When white supremacist Buford O. Furrow Jr. opened fire
with a 9-millimeter Uzi at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles last Tuesday, the
major 24-hour cable news operations were there. They stayed with coverage as the police
pursued the suspect, who eventually surrendered the next day in Las Vegas.
In recent months, Cable News Network, MSNBC and Fox News
Channel -- and to a lesser degree, CNBC -- have become accustomed to reacting to this type
of story, thanks to a spate of school and workplace shootings across the U.S., including
last spring's massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Cable news organizations in many instances have come under
fire from media watchdogs for their coverage of these events. Given the wildly competitive
cable-news environment, networks tend to react to big, breaking stories in a knee-jerk
manner, said Deborah Potter, executive director of NewsLab, a Washington non-profit group
that consults to local TV stations.
"There is not much editorial decision making going on
at these places," said Potter, a former correspondent with CBS News and CNN.
"They just flip on the switch and slap the local coverage on the air. There is an
abdication of responsibility by national news networks to local coverage."
But Steve Capus, executive producer of The News with
Brian Williams on MSNBC, countered: "We're not just putting on somebody else's
programming. Viewers come and see what Brian Williams and NBC News come up with in these
stories. Affiliate coverage is supplemental."
Current technology provides an ability to go live which has
also diluted the level of traditional decision making in the newsroom, according to
Potter. "It's become pass-it-along journalism. It's like play-by-play for a sporting
Potter used the example of the L.A. shootings last week to
illustrate her point. She cited conflicting reports on the identity of the shooter, who
was pegged first as a teenager before he was eventually identified as an older,
"We always try to confirm facts independently,"
said Janet Alshouse, news director at Fox News Channel. "We either confirm or we
report the source. I think in most instances, news organizations go on the air with
Said Capus: "We have high standards in place, like
putting time delays in incoming video feeds. If that means waiting and being second or
third, I'll do that. My bosses never get upset about that."
At CNN, having multiple affiliates in many markets provides
a fail-safe, said Charlie Hoff, deputy managing editor, director of coverage for national
news. "We have 3-5 feeds coming in, which gives us options on video and
commentary," he said.
In the heat of a breaking story, it pays to be cautious,
Hoff added. "Hearsay is a real problem in news gathering. We continually caution our
people not to speculate."
Observers have questioned not just the quality of cable
coverage of recent major news stories, but also its quantity. The debate was perhaps most
heated after the fatal plane crash involving John F. Kennedy Jr.
"An incident happens, and the immediate reaction is to
go wall to wall," said Potter. Alshouse defended the blanket coverage: "As
events in Columbine were unfolding, we stayed with the event for good reason. The two
suspects were not in custody."
"Generally, the coverage is overdone, but it's
understandable," said David Weaver, professor of journalism at Indiana University in
Bloomington, Ind. "It's compelling and people are interested even if they say they're
sick of it. It's easy and cheap, attracts large audiences and is profitable."
Potter did give the media high marks for staying with the
legal aftermath of the recent shootings at a high school in Conyers, Ga., where it was
decided the shooter, a 15-year-old sophomore, will be tried as an adult.
"Within one story, there are always 20 or more story
lines. Much of our coverage has been devoted to helping America's children deal with these
events," said Capus. "We absolutely plead guilty to being the big story channel,
but there's nothing wrong with this."
Across the board, viewers seem to agree. According to MSNBC
research, primetime household ratings for MSNBC, CNN and FNC skyrocketed during the
Columbine coverage compared to the previous period, which focused on NATO's Kosovo bombing
Another concern expressed by Weaver and others is that
saturated coverage of these heinous crimes could incite copycat incidents. "The media
confers status on these people even, if it's negative," warned Weaver, pointing to a
recent Time magazine cover featuring the two Columbine shooters. Weaver suggested that a
more appropriate tack would have been to focus on the victims of the massacre.
"I tend to agree that people who do terrible things
should not be rewarded with a lot of media attention. The media should think hard about
who they're featuring," Weaver said.
"It weighs on our conscience, but there is huge
interest in these stories and we have to cover them," said Hoff. "I don't know
if we're emboldening people to act out or not."
Capus was more categorical. "In the end, it's turning
a flashlight on cockroaches."
If anything, Capus said, media coverage could incite
positive action. He points to the hope for new hate-crime legislation as a potential
positive outcome from last week's coverage of the L.A. incident. He also cited the fact
that authorities credited the media's role in the apprehension of Furrow.
So what's next for the 24-hour newshounds of cable TV?
Today could hold the answer, as Columbine High School students return to classes.