Los Angeles television stations interrupted afternoon programming and children's cartoons Thursday to air footage of a half-naked man committing suicide on a freeway, prompting a storm of criticism about live news broadcasts.
Immediately after showing the man identified as 40-year-old Daniel V. Jones catching fire, pulling off his trousers and shooting himself to death, TV stations replayed the footage but edited out the suicide and apologized for the graphic coverage.Some pledged to rethink future live helicopter footage, which has become a staple of Los Angeles newscasts. Unlike previous live news events, this one the Long Beach man seemed to stage for the helicopter-mounted cameras that hovered Thursday above the Harbor and Century freeways.
"I think this will be a defining moment for chopper-type coverage," said Steve Cohen, news director at KCOP-TV (Channel 13). "What we have proven today is that journalists have no control over events and can't react fast enough to protect the public from what they saw. We have to be much more careful where we go and what the end possibilities are.
"We have to be prepared to lose the video and be more in control of the technology and go back to the studio, where a thoughtful anchor can have control over events and tell people what happened."
The live drama came in the midst of "sweeps," during which television stations do their best to capture viewers, often with sexually oriented and/or violent programming. May sweeps began April 23 and run through May 20, and viewership during the four weeks determines advertising rates.
But what happened Thursday proved too outrageous for many people, particularly parents whose children were watching TV when the broadcast began shortly after 3 p.m. PDT.
"It's just not appropriate. I am so outraged. It's unconscionable," said Shifra Hastings, 42, who turned off the television in her Northridge home when KNBC-TV (Channel 4) cut away from "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" to the scene at the 110 and 105 freeways.
KTTV-TV (Channel 11) was broadcasting "Spider-Man" when it cut away. The station ran a message at the bottom of the screen advising viewers about the impending shift and that it would be best to watch with parental supervision.
Warner Bros. cartoons were on when KTLA-TV (Channel 5) cut to the scene at 3:30 p.m. The station ran a graphic indicating a breaking story was about to pre-empt the children's show.
Hastings, at home with her 6-year-old son, searched for cartoons but couldn't find a network that was not broadcasting live from the scene.
"There's a real problem with this kind of thing," she said. "There's a man out there with a gun. (TV station managers) know something is going to happen that is not child-appropriate."
KABC-TV (Channel 7) continued its broadcast of Oprah Winfrey's talk show, going to the drama for only moments at a time.
"Our decision is based on two major freeways closed down during rush-hour traffic," said Cheryl Fair, news director for KABC. "It's not just a sweeps thing."
Jeff Wald, news director of KTLA, said the event was newsworthy enough to carry live. But he also said his station received several calls from upset viewers.
"I couldn't tell you how many, but I can tell you that one of the complaints came from my wife, who happened to be watching it on another station," Wald said.
Fair said the suicide occurred so rapidly that news cameras did not have a chance to pull away in time.