Too Much Information?

March 13, 2013


TV 40 news personality Christine Chubbuck shot herself in a live broadcast this morning on a Channel 40 talk program. She was rushed to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where she remains in critical condition.

The most surreal thing about this July 15, 1974 newscast clip was that it had been written by Chubbuck herself.

The warning signs had all been there; three weeks prior to her demise, she had begun work on a feature programme about suicide. In the course of her research she had discovered the ideal type of bullet, and where to shoot it, courtesy of an officer in the sheriff’s department, which goes contrary to how things are portrayed in CSI-type series.

A definite red flag was flown when she told the night news editor that she had bought the weapon and joshed about using it live. He chided her, but that’s as far as it went. And we all know that when people joke about committing suicide, the chances are that they have been thinking about it.

Meanwhile, the station owner had ostensibly ordained that ‘blood and guts’ were to be the deigning factors of newsworthiness; and one of Chubbuck’s stories was indeed cut to be replaced by coverage of a shoot-out.

On the fateful morning, a videoclip of a shooting at  the Beef and Bottle Restaurant at the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport on U.S. 41 jammed, and Chubbuck attempted to be ad-libbing, as newscasters are wont to do when this sort of incident happens,

In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living colour, you are going to see another first; attempted suicide. The technical director faded to black; the camera operator Jean Reed assumed it was an elaborate wind-up.

On the morning of January 22, 1987, Robert Budd Dwyer, a politician from Pennsylvania who insisted until the end that he had been framed on charges of corruption and bribery, also committed suicide on air. It happened during a televised press conference at his office in Harrisburg, the state capital.

On that day, many schools had been closed because of a heavy snowfall; had this not been so, students who had regular access to news broadcasts during school hours would have seen it happen, just as they saw the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy and the Branch Davidian Siege in Waco, Texas.

All these incidents, and more, have been sued as “teaching materials” in media ethics classes. Indeed, Dwyer’s suicide is cited in a paper about the “ethno-methodological approach to the study of suicide”. In such instances, apparently, not even the most diligent of fingers on the Delay Button would have been able to abort the transmission.

“Severe human error”, however, was cited as the reason why yet another suicide was aired live on Fox News on Friday, September 28.

This happened during coverage of one of those popular (think O. J. Simpson) car chases that are aired live in an effort to skew viewership statistics, and not because they provide useful information.

At one point the suspect opened his vehicle door and leapt out of it, running down a dirt track, and seconds later pulled out a gun. The camera continued rolling, the death was caught live, and Smith,  the Fox News Channel anchor, Shepherd Smith  admitted they had “messed up”.

We all remember the atrocious hounding of Madeline McCann’s parents; how the press couldn’t get enough of “sexy-foxy-Knoxy”; how the press covered Joanna Yeates’ murder; and how some film directors sought to make a quick buck from elements from each story, or portraying separate ones in their celluloid entirety.

And let us not forget that the film Network ends with the narrator stating “This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”

The local media, which sometimes seems oblivious to events being played out on the world stage – at least, unless they can be perverted to serve ulterior motives – are also  sometimes all too ready to ride roughshod over good taste and people’s sensibilities. This tends to happen because they want to scoop other media… and they do not realise that the person involved in the incident there are covering could have been themselves, or someone they love.

Live television shows us how some card-carrying journalists are at their best when it comes to scooping their peers.  They forget the rules about vulnerable persons; invasions of privacy; and no close-ups. They diligently research the person’s sexual orientation (Pan-sexual Company Director Guilty of Tax Evasion);  his political affiliations (Conservative MP arrested for sexual cimes);  and his family tree (singer Trisha Dawne’s son commits suicide), in no particular order.

They ask awkward questions, not in the hope of winkling out information hitherto undiscovered by those whose job it is to do so, but to entrench themselves as the oriflammes of incisive, investigative reporting. Some even create re-enactments of crime scenes that are pathetic excuses for spoon-feeding the viewing public what they want us to assume is the truth.

Sometimes, not even a five-minute delay would be sufficient to remove footage I find objectionable… we have seen clips that would be more suited to the crime being committed at the start of almost each Columbo episode, or Cold Case flashbacks.

The latest example of this pathetic ‘live coverage’ we have seen is the hunt for April Jones, who went missing after having been seen getting into the van of a man who has since been named.

Would the cameras have stopped rolling had April been found where the searchers were looking for her? I doubt it.

Meanwhile, journalist Kay Burley, fresh from the “cadaver search dog” gaffe, actually transmitted bad news about April to two of the searchers on rolling live news reportage.

Whether this was her usual ham-fisted coverage, or a calculated stratagem for viewers to catch the reaction of the volunteers, is anybody’s guess.

Is this what makes television “good” and “actual”? Most of the people responsible for giving us this tripe would reply… Whatever!  But it’s what the people want.  


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