Lives are more important than ratings

Journalists often exaggerate or marginalize the facts of a story to make it more interesting; there’s no use denying it. Coverage of the Columbine High School shooting near Denver by KUSA, the Littleton, Colo., National Broadcasting Co. affiliate went beyond the boundaries of respectable journalism — beyond even the boundaries of sensationalism — by endangering several of the students hiding in the school. By exposing the location of the students on the air, sensationalism endangered lives.
Immediately after television coverage began, several students called the police or the station using their cell phones. KUSA’s egregious decision was to broadcast conversations between the anchors and the students, as the students revealed specific locations where they were hiding.
The first student spoke with reporters for several minutes, during which time he revealed the exact details of his hiding place. The anchors barely discouraged the student as he stated that he was on the second floor in a classroom above the cafeteria. He said he could hear students in the cafeteria scream, and he could hear the suspects running down the hall outside of his classroom. As explosions and gunshots continued, he revealed he was hiding behind the desk near the windows. KUSA didn’t understand the danger, and the anchors continued to speak with the student.
The second student called from his cell phone as he was hiding in a bush outside the science classrooms. Another student called from his house after he had escaped and told the reporters, and the audience, his friends were hiding in the choir room.
The students called the station because KUSA is NBC’s local affiliate. While KUSA’s coverage was broadcast on CNN, it was broadcast locally as well. All of the students who had phoned the station had the unique experience of hearing themselves on classroom televisions. Apparently these students were not aware that the station was not concerned enough to care that the suspects could just have easily seen the broadcast. With KUSA’s assistance, more students might have been found and killed.
KUSA had several options to avoid endangering the students. The station could have chosen not to broadcast the conversations and instead assisted the students in their quest for safety. If the desire for sensationalism was so great, the station could have still protected the students by forbidding the students from making statements that would have endangered themselves and others. A simple time delay of a couple seconds could have ensured live voices from the scene were still heard, but nothing too revealing was put on the air.
As the events progressed, KUSA realized its mistake, advising students not to call the station and to turn off the televisions. But this was after several conversations had already been broadcast, and it contradicted previous encouragements of students to call.
Even outside the school building, KUSA acted irresponsibly. Shortly after the story came on the air, the station’s helicopter began a live broadcast of the high school campus. As the camera panned across the school, a SWAT team running in the shadow of a fire truck came into view. The team needed to enter the building clandestinely, but was instead exposed to anyone in the country who happened to be tuned to CNN. The camera immediately panned over to the parking lot where officials were amassed, and the anchors changed the subject.
While KUSA’s actions were dangerously negligent, they can be partially understood. When Fox’s “World’s Most Dangerous Police Chases” becomes the standard for broadcast journalism, the competition for sensational, exciting broadcasts is keen. However, there is a line between sensational broadcasts and irresponsible broadcasts. KUSA crossed that line. Quick and sound judgement can prevent danger and the loss of lives. With any luck, the media might have learned from KUSA’s mistakes.

Dan Maruska is a Daily copy editor. He welcomes comments to [email protected]