Saturday, July 28, 2007

Ground those TV choppers

The senseless death of four helicopter newsmen in Phoenix underscores the stupidity and wastefulness of broadcasters who squander their precious resources on cheap chopper chases instead of more worthy pursuits.

This journalistically indefensible insanity must be stopped. If broadcasters won’t do it voluntarily, then the Federal Aviation Administration, acting on behalf of us innocents on the ground, ought to step in and do it for them.

As amply reported in all possible media, four television newsmen died Friday when their two helicopters collided in flight while providing breathless, live coverage of the inconsequential police pursuit of some schlemiel accused of running a traffic stop. After the copter crash, the police chief indicated he was thinking of charging the driver with murdering the newsmen, a bogus notion sure to be rejected by more competent legal authorities.

While the tragedy is profoundly distressing, it is even more depressing to realize that the deaths of these men were as pointless as the story they were covering.

Four good men lost their lives because unimaginative television news directors over the years have come to prize live video collected with expensive toys over stories characterized by greater subtlety and significance.

Because cheap mayhem, unfortunately, is widely available on demand in most metro markets, stories about journalistically inconsequential murders, fires and rapes dominate more than two-thirds of the coverage of the typical TV newscast. As reported here previously, you are about 50 times more likely to view a local TV news story about a murder than one about science, child care or pollution. You are roughly 20 times more likely to “Eyewitness” a fire than a report on education, discrimination or marriage.

Ever since the slow-mo aerial chase of O.J. Simpson and his white Bronco in 1994, news directors have dispatched their copter crews on costly missions to provide live footage of all manner of un-newsworthy traffic jams, fires and car chases.

How costly? Very.

Apart from the lives of the newsmen lost in helicopter crashes over the years, it costs no less than $1 million a year to operate a modest-sized news chopper carrying a crew of two, according calculations based on information published at Helinews.Com. That’s enough money to hire 10 to 15 journalists to develop real stories.

If this latest accident finally causes the industry to wise up and ground its extravagant fleet of noisy and air-polluting helicopters, then the grieving families of the Phoenix newsmen would have the modest comfort of knowing their loss wasn’t in vain.

26 Comments:

Blogger Chris said...

Couldn't agree more, although I do think there is a place for TV choppers in TV news (ie. reporting on commutes et al).

I hope this unfortunate event causes news directors to wake up.

2:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...stories about inconsequential murders, fires and rapes dominate more than two-thirds of the coverage of the typical TV newscast."

I'm sure those fires, rapes and murders weren't inconsequential to the victims of those crimes.

5:50 PM  
Blogger harrison said...

I would agree that some smaller markets could do without the choppers but not in large metro markets. First of all traffic is big news in places like LA and Houston and the choppers are useful for that type of coverage. I live in the Bay Area where the news market extends covers almost 200 miles. Choppers can get to the site of breaking news much quicker than driving, espcially if the freeways are congested. News choppers should be required to have a co-pilot on board whose only job is to watch for other choppers and to talk to such counterpart on other choppers in the case of breaking news. Here in the Bay Area choppers used mostly during morning and evening news coverage. You rarely see mid day or prime time break-in of prime time programming for a police chase.

7:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anna Nicole Smith. Hilton. Lohan. Chases. These are the stock in trade of today's tv news. Who was the media executive who said "I'm not in the entertainment business, I'm in the advertising business"? Chases=audience=something to sell. That's all there is to it. Don't look for a single substantive change.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

While the loss of the newsmen's lives is a tragedy, the Newsosaur is a dinosaur indeed if he thinks that news choppers are a waste. TV is a visual medium - the footage that choppers capture build the audience for TV news that is ready to listen to the subtle, wise stories that the Newsosaur wishes to substitute. Moreover, the ability to pay the cost of maintaining the helicopters is one of the last competitive advantages that TV news has over the Web.
The Newsosaur may be a wise man, but wise men and women would never be entrusted him to run a media company. Or would they?

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you could ground every TV news chopper tomorrow and the "news" would not suffer. No, we do not need to see pictures of traffic jams. But if we do, states such as Florida already have cameras on interstates and turnpikes. They show lots of cars. And as for Mark's comments about copters being the last competitive advantage over the Web, WRONG. The Web has pictures, too. Your only advantage is having skilled journalists covering issues local people care about, and presenting such stories in a visually interesting way. The if it bleeds it leads mentality that you speak of may have worked for a while, but your ratings are slipping, just as surely as the networks' evening newscasts. Brains, not blood and guts, will be your salvation.

10:07 AM  
Blogger stephenc said...

Television is most definitely a visual medium, Mark, but that fact won't make a car chase news.

I'm sorry the photographers and pilots in Phoenix lost their lives. But they weren't covering a news story.

Yes indeed, TV sells soap just the same way newspapers sell department store merchandise, groceries and new cars. It is a business. But it's also a franchise granted by the constitution to help maintain an informed electorate as well as preventing an authoritarian government. Helicopters as a rule don't further that mission. Reporters backed up by news management with a spine do.

When I worked as an assignment editor and then producer, a helicopter would have been great getting crews to and from stories in the outlying parts of our service area. But as Alan pointed out, given the choice of a helicopter or staff, I'd take the staff any day.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Terry Maguire said...

Well said. I am looking for a television station executive - if one exists - to step forward and say something like, "We have changed our use of helicopters. They will only be used when we believe that a story is of such importance to the lives of our viewers that it merits the additional risk of putting our people aloft. We will continue to use all our other reportorial capabilities to report the news." Management decisions to put people at such risk for no reason beyond entertainment and ratings are irresponsible and reprehensible.

10:23 AM  
Blogger HDS said...

The Newsosaur has a point but I think he's too late. Chases are easy ratings grabbers. Complicating that is the all to ease of assigning the chopper to fly around and cover stuff because they can get there quickly and because they can promote it.

However, all too often little thought is given to the dangers involved in formation flying (which is what they do), just as there is little thought given when a truck mast gets raised into a power line.

Someone on the desk is pushing to get the shot in, and shortcuts are made, unwittingly but sometimes haphazardly.

This is a terrible event, and until you have to go to the morgue and identify the bodies, you don't really know how challenging that can be. I had that task 21 years ago. Not only is it a day I will never forget, the faces of my dead colleagues will haunt me forever.

12:08 PM  
Anonymous Tom Johnson said...

No need to shut down the helicopters. Why not just apply some rational thinking and agree that one camera chopper is probably enough in most cases and pool the images. First one on the scene becomes everyone's source.

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Mike Nassour said...

Back when I was in south Texas TV news a thousand years ago, I remember the competition down the street blew its budget on a chopper and promoted it so heavily that they even did a 30 second intro around it.

The joke around the newsroom was that while we couldn't afford a chopper, we did have a little bass boat down on the river....and that we could christen it "Five-A-Float" and use it to chase drug runners, various illegals, and whatever on the Rio Grande (just five miles south of our studio).

Looking at the events over the past few days, that makes a lot more sense than chasing stop sign runners and such.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Jim Edwards said...

Spoken like a true scribe.

I was a helicopter photojournalist for 10 years here in Phoenix. I miss it, and would fly again in a heartbeat.

You sire, have no clue as to the benefit these men and women serve our community.

Beyond the car chases,..these men and women are looked up to by the community.
*They fly to schools and give great joy to kids.
*They are called upon by law enforcement to join in search and rescues.
*Their pulsating sound warns of danger in the area. Allowing you to take precautions to keep your family safe.
*When these images are broadcast it provides a service. Letting you know if the chase is headed your way,..or in the direction of a location where your loved one may be.
*The event the Phoenix choppers were covering was a man who had stolen two trucks at gunpoint, rammed a police cruiser and lead officers on a chase through Phoenix. Hardly a "stops sign run" you desribe.
For a self proclaimed journalist who wishes there was more coverage of important news you sure do take liberties with the truth.

Stick to selling yourself and musing on the poor state of the dieing newspaper world. Leave reality to the rest of us.

5:53 PM  
Blogger Lee said...

Thank you, Jim, for finally being a voice of reason. To those of you who want to ground choppers, you've obviously never worked in TV news. Don't pass judgement on something you couldn't hope to understand.

6:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While the incident in Phoenix is tragic as is evry accident that takes a life let's remember to not jump to the conclusion of grounding the choppers.
Cutback on useless fires/car wrecks and other less noteworthy coverage yes.

I can tell you that the helicopter crews in Oklahoma City have actually saved lives with their coverage and that is without arguement.

In an area prone to severe weather specfically tornadoes the crews at the CBS & NBC affiliates have covered countless severe storms without incident and provided accurate live-saving information in the process.

The helicopter gives an uniterrupted signal for almost a 100-mile ring around OKC, thus providing almost total market coverage for these storms.

Until people see the tornado on tv the are less likely to take warnings seriously. It is a fact.

Should safety be reviewed atall stations with helicopters? Yes absolutely, like anything with time policies get lax or forgotten.

But the ability to cover a story safely should be the focus here. Many crews have been injured or killed in microwave truck accidents too. I haven't heard the cries of park the trucks.

Proper training and policy should be the goal here in what should be considered nothing more than a accident.

We may never know if one chopper had a mechanical failure or misunderstood communication with the other pilot.

Could the money it takes to operate a chopper be spent in other ways? Sure, but you could also sign off in the overnight hours to conserve power too etc. etc.

We can toss this issue back and forth but the facts remain that helicopters are a valuable tool when used to cover the right event but that's the catch to every assignment as you walk out the door anyway, chances are you'd be in car wreck before your last chopper ride.

6:43 AM  
Anonymous Jim Walker said...

The concern of this blogger for the safety of those airborne is well-placed, however his solution is misguided. TV news helicopters are safe and play a critical role in covering fires, chases, and multiple events in our world today.

I do consider fires and chases to be "news," although I will agree with the author that sometimes they are wrongly emphasized over issues that have more meaning.

In large markets like Dallas (where I spent 10 years), it would be simply impossible to cover every breaking news story from the ground. The traffic will not allow you to get there in time. The police keep so far back you're not going to have a decent shot of the action.

Over the years, we've also seen numerous accidents involving live trucks. Would the author of this blog also move to ban them?

More restrictions on choppers is not solution either. I support good piloting, caution, communication, patience, and a bit of prayer from time-to-time.

Jim Walker
Main Anchor
KBTV 4 (NBC)
Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Wouldn't it be cheaper - and safer - for all the stations in a market to buy one chopper and pool the video? They could each provide their own voice over to differentiate themselves.

3:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Apart from the lives of the newsmen lost in helicopter crashes over the years..." and "If this latest accident..."

Exactly where are all these other news helicopter crashes? I don't ever seen to recall hearing of another one ever in the US. Get your facts before you generalize.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

Here is a list from Wikipedia of news aircraft crashes, including fatal ones.

4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lets see,16 fatalities over 30 years seems like a pretty good safety record...We lose that many in a "good" month on the streets of Baltimore.As far as pollution goes,you could fly a helicopter for a year on the amount of fuel Nancy Pelosi's jet uses in couple of hours...Gimme a break!

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sixteen fatalities in 30 years, plus countless near misses, emergency landings, and many non fatal injuries are the News Chopper records. Lets compare saftey records to other flight saftey records such are the fire and police choppers, or other work place safety records. By the way choppers are big polluters. Enough of these stupid car chase breaking news stories. No wonder local broadcast news is considered a joke by other media pros.

6:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Recently I just retired after 15 years as a pilot for an ABC affiliate and I have to laugh when the issue of pooling video comes up. The thing most people don't realize is 90% of the time that the helicopters are up, they are all covering separate stories in different areas of the county. In comparison, it is only occasionally they end up on the larger incidents together.

Although it is unfortunate of this accident, in comparison to accidents in other parts of this industry such as EMS or forestry, News helicopters have had a very good safety record. It just brings one accident like this to bring all the experts out of the woodwork. I love the idea about putting a "co-pilot" in the bird as a dedicated pair of eyes. As it is now, these helos are working at there max weight. I always found it more difficult to babysit a reporter in the bird then to just let the guy in the back seat do run the camera and report. One point is true, A pilot should know when he is taxed to the limit before he takes on the added burden of playing reporter.

11:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim Edwards said : "*Their pulsating sound warns of danger in the area. Allowing you to take precautions to keep your family safe. "

Jim, I hope you retired from flying to become a lobbyist, because this is one of the most hilarious spin's I've ever heard. A helicopter's "pulsating sound" doesn't warn of danger, it shakes the walls of my house when the pilots ignore height limitation. Exactly what "precautions" do you suggest I take to protect my family from being awoken in the middle of the night because a rowhouse caught fire 20 blocks away, or there was an accident on the highway that absolutely needs an helicopter hovering for an hour. I can't think of one time I've seen a helicopter news report that affected my life in any way by virtue of having the overhead view. I can think of numerous times I've had to postpone phone calls at work because the windows were shaking from the helicopters, or my child was awoken from sleep because some idiot news director didn't want to report on a story of any significance.

11:50 AM  
Blogger harrison said...

I think the bridge collapse in Minnesota shows why helicopters are useful for TV news. The choppers showed the perspective of the disaster that could not be captured from cameras on the ground

6:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On ABC News tonight, Charlie Gibson is in a helicopter over the bridge collapse. This is 24 hours after the bridge collapse, so the reason must only be to sex up the broadcast and get better ratings. So where is your criticism now of TV use of helicopters? Does it only apply to podunk TV operations out there in overflight lands, or does it apply equally to the big salaried network biggies operating out of New York?

4:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm guessing that half of you who have commented are not in Phoenix including the "newsosaur" who sits on his high throne typing on his very expensive computer about things that he knows nothing about. Looking on CNN or FOX or any other 24 hour news company does not make you an expert on the matter. Take a look at whats going on at the local level, the community has been torn because of this event, and all you can talk about is to shut down the thing that these four men had a passion for. Whats next? commercial airliners crash should we shut those down too? Ever since man discovered flight accidents have happened, yet we are still flying. Yes I agree that more safety measures should be put in place, which is difficult to do, because so many have been put in place.

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's the chases, not the choppers.

Everyone likes a good hunt - very amusing. So of course it pays to cover them.

But car chases endanger innocent bystanders - at least news pilots know what they're getting in to.

Police officers should not be chasing vehicles through city streets, it's too dangerous. A more responsible action would be to use the appropriate firearms to disable the driver as soon as they start to flee.

Few drivers would consider fleeing and those that still flee would have already made the calculation as to the worth of their life and accepted the consequences - so there would be no reason for the rest of us to get worked up about their death.

8:28 AM  

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