Friday’s horrific news helicopter crash in central Phoenix was deeply saddening to those of us in the news media, a sadness compounded by some calls for helicopters not to be used to cover the kind of story that the four journalists who lost their lives were covering.
The story was a legitimate one: A truck was carjacked and was traveling through neighborhoods.
Critics of TV news media often accuse them of seeking ratings and money with such coverage. But as I noted in a March 2003 Tribune column on news helicopters, no station has a ratings advantage, as all are covering the breaking news simultaneously, nor does live coverage make any money, because no commercials are shown and ads slated for that time have to be rescheduled.
It’s a matter of public safety to be able to see where a suspect is heading and if that’s anywhere near you or me. The four belonged up there. The pilots were seasoned professional aviators. What led to the crash is under investigation and this is hardly the time to speculate about the cause.
But it’s true that such machines are not always assigned to cover news of such weight. Often, they’re just doing traffic reports. So is it always right for news crews to be flying, often in relative proximity?
On the one hand, Phoenix TV stations’ helicopters — which take off daily from Scottsdale Airport — and their specially designed cameras bring many stories to viewers from vantage points superior to any on the ground.
Think of huge explosions, massive fires, hostage situations, sieges by gunmen, all able to be seen from high aloft to provide important views of news in progress and of those public safety personnel we trust to protect us.
On the other hand, because the above situations don’t happen very often, to justify their expense, these helicopters, their pilots and photographers are sent to cover situations that in many cases hardly need visual accompaniment.
For example, isn’t it enough to simply be told that a freeway is backed up and to take this or that alternate route instead? Must it be accompanied by yet another live shot of a car being towed away that looks no different than file footage?
Still, if TV journalists rushing to a story inside two news vans were killed in a vehicular accident, no one would call for news vans to stop being used to cover stories.
So to stop using news helicopters doesn’t make much sense, particularly in situations where lives or property could be in danger.
Neither does the idea to pool coverage from one helicopter.
Multiple viewpoints are at the core of the First Amendment. Getting one, government-sanctioned vantage point is not my idea of liberty. It certainly wouldn’t say much for the freedom of the press that these four believed in.