Thursday, May 12, 2005

No Surprise: Car Chase Killing Broadcast Live

In a press release on February 26, 2003, Mayor Jim Hahn, Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, the California Highway Patrol, the Los Angeles Police Chiefs’ Association and the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners ask the media to "stop live continuous television coverage of police pursuits" - more popularly known as "car chases." They noted that "the media’s treatment of pursuits as entertainment encourages copycats to engage in these highly dangerous chases."

More that 700 suspects fled L.A. law enforcement officers in 2002, making Los Angeles the "Car Chase Capital of the World."

The ultimate outcome of all of the car chases being televised was predictable. As crosstown television station NBC4 headlined the news, on May 11, 2005, "Officers shoot man on live TV at end of pursuit." After a 50-minute pursuit across the Los Angeles communities of Long Beach and the South Bay, it ended with the fatal shooting of the car's driver, as he ran out of the car with one gun, dropped it, and then went for another in his pocket. Rival KABC-TV had shown the sequence of events live on air, as they followed the events from TV helicopters.

A KABC-TV spokesman told the The Los Angeles Times, "Live breaking news is always unpredictable." The spokesman said no one knew shots were going to be fired and "the instant we did, we went to a wide shot.".

But why the surprise? How have some car crashes ended? With the crash of the car? With the injury or death of the drivers or bystanders? Yes, of course. What is the goal of showing car chases, over and over? And have the media acknowledged that the copycat effect is in full swing here, and that every car chase shown stimulates more to occur? This "kind of story...has become a staple of local newscasts," noted The Los Angeles Times.

Following the live coverage of the shooting, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton and Sheriff Lee Baca again urged TV stations to reduce their coverage of chases, arguing that the intense focus encourages criminals to flee from authorities.

Marty Kaplan, an associate dean at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, asked by the paper about the car chases said: "I think the motto, 'If it bleeds, it leads,' didn't just fall from the sky....It's well-known that mayhem attracts our attention…. Ever since the possibility of O.J. Simpson blowing his brains out while we all watched him in the Bronco, we have known the power of that stuff to get ratings."

I guess this is why the subtitle of my book is "How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines," and I include a section about "Death Sells."

Will this wake up the LA media? No, instead, the local California news today will be a platform for multiple repeats of this "dramatic" shooting, just as it has been on all the national morning news shows today.

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