When Jack Jason's deaf parents were visiting him in Los Angeles last week, as racial warfare was breaking out on the streets of the city, he noticed that they were staring blankly at the maelstrom of fires and assaults on the TV screen without a full sense of what was happening.
Jason wondered how many of the estimated 641,000 deaf and hearing-impaired people throughout Los Angeles County were in a similar quandry, faced with civil violence in their own back yard with no idea of whether their safety was at risk, or, if it was, what actions they should take.
Of the seven major commercial TV stations in Los Angeles, only KABC-TV Channel 7 provided comprehensive closed-captioned news coverage of the Los Angeles riots.
"There was so much information to communicate--instructions relating to the curfew, which sections of the city were safe, schools and stores that were closing down," said Jason, who runs deaf actress Marlee Matlin's production company. "And all you were seeing if you were watching the news was pictures of fires."
KABC, KCBS-TV Channel 2, KNBC-TV Channel 4 and KTLA Channel 5 regularly close-caption their evening newscasts, enabling viewers who have purchased a special decoding device to see any scripted text printed on the screen. But, whenever there is an unscripted live or remote shot, such as the vast majority of the unfolding coverage of the Los Angeles riots, deaf and hearing-impaired viewers are at a serious and sometimes dangerous loss.
At the very least during last week's crisis, advocates of the deaf community charged this week, local stations should have transmitted "open captions" containing vital emergency information for all to read.
"We need access to information so we can react as quickly as the hearing community can," said Sheri Farinha Mutti, chief administrative officer for the Greater Los Angeles Assn. on Deafness. "The problem we face, with the recent floods, for example, is that people need to evacuate during a time of crisis. If there's no information on the screen, closed-captioned or open, they're not going to know what area they're supposed to leave."
After the devastating Bay Area earthquake in 1989, legislation was enacted directing the state's Office of Emergency Services to investigate the feasibility of a closed-caption emergency information system and also encouraging the California broadcast industry to work with deaf and hearing-impaired advocates to install crisis procedures.
But, after nearly two years of developing a prototype, the Office of Emergency Services only last month presented its report to Gov. Pete Wilson, suggesting the statewide installation of a $500,000 "Emergency Digital Information System" to broadcast closed-captioned public information.
And of the Los Angeles TV stations, only KABC began close-captioning its 5 p.m. newscast in "real time," paid for by the National Captioning Institute and Vons Companies. With real-time closed captioning, a stenographer listens to the broadcast and manually types each word as it is spoken. An instant later, the words appear on screen.
During times of emergency, KABC foots the bill for real-time closed captioning. The cost is $375 an hour--a total of nearly $18,000 for the 50 hours of virtual nonstop coverage after the Rodney G. King trial verdict.
Raised by deaf parents and fluent in sign language, Jason called and complained to the station he was watching during the riots, KNBC-TV Channel 4, which was providing intermittent closed-captioned news coverage. KNBC explained that the news department didn't have the capability to close-caption breaking news, but asked Jason if he would like to come down to the station in Burbank and sign the news live to deaf viewers. He went there and waited several hours, he said, before finally being turned away.
"At first we tried to make it work by reducing the size of our picture and our graphics, but there was no way to fit (Jason) on the screen," said KNBC spokeswoman Regina Miyamoto. "Then we decided signing was not the way to go because only a small percentage of hearing-impaired people know how to sign. So we went with (on-screen) graphics that told people what areas to stay out of.
All the stations contacted for this story said their on-screen graphics contained information for deaf viewers. KNBC also broadcast closed-captioned wire stories and some station reporting.
"We were unprepared with everything that was happening," KTLA spokesman Ed Harrison said. "For the next emergency situation we will be prepared with contingency plans."