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Are TV Chases a Pursuit of Justice or Ratings?

Times Staff Writer

In the 10 weeks since Los Angeles’ sheriff, police chief and mayor joined to demand that television stations stop airing live coverage of police pursuits, few have been televised.

But station chiefs say that it’s a coincidence and insist that their long-standing policy of measured, responsible coverage has not changed.

While it may be difficult to assess the results on the street of the recent demands by county Sheriff Lee Baca, Police Chief William J. Bratton and Mayor James K. Hahn, their unusual public crusade has generated discussion in broadcast and academic circles.

For Joe Domanick, a senior fellow at USC’s Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism, it’s a reasonable demand.

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“They’re not saying ‘don’t cover us critically.’ That’s a different way of trying to control the media,” Domanick said.

Balancing potential harm and the good that can be done with a broadcast is an ordinary feature of judging news, according to Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Director Assn.

For instance, the media regularly withhold the identities of victims of violent deaths so officials can notify relatives rather than risk having them learn of personal tragedy from television or newspapers. But if information is readily available elsewhere, the news organization has a right to report it, Cochran said.

Most heads of news organizations said the city’s request is not cause for concern because it does not try to force news directors to take any action, nor does it infringe on 1st Amendment rights.

“The city knows that it can’t prevent stations from covering it. That’s why it was put in the form of a request,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

KTLA-TV Channel 5 News Director Jeff Wald said his station, which is owned by the Tribune Co., which also owns the Los Angeles Times, has been judicious in its coverage of pursuits. The decision to air a chase depends on many factors, such as whether they occur during regular news broadcasts.

A spokeswoman for the Spanish-language news station KMEX-TV Channel 34 said it is the station’s policy not to cover car chases unless they occur under extraordinary circumstances.

According to the California Highway Patrol, of the 5,895 pursuits statewide in 2001, 1,258 resulted in crashes and 27 people were killed.

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Coverage of chases, which has become a staple of Southern California news broadcasts, is dangerous and incites suspects to flee, Hahn said. The mayor said broadcasts offer an incentive to “careless individuals who want their 15 minutes of fame.”

News executives said they have seen no evidence of such a connection. Bob Meyers, president of the National Press Foundation, said he sees no link between the television coverage of police pursuits and the number of car chases in the city.

“I have a hard time believing that someone is going to run from the cops because they think they’re going to get on television,” he said. “It’s like saying the cops are going to chase people because they think they’re going to be on television.”

Crys Quimby, president of the Radio and Television News Assn. of Southern California, said coverage actually serves as a crime deterrent.

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“The ending seems to be 99 times out of 100, 999 times out of 1,000 -- almost every time -- the suspect is caught,” she said.

That sort of coverage, Quimby said, sends an important message to anyone who may consider taking flight: “Don’t try to run from the police because they will catch you.”

Sgt. John Pasquariello, LAPD spokesman, said harm could be avoided if local television news stations aired taped footage later, or if only a few minutes of the chases were televised. He said there have been incidents in which viewers have attempted to interfere with a suspect’s arrest. Pasquariello said he could cite no cases of injuries caused by police chase coverage.

Rick Caruso, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, noted that LAPD officers were instructed earlier this year to no longer initiate chases for minor traffic infractions, a decision that is projected to cut pursuits by 60%. The media should also help to reduce danger from chases, he said.

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“We are not trying to quell 1st Amendment rights,” Caruso said. “But why not work with us? ... At least give it a test. A six-month blackout period.”

LAPD Assistant Chief George Gascon said local television news outlets appear not to be exercising any restraint or responsibility.

“They are continuing to show them,” Gascon said. “And it does not appear that they are taking any steps to mitigate the impact of the coverage by at least informing the public to the negative consequences of the chases.”

Gascon added that tremendous costs to the community are associated with the pursuits.

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“It downplays the importance of the loss of life and serious injury and property loss as a result of the collisions that result from the pursuits,” Gascon said. “The television stations in their pursuit of ratings treat this very serious event as entertainment.”

Pasquariello said that, with the exception of a few televised chases -- like the footage of O.J. Simpson fleeing from police in a white Bronco -- pursuits are merely rating-boosters with little or no news value.

“A police pursuit going on for hours is not news,” he said. “There are murders in this city, heinous crimes that don’t get that coverage.”

Quimby disagreed.

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When a suspect flees from law enforcement, that is news, and it is the media’s responsibility to cover it, she said. Following a chase to the end is essential, Quimby said, adding that chases regularly receive high ratings, and news directors are the executives who must balance viewers’ interest and news value.

Quimby said local news directors are open to discuss any media coverage that could risk public safety, but said she does not feel the request is justified.

“There is a willingness to address concerns and see if there are any legitimate concerns,” she said. “At this point, I have not heard any legitimate concerns.”

Los Angeles is the only city where public officials have made such a request, Cochran said.

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“I think Los Angeles is in a class by itself because you don’t have as much coverage of car chases in other cities as you do in Los Angeles,” she said.


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