: What could local television stations or local newspapers do to more sharply differentiate themselves from the National Enquirer or the TV tabloids? Is there anything that your station could be doing to make it more clearcut?

Hammel: Everyone has a different definition of taking the high road, but we think we pretty consistently take the high road. We have, for better or worse, been beaten on stories because we've taken the high road. But someone else within the media might not have that same concern. We happen to think that taking the high road, in the long run, will put us in good stead in differentiating ourselves. In the short run, I think that people think we're all the same.

SJR: We have a lot of media in this country owned by corporations that are not media centered. Westinghouse owns CBS, General Electric owns NBC. Your station just went from Viacom to Belo. Belo has a reputation for being journalistically excellent. Viacom had a reputation for being journalistically not so excellent. Do you think that the bottom line and the structure of the nonmedia companies have worked their way into the local news? In other words, how much influence does that parent company have over a period of time at your television station?

Hammel: Viacom has entities that are not news oriented. So they have more of an emphasis on the MTVs of the world. If your question is, "What impact does the parent company have on the local station?" I think it has a tremendous impact on the local station. I'm thrilled that it does because Belo not only has the reputation of being a good journalistic entity, it lives it, it breathes it on a daily basis. So, yes, the corporate principles impact us and I think they impact us in a positive way.

SJR: Let me go back to Princess Diana: Do you think those corporations who are basically not journalistic entities made the judgment to send Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings to London for Diana's funeral more for profits than the journalistic importance of the story?

Hammel: I'm not at the network level. My gut would tell me no, but I'm not there. I can't imagine the people in the boardrooms having the influence of that kind. I hope I'm not naive.

SJR: How would you like to see local news change? Where would you like to see more emphasis put? Would you like to have longer news programs? Would you like to have more street reporters?

Hammel: I wish there were a 29-hour-day, so there would be time to be as thoughtful as possible. That's not to say that news organizations aren't thoughtful, but with deadlines always coming up, there sometimes seems to be the race against the clock. And if I had a dollar for every time a reporter, a photographer, a writer, a producer said if I only had 10 more minutes. So I'm asking for the impossible. I'm asking for the day to be extended just a little bit. Beyond that I have no other lofty wish other than that.

Ed Bishop is editor of SJR.
COPYRIGHT 1997 SJR St. Louis Journalism Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:interview with television news director Steve Hammel
Author:Bishop, Ed
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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