In dealing with a tragedy, television faces a difficult question: What needs to be shown, and what, in the interest of taste, should not be shown?
Usually, graphic footage is not available, but Hank Gathers' collapse Sunday night happened right in front of television cameras. ESPN had the most complete footage, and the cable network showed all of it, including shots of the athlete convulsing on the floor.
"The feeling here was that besides being newsworthy, the vivid portrayal might make people more aware that something like this can happen," ESPN spokesman Chris LaPlaca said. "Anyone who sees this isn't going to forget it, and that's not all a bad thing."
ESPN did have sportscaster Chris Berman open by warning viewers who might be squeamish to turn away. "We didn't just show the footage just to show it," LaPlaca said. "This was a major story which we backed up with 12 minutes of interviews and reports."
KCBS, KNBC and KTLA all had camera crews at the game, whereas Channel 7 had to rely on the ESPN footage. But Channel 7's version was edited.
KNBC used some of its own footage mixed in with some of ESPN's.
"You have to report the facts but you don't want to exploit anything," KNBC sports producer Sol Steinberg said. "Our position was, we'd show it once and only once."
Actually, all the Los Angeles stations showed proper restraint. The ESPN footage was there for any TV outlet to use in its entirety. None did.
And all scrapped any offbeat or light features. It was a night when anything like that would have been inappropriate.
One thing that was out of line was Channel 2's showing of a woman identified as Gathers' mother in hysterics while attempting to use the telephone at Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital.
Two things were wrong with that. First, the woman, wearing a Loyola Marymount sweat shirt, is actually teammate Bo Kimble's aunt, according to school authorities. And second, such a shot comes across as an invasion of privacy, no matter who it is.
KCBS news director Michael Singer said: "If we misidentified the person, then that's a mistake. But I think running the piece was OK. The grief and distress people felt was part of the story."
Channel 2's Keith Olbermann deserves credit for going out to the Loyola Marymount campus to do a live report. It turned out to be a long day for the sportscaster who at times has been criticized for not getting out enough.
Olbermann, who doesn't drive, was out at the Coliseum Sunday morning for the start and finish of the Los Angeles Marathon, and he could have sent Tony Hernandez to Loyola. But Olbermann took on the tougher assignment and let Hernandez handle the studio work.
This was a very difficult story for the local sportscasters. They all knew Gathers well. He had plans to someday join their profession, and got to know all the professionals.
Gathers served an internship at Channel 5 and spent time at most of the other stations in town. Gathers was more than just another star athlete. He was also a friend.
At Channel 4, Brett Lewis was filling in for Fred Roggin, who was on assignment for NBC. Lewis handled the story with a proper mix of professionalism and emotion, as did, for the most part, Olbermann, Channel 5's Ed Arnold, and Channel 7's Jim Hill.
Channel 4 showed an interview Lewis did with Gathers, or rather Gathers with Lewis, during last summer's sportscasters' camp at Loyola. When Gathers asks Lewis for a comment, Lewis says, "I don't talk to the media," and walks off. Gathers laughs wholeheartedly.
Channel 2 had maybe the most powerful piece--an interview with Gathers only last Friday in which he said: "I feel great. I'm in the best shape of my life. My mom's out here, and I'm looking forward to some good home cooking."