Going Live: Quality or Stupidity?

WARNING: OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE IN CLIP

If Bill O’Reilly had read chapter 16 of Aim for the Heart by Al Tompkins, the American people would have never been gifted with the YouTube phenomenon that is Bill O’Reilly’s Inside Edition freakout.

In his chapter on how journalists can report ethically to minimize harm, Tompkins addresses questions every journalist should ask before going live. I’ll highlight a few of the most important questions in this post.

  1. The most important is “What are your motivations for going live?”

Tompkins uses September 11th as a perfect example of necessary live reporting. People both wanted and needed to know what was going on. The events according to Tompkins were of “vital public importance.” The live reporting on 9/11 also allowed the millions of people watching around the world to “quickly understand the scope and nature of the threat, even as the story was still unfolding,” according to Tompkins.

2. “Are you prepared to air the worst possible outcome that could result from this unfolding story?”

Fox News clearly was not prepared when they went live with a car chase during Shepard Smith’s show on September 28, 2012. The show had been cutting to the Phoenix, Arizona car chase periodically throughout Shep Smith’s hour long show, which airs at 3 p.m. EST. When a man emerged from the car being chased, Smith started narrating the man’s actions while viewers watched the live footage. The man shortly pulled out a gun and shot himself on live TV in front of millions of viewers. Smith yelled “Get off it!” and the show cut to commercial.

The show did have the footage on a five second delay, which Tompkins refers to as an “electronic safety net.” Smith and Michael Clemente, Fox News Vice President of News, both apologized for the disturbing scene. Clemente blamed the footage airing on “severe human error.”

3. “What factor does the time of day play in your decision to cover a breaking event?” 

Twenty-four hour news channels like Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN often rely on breaking live news to fill their endless amounts of time. These channels also usually reach a specific audience, such as the elderly, and other adults who are home during the day. Hopefully, not too many kids were watching Fox News when the disturbing image above was played. Local news and national news have to be more careful with live footage, as families often watch these programs together.

Going live is a risky practice for any journalist. Asking these questions can help avoid terrible situations like the one faced by Fox News in September. As Tompkins shows in this chapter of Aim for the Heart, reporting live without being adequately prepared can have dire consequences. It can also be a very stressful situation for everyone involved, including the journalist (lookin’ at you O’Reilly).

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