A teenage bank robber gets killed on-air, but each time it’s via recorded raw footage. This is Journalism 101 for a news producer: Do Not Air someone getting killed in your newscast. If you’re following a live situation and it looks tense, then you’re supposed to cut away. Thursday, February 10, marks a night where at least two North Carolina stations who do well in ratings failed the test.
I’ll walk you through the situation in a moment, but I believe it’s imperative to point out that by all accounts, the airing of this video didn’t elicit much feedback or backlash from the viewing audiences. A young black man, Devon Mitchell, was shown being gunned down during dinnertime in the Raleigh, NC, market, and just before bedtime in the Winston-Salem, NC, market. This makes me think about footage of the piles of bodies in Haiti after the earthquake last year, or the floating bodies in New Orléans following Hurricane Katrina. As a society, are we more desensitized to when blacks are killed? The decision was made early to stop showing bodies falling from the Twin Towers in NYC after the planes hit them. Yes, there were victims of varied ethnicities in these major disasters, but the one that had a higher mixture of races got quicker nationwide results in preventing the country from viewing such atrocities. Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head by a seemingly deranged man during a very public event. There’s been no video of the actual shootings released, to my knowledge. I, for one, am glad I didn’t see it, but I’m not naïve enough to believe at least some of it wasn’t captured in real-time by camera crews, cellphones, or surveillance video. So, more than likely, a concerted effort was made to not air the horrific video, if it exists. That’s fine, but that raises a question: are we placing a higher value on certain segments of society? Local television stations would probably get picketed for showing the congresswoman getting gunned down, or if they showed the elementary student at her event getting killed. They were victims of a senseless act, and they deserve some respect. Mitchell was at fault for his crime, but he and his family also deserved some respect. His family didn’t need to see their loved one’s death replayed like an 80-yard touchdown pass or a game-winning home run.
So, as you read through the accounts below of how two different stations aired the movie-style killing, be aware that I checked the comments sections on these stories on both station’s websites, and overwhelmingly, the attitude was that the robber deserved what he got. At the time of my reading the comments, no one mentioned the fact that Mitchell’s fatal shooting was broadcast. So, like Dr. Cornell West wrote, “Race Matters.”
WTVD-TV in the Raleigh-Durham market was following the hostage situation at a Wachovia bank in Cary,NC The bank robber, Devon Mitchell, who was 19 years old, came out of the bank holding a woman hostage after three hours. The video, shot from a helicopter, shows the suspect pushing the hostage away, and then law enforcement officials begin to shoot the suspect multiple times, killing him. The suspect did not have a gun, but he told the hostages and negotiators he was armed. Here’s a package ran by WTVD-TV about the shooting investigation.
WTVD went to a commercial break when the shooting and killing took place. That’s the correct move to make, but it is what happened next that’s reprehensible. The News & Observer, a Raleigh-based newspaper, reports that the station replayed the video on the air after the break. Yes, your jaw should drop. I don’t have any inside information from this station, so here’s what WTVD’s News Director, Rob Elmore, told the News & Observer about airing the raw video in his station’s 6 pm newscast.
“We had no intention of showing a man being shot, and certainly we didn’t want to do that, and we regret that we did.” Elmore goes on to tell the paper the station intended to stop the video right before the shooting, but that didn’t happen. You can find the full News and Observer article here.
If you can’t give the above station any excuse for showing the video after having a couple of minutes to reflect on the situation, then absolutely no excuse can be given for airing the raw video nearly FIVE HOURS after the fact. WXII-TV in Winston-Salem, NC, aired footage of the shooting that same night as the lead story of its 11 pm newscast. Full Disclosure: I worked two-and-a-half years for this station as the 11 pm producer, before I began teaching journalism full-time in January 2010.
I wasn’t even watching the news the night it happened. My wife and I DVR’d the NBC show “Outsourced,” and watched it the following night. Since it is Sweeps Month, the 11 pm news flows seamlessly from the preceding primetime show. This allowed my DVR to record the beginning of the newscast. My wife and I both sat in disbelief when we saw a man being shot to death. I actually rewound it to make sure I had correctly heard the anchor say the robber was dead. I was thinking that there’s no way they’d show this if he died. There was no reason for me to witness the atrocity for a second time because my news ears heard correctly the first time. This is upsetting to me because while most young children are asleep by 11 pm, with DVR, this very scene could play out over breakfast, lunch, or dinner with the family. That is unacceptable. Thankfully, my wife and I don’t watch our nighttime programming with our girls, but some viewers might. A conversation with my 4-year-old about a man being shot to death on TV is one I’d rather not have thrust upon me by my trusted news source.
The station aired the story as a VO (voice over = anchor reads the story while the video is playing) without disclosing to viewers that the video about to be aired was graphic in nature. The story ran 22 seconds, but the final seconds showing the suspect falling to the ground with quick bursts of smoke popping off of his body and off of the sidewalk were truly lasting images. You saw the bullets fly, and the body falling at about 24 seconds into the newscast. The entire story, including the show’s opening animation, was over in 29 seconds. Then it was on to the revolt in Egypt.
Once my wife and I finished discussing what we saw, we went online to see if there were more details about the story. Knowing WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC, has a great reputation for covering stories, I went to their site first. What I found was a news organization that truly lives up to its reputation. The station followed the event, but faded away from live coverage shortly before the shooting took place. This decision didn’t happen by accident, according the News and Observer. WRAL News Director Rick Gall told the newspaper they erred on the side of caution when the suspect walked out of the bank with a hostage.
“We intentionally cut away from the video so that we wouldn’t show something that ends badly. That’s not something we want to show on our newscast. We don’t want to show it live or show it on tape.”
A little more searching and I ran across the WTVD information saying that they had run the shooting in their 6 pm newscast.
The video was dark and grainy, and I hadn’t heard what time the shooting happened in WXII’s brief telling of it. I assumed the shooting took place just before the 11 pm newscast. The revelation that nearly FIVE HOURS had passed by and this video still aired got me to wanting to know what happened inside the walls of WXII that night.
I reached out to multiple sources within the station and found out that there was a breakdown in communication. No sources will be named except the news director. The raw video was sent to CNN Pathfire (Pathfire allows CNN affiliate stations to download video from other affiliates from all over the country) by one of the Raleigh-area stations. The raw shooting video was downloaded and ingested into WXII’s tapeless system shortly after it was sent out by CNN. CNN pulled the video down from the server later in the night, so no one could use it, but WXII had already downloaded the video. This is where the breakdown in communication seemingly occurred according to my sources: there was either no communication or a miscommunication between the show producer and the editors about pulling the raw shooting video from the newscast. Either way, that can’t happen when you’re dealing with content as sensitive as someone being shot to death on-air. WXII’s News Director, Barry Klaus, gave this statement on the airing of the video via email.
“As you may recall, we do not show graphic images at WXII unless there is a compelling editorial reason to do so, and then we proceed with a warning allowing viewers to make the decision to continue viewing or to turn away. I am sure you recall from your days here that we regularly reinforce the importance of not showing more than is necessary when graphic video is available. That said, the use of the bank robbery video on Thursday night was a mistake and the video was immediately removed from our system to prevent its use again. A brief, but critical, breakdown in internal communication allowed those images to be included in the video we aired. As for reaction from the community, we received one e-mail and no phone calls, but we did issue an apology the following evening for what we felt was exposing our viewers to unnecessarily graphic video.”
Airing that video didn’t seem to cause much backlash for either station, so I’m not sure what that says about our society as whole. You can fault the stations for airing the video, but there’s a much bigger issue here. There’s something wrong with our society when there’s little to no response when an unarmed robbery suspect gets gunned down on RECORDED TV. Since the incident was recorded, that makes showing the video all the more senseless. If you reversed the situation, and the suspect shot and killed an officer, would there have been more discretion placed on airing the video? Would the Raleigh stations have sent it raw? Would CNN have sent it out raw? This suspect, by all accounts, was a disturbed young black man. The assumption being made is that the 19-year-old wanted to be killed by the police officers. That is a fairly common situation known as “Death/Suicide by Cop.” I don’t know if race played a role in the various decision-making missteps, but it does make me wonder. If the young man were white, would his death be replayed on the local news? And if it were shown, would the backlash have been greater than what seemingly happened in this situation? The robbery suspect placed several people in danger, and I’m not letting him off the hook because he was in the wrong. But, no one deserves to have their death immortalized in HD, and the typical news viewer at home shouldn’t have those images stuck in their heads without their choosing. There’s a reason why we don’t air electrocutions and lethal injections on the news. I was in the news business for a number of years. I saw a lot of gruesome things that I couldn’t–and wouldn’t–show the public, but I thought I’d finished seeing those things, since I am no longer in the business and can’t watch raw footage from the news feeds.
I’m going to use this incident as a teachable moment for my students, so that at least one future producer will have this in the back of their minds if it’s ever presented to them in a real-world scenario. I hope they choose to shield their audience, but who knows? Maybe the times are changing, and this is just a precursor to what’s going to be acceptable news as we continue to push the boundaries of real and reality.
Share your thoughts. What’s more egregious: airing the recorded video of someone being killed on local news, or the lack of outrage from the audiences who saw the video?
I teach young black women at Bennett College who aspire to make their mark in the media world. I teach them the tools that will help them become strong journalists. We talk about writing clearly, reading to stay informed, interviewing techniques, reporting skills, and just being an all-around professional.
Professionalism seems straightforward, but when it comes to certain things it’s very subjective. My class and I talk about what looks are professional for black women seeking on-screen television jobs. I believe the types of clothing and how they fit is important, and the standards are generally the same for everyone. But when you talk about hair there is a different standard. Black women’s natural hair does not always conform to the set standard. The standard bearers are white women, and their hair is typically long, silky, and straight. Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair” takes a close look into the world of black women’s hair and their wish to mimic the standard bearers.
Black women tend to put harsh chemicals (perms) in their hair to straighten it from its naturally curly or kinky texture. They also wear expensive hair weaves or wigs to get the silky and straight look. Black women who decide to go natural call it “The Big Chop” because they usually have to cut a large part of their hair off to get rid of the damaged hair.
I don’t believe I or anyone else has the right to tell a woman how she should style her hair. I didn’t tell the students that they had to change their hair if they were wearing a natural look, but I did tell them most black women anchors and reporters shun natural hairstyles on the air.
I mentioned the story of Dorothy Reed, a television reporter who was suspended because she decided to wear cornrows on the air. You can find the 1981 articles from JET with a picture of Reed by clicking on the links before and after this sentence. She was later allowed to get back on the air without changing her hair.
Fast forward nearly 30 years later. One Florida reporter documented several black women including herself going through with ”The Big Chop.” Rochelle Ritchie, pictured here, is a reporter for WPTV-TV in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Ritchie was kind enough to share a little more background information about the story and herself through email. Here’s an excerpt of what she had to say below in blue.
“Making the decision to go natural was not an easy one, especially being a black female reporter. After graduating Western Kentucky University in 2004, I accepted an editor position at a local tv station in my home of Lexington, KY. I had sent out tons of resume tapes hoping to one day be a reporter. But I didn’t get one interview with my relaxed shoulder length hair. One day an anchor, black female, told me I needed to get extensions if I wanted to land a job. I got extensions and made a new tape with my new look and I started getting calls immediately. From there the belief that I needed extensions in order to be hired set in. I spent more money on my hair than anything. In six years I spent $9600, my student loans are $9500, so that should give you an idea of where my priorities were.
The story about going natural developed while I was having a conversation on the phone with a friend at work. My producer heard me saying, ” I am going natural, I am tired of wigs, weaves and relaxers.” She (producer) asked me what I meant by that and I showed her YouTube videos of black women who were on the journey of going natural. She was stunned and said, “Rochelle that would make a great story for sweeps.” I pitched the idea and with her support as well as our female anchor they allowed me to do it. My news director’s response was great. His only concern was just keeping up with the process of my story and hair. My general manager is a great guy and totally supported me as well.
The fear of getting a new job with my new look does not scare me because I believe my work and passion for this business will shine through.
I have had such an AMAZING response from the community. People of all genders and races have completely supported me with positive feedback. Of course if there were any negative emails my news director does not send those to me. But personally I haven’t gotten one email or Facebook comment that was negative. A matter of fact many of my white and Latino colleagues say I look more professional. I believe this as well. I feel I look more polished and sharp. I also feel like I think better without all that fake hair on my head! lol….
For my “black female reporter hopefuls” I say let your work show your ability to be a good, excuse me a great reporter. My story is a way for me to pave the way for black women’s hair to be acceptable not just in the professional world but on TV! I would say if you are natural. Keep it neat. And if you are worried about getting a job the fabulous thing is we can straighten our hair for the interview and go back to our beautiful curls when we leave.
Do I have any regrets? Yes I do. I regret denying my natural beauty. I regret falling into the belief that I needed to look a certain way to get into this business instead of believing in my ability as a reporter. I regret allowing someone to cover me up. But no more! This is me, Rochelle Ritchie a natural, professional and happy television reporter. And I feel more confident now than ever before and look forward to climbing the ladder of success with all my kinky curls.”
Ritchie’s story is one that couldn’t be told without having a supportive management team. I commend the bosses who took a moment to realize that their viewing audience wouldn’t turn away because their reporter’s hair changed. Or that their advertisers wouldn’t pull spots because this young black woman now is wearing her hair the way it naturally comes out of her head. In a story written on Richard Prince’s Journal-isms in October 2009 about this very topic…”spokesmen from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN told Journal-isms, there are no guidelines preventing black women from wearing their hair in natural styles.”
Maybe there aren’t any guidelines preventing natural hairstyles, but there is a culture in place that fosters the need for black women to look like their white counterparts. So many of them who may want to go natural continue to damage their hair and scalp, pay thousands of dollars for hair, and spend countless hours and money in hair salons.
Once those in power see that a black woman can write and report the same stories just as effectively when she has an afro or braids, the media world will have taken a huge step in the way of diversity. The push will have to come from black women who want to make the change. There are some black women wearing their natural hair in newsrooms around the country, but the numbers would be much higher if mainstream culture was more accepting of it, and that’s a shame. Those who want change will have to truly see if those “no guidelines preventing natural hair” really aren’t in place.
I also speak on this issue from a personal standpoint. I am a husband who has weathered the ups and downs of “The Big Chop” with my wife over the last year. She made the decision to cut her hair and get rid of the relaxer because she wanted to set a good example for our daughters. It was her decision to make, but she included me in the decision-making. I really never thought one way or another about what women were doing to their hair for the sake of societal beauty standards. I grew up in a house full of women and saw nearly every hairstyle imaginable, so I supported her transformation. But I have to admit that when she first cut off her below-the-shoulders hair to about 5 inches of shrunken ringlets, there was an adjustment period–for both of us. Her hobby is her hair now. There’s a big natural hair world on the internet, and she’s immersed in finding what products will work best for her hair. She has no regrets about her rediscovered curls and neither do I. Because when I hear my 4-year-old daughter say she loves her hair because it’s like Mommy’s, then I know she did the right thing.
Do you think it’s OK for black women to wear styles that showcase their natural texture while reporting the news?
Oprah Winfrey devotes three shows in her farewell season to discuss a little talked about issue: men being sexual abuse victims. It is an issue that sparked major headlines over the last few months.
Oprah’s show wouldn’t normally fall into the category of a news show for me, but I made the exception for a couple of reasons. First: a number of television stations around the country localized the story in their markets, like WTVD-TV in Raleigh-Durham, NC. Two: this story hits on a topic that is seldom told about men and especially men of color. Third: this topic is related to the recent lawsuits filed against Atlanta area mega-church pastor, Bishop Eddie Long for allegedly having sexual relationships with young men he ministered in his church. This topic was heavily covered by major media outlets when it broke because of Bishop Long’s global ministry.
The first show aired in this series featured Tyler Perry, a well-known media mogul, sharing his stories of being physically, sexually, and verbally abused as a child. Perry can’t contain his emotions as he talks about being abused and how it changed his life.
The Queen of Talk gathered 200 men who were victims of molestation and/or sexual abuse at some point during their lives for the second show. You can view the show on Oprah’s site by clicking on this link. The men shared stories about how their fathers, family friends, and spiritual leaders sexually abused them.
The third installment from Oprah brings back the same 200 men along with those who have shared in their pain, such as wives or mothers. This show focuses on how the abused men have continued to live with the damage caused by being molested.
I understand the inherit difficulties in covering these types of stories on the local news level. In order to tell an effective and compelling story you need to hear from the victims. You also must be aware of the allegation aspect of these stories, because every victim isn’t a victim. The stories are told too many times in the rapid-fire mode: “Teacher charged with sexually assaulting a student. Get shocked parents’ reaction.” And that’s about it. But, from watching the two Oprah episodes, I see there are many areas that need to be addressed. You can look at the short-term and long-term effects on the victims. The education side can include ways to identify predators, how to teach kids to always communicate what’s happening, and methods for parents to better help their victimized children.
Without having background knowledge of the Harper Studio story selection meeting, I can only speculate on this next part.
I find it highly inconceivable that the Bishop Eddie Long sexual allegation case as reported by CBS News below didn’t make its way into the discussion.
The mega-church pastor filed court papers recently denying the claims of the 4 young men who say he used his spiritual authority and lavish gifts to get them to have sex with him. Here’s one account from an alleged victim reported by WAGA-TV in Atlanta, Georgia.
I can only assume that Oprah and Tyler Perry felt they were speaking out against the alleged acts of Bishop Long based on the timing of the shows. It seems like this is Oprah’s way of speaking out against what Bishop Long is accused of without mentioning his case or name specifically. I would think that giving the accusers in the Bishop Long case, who’ve already spoken to the media a chance to speak out on her show could shake up the blind faith of those who support the bishop. That blind faith seems to foster an atmosphere in which victims don’t feel comfortable or safe telling their stories. Some of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church members said in interviews that they believe without a shadow of a doubt the pastor didn’t do anything wrong. This perpetuates the idea that certain people are above reproach. So this makes it harder for victims to speak out against their predators. CNN’s Don Lemon actually admitted to being a sexual abuse victim while interviewing young members of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church who were adamantly supporting Bishop Eddie Long.
A great pastor/teacher/coach/doctor/officer is capable of both great and horrendous acts. So, if Oprah would have allowed Bishop Long’s accusers to speak out then she could have helped combat one of the very things this series of shows says all the sexual assault victims face: fear of sharing their stories because of shame or some type of retribution.
I’m glad Oprah shined a light on this topic, but a brighter one could have made a bigger impact on her audience.
Why do you think Oprah left Bishop Eddie Long out of the discussion?
“Debt is slavery.” Those words hooked me into watching CNN’s latest installment of its Black in America series, “Almighty Debt.” This two-hour special focused on how finances and religion intertwine in the African-American community. Here’s a link to CNN’s “Black in America” website.
I commend CNN and Soledad O’Brien for tackling this subject. It would be easy to shoot down this show idea since countless Americans are dealing with financial issues. But, the special continues to point out that all the economic indicators show African-Americans suffer proportionately worse than the majority of the country in all the major financial categories. So, it was interesting to see the current and historical factors that have made such a perfect storm of financial instability in a large number of black households. You can find a one-on-one interview Soledad O’Brien gave to Essence magazine about the “Almighty Debt” special here.
“Almighty Debt” introduces you to a New Jersey pastor, Rev. Buster Soaries of the First Church of Lincoln Gardens. Rev. Soaries makes the comparison between debt and slavery. The reverend didn’t stop there. He also says, “Debt is a bigger problem than racism.” So his ministry instituted educational and debt relief programs to help his congregation unshackle themselves from their financial burdens.
The pastor and his mission to rid his congregation of debt is the focal point of the special. CNN illustrates this point through the financial stories of several of the church members. The 3 stories can be easily translated to many homes in America. If you click on the links below you’ll see a short synopsis of each story from CNN.
Noted economist and Bennett College President Julianne Malveaux, Ph.D., made a profound statement about having a middle class job and actually being middle class. ”You can be middle class by income, but not by wealth. So, if you’re laid off and you’ve got a little wealth then maybe you can make it a year or two.” says Dr. Malveaux. But, she goes on to say, if you’re middle class by income, ”lose your job and you’ve got a mortgage to pay, you’ve got about a month’s worth of saving, you’re in trouble and that’s the difference.” It should be noted I teach at Bennett College, where Dr. Malveaux serves as the President.
The outcome for each subject wasn’t a fairytale ending. The pastor admits his frustrations that his congregation isn’t completely buying into living a debt-free life. But Rev. Soaries wants to take the program he’s started to other churches around the country.
You never know what portions of a story have been aided along because a highly recognizable camera crew is following people around, but in this case most of the stories seemed to be very plausible. There was extra effort given to get the young man into college, but that’s something that happens for a lot of students during the admissions process.
The packaging of the story was well told. I felt like the panel discussion at the end of the story was rushed and not well put together. One of the panelists, Pastor T.D. Jakes, didn’t really need to be there unless he was going to offer a counterpoint to the way Rev. Soaries helps his congregation. The panel segment tried to analyze situations within the packaged story, but also bring out other topics. There wasn’t adequate time given to cover the final issues.
This is a topic local news outlets around the country should also include in their morning meetings. Even if it’s not billed as Black in (your city), addressing the fact that the minorities in your market are possibly suffering at larger a rate than the majority is newsworthy. It would be worth looking into the many ways people are learning to cope with even less during these rough economic times.
If you didn’t watch “Almighty Debt” on CNN you can find it broken down in segments on the website You Tube. The quality isn’t great, but it is viewable.
Does the media have an obligation to do more stories on a particular community when that community is adversely affected more than the general population by an issue?
ABC News’ Linsey Davis and Jessica Hopper placed a widely discussed topic in the African-American community into the forefront of the country earlier this week. They highlighted a new Sesame Street video, “I Love My Hair.” Click here for the story aired on ABC’s World News Tonight.
The video showcases a little brown-skinned muppet singing about her love for her hair, and all the different ways she can wear it.
A producer for Sesame Street came up with the song and idea after his adopted daughter, who’s from Africa, complained about wanting straight hair. The producer, who is white, wanted to show his daughter and others like her that they should love and accept their hair. Click here for an extended interview from CNN’s American Morning with the Sesame Street producer, Joseph Mazzarino.
I believe this is a great topic as a father of two beautiful little girls and I’m glad Sesame Street signed off on the project. But it does raise a bigger issue about diversity and a lack thereof in the media world. Black girls and women have been shown examples of beauty from their dolls, tv shows, and movies for years. Those images typically lack any representation of the African-American community, and when they do the women will reflect the majorities standard of beauty: long, silky, straight hair.
This character shows a need for more characters on television shows for kids, teens, and adults to represent the multifaceted layers of beauty within the African-American community. You also need to see it more in front of the television camera on your nightly local, cable, and national newscasts. So, you need more decision makers to sign off on the idea and more producers and directors to encourage the various looks.
After looking through Sesame Street’s website I see this isn’t their first time to bring out a brown muppet to teach a lesson. They have Kingston III who talks about individuality. He sings about fighting the stereotype that he needs to act, dance, or dress a certain way to fit in with others. Click here to see videos of Kingston III.
Kudos to Sesame Street. I would just like to see these characters become more constant figures within the episodes. It would also be great if my little curly-haired princesses could see some more girls and women who look like them on TV, so that they truly understand mommy and daddy aren’t the only ones who think they are beautiful.