Did Reporters Endanger Hostage's Life? p.18

By: David Noack Press critics charge that a Florida newspaper and radio station acted improperly
when they called a hostage-holding killer for a live interview

When they called and interviewed a murder suspect holding a hostage inside a gas station, reporters for the St. Petersburg Times and a Tampa radio station may have improperly and unethically endangered the hostage's life, according to media critics.
The newspaper and WFLA-AM are being roundly criticized for their actions during Hank Earl Carr's one-day killing rampage that resulted in the deaths of a 4-year-old boy, three police officers and Carr himself.
Carr, a 30-year-old ex-con with a trip-wire temper and an obsession for guns, was arrested for killing his lover's 4-year-old son on May 19. While in custody in a police car, he seized a policeman's gun and shot to death both of the officers who were guarding him.
Stealing a Ford Ranger truck, Carr led police cars and helicopters on a 50-mile high-speed chase north of Tampa on Interstate Highway 75. Carr shot at, and hit, a police helicopter dogging him from above. He also managed to kill a state highway patrolman who was pursuing in a car.
Then, he pulled into a Shell gas station and convenience store in Hernando County, taking the lone clerk ? 27-year-old Stephanie Diane Kramer ? hostage.
During a tense four-hour standoff as heavily armed police surrounded the gas station, radio station WFLA-AM called the convenience store phone number.

Live Radio Interview
The phone was answered by Carr. With the phone conversation fed live onto the air, WFLA news director, Don Richards, engaged the gunman in a seven-minute conversation as his hostage stood close by.
In riveting phone repartee, Carr admitted shooting the boy through the head; explained how he slipped off his handcuffs and shot the two police officers at point-blank range; and revealed he was bleeding badly from a gunshot wound in the buttocks that occurred during exchanges of gunfire between vehicles on I-75. He told Richards, "I know I'll fry for the cops."
Meanwhile, editors at the fiercely competitive Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times were listening to the radio station's live interview considering whether or not they should call Carr for their own live interviews.
The Times dialed the number and interviewed the hostage-holding killer. Its rival, the Tribune, decided against making such a call.
The overall drama ended later in the day as Carr released his hostage unharmed. Then, in a commando-like strike, police teams exploded two wall-breaching bombs on either side of the gas station. Inside, they found Carr dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Debate Over MEDIA Ethics
In the aftermath, a debate has erupted over the propriety of a news organization calling and interviewing an obviously unstable killer as he was holding a hostage.
While media experts criticized WFLA and the St. Petersburg Times' decision to interview the gunman while the hostage drama played out, key editors and management at the newspaper and radio station defended their actions.
Bob Steele, a media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said the journalists "acted improperly and unethically" by interviewing the suspect.
"Journalists are not trained as hostage negotiators nor psychologists. You have an irrational person with a gun, and it would be very easy for a journalist to say the wrong thing, ask the wrong question or even spark an irrational action in the way they listen to the gunman. This hostage's life is on the line and a journalist calling in can greatly jeopardize the safety or the life of that hostage," said Steele.
He said the value of the information gleaned from the interviews did not outweigh the potential risk to the hostage.

'Grenade with pin pulled'
"When you're reporting on stories like this, you basically have a grenade with the pin pulled; you need to exercise the highest level of care. To take somebody's life and run that kind of risk is unethical and unconscionable," he said.
Paul Tash, executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, said the reporter who called the gunman did so after the radio station had conducted their interview. He explained: "WFLA had aired its interview and so our reporter, having heard that, did know that one interview had been conducted without any ill effect and so, I think there was some advantage to her in going second at least in knowing that the previous interview had been conducted without any aggravation to the tension."
He said the hostage, who has since been interviewed by news organizations after being released, did not criticize the media for calling during the crisis.
Tash said the police and telephone company had the option to cut off any phone call interviews going on with the suspect.
WFLA-AM general manager Dave Reinhart defended the station's decision to make the call: "I'm proud of (Richards). First of all, he thought to do it. Then he handled it in a very admirable manner. And I believe he was instrumental in the hostage coming to no harm."

Obstructing Police?
Steve Geimann, an ethics expert at the Society of Professional Journalists, said while breaking news should be vigorously covered, law enforcement officials should be allowed to do their job.
"We have to draw the lines as responsible journalists that some stories aren't yet 'cooked,' especially when live aspects are coming into play. This story was not done. It was not ready. It was still in progress. There are certain elements of a story in progress that have to be carefully evaluated and carefully weighed before you go into print or especially on the air," said Geimann.
Bruce Witwer, managing editor of the Tampa Tribune, said the paper decided not to call the gunman because, "We just felt that the circumstances didn't merit us calling him. . . . I wonder what (WFLA and the Times') feelings would be if their phone calls had messed up the thing. That's what you have to weigh. That's what we were weighing and that's why we didn't make the call," he said.
Larry Fletcher, senior editor for news at the Tribune, who was directing the newspaper's coverage of the fast-moving events that day, said he thought about ? but dismissed ? the idea of calling the suspect.

'One Life at Stake'
"To me, there was definitely one life at stake and who knows how many others holed up in there and police officers around there. To me, the media needs to stay out of the way and allow the professionals to do their job in such a critical situation. They have trained negotiators. They need to have access to this guy and I would hate to be the one or have one of my reporters be the one to block professionals from being able to do their job," said Fletcher.
?(How the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune played the hostage drama) [Photo & Caption]
?(Editor & Publisher Web Site:http://www. mediainfo. com)[Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher June 13, 1998) [Caption]


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here