WGCL-TV was in a bind last Friday evening. Alleged Athens cop killer Jamie Hood was holed up with hostages. He didn’t want to be arrested unless it was on live TV, worried he might be shot otherwise.
The police asked the local media to run video live during the 11 p.m. news, presuming Hood would surrender at that time. That was not a problem for the other news stations. But WGCL-TV, the CBS affiliate, was airing the Kentucky/Ohio State NCAA game at 11 p.m.
Steve Schwaid, who oversees the station and is VP of digital content for Meredith (WGCL-TV’s owners), blogged about the entire situation.
For all we knew he was watching the game with the hostages. There is no way I wanted to live with the fact that if we didn’t carry his surrender, he might not come out or more importantly, hurt or kill a hostage. Do I worry about a person’s life or a basketball game? Honestly, an easy decision.
WGCL decided to do a split screen of the hostage situation and the game. Game commentary was turned off and anchor Stephany Fisher provided audio commentary. NCAA fans emailed and called to complain. He was supposed to surrender at 11:01 p.m. but as the minutes ticked by, Schwaid considered bringing game audio back. Fortunately, a shirtless Hood finally did surrender at around 11:15 p.m. so WGCL was able to get back to the game relatively quickly after that.
Schwaid’s final take on this:
I never want it to be on the conscience of my news organization that we risked someone’s life or could have the cause for someone’s death because we through it more important to show a few baskets than help the police with a hostage surrender. Could we have brought the game audio up sooner? Sure. But when you’re making instant decisions sometimes you don’t do it all perfectly.
But honestly, we all do try. And at the end of the day a person’s life, your life is much more important than hearing the announcers at a basketball game.
Schwaid, in an interview today, said he was watching the game Friday night when this all came down and had to make some off-the-cuff decisions. “I was getting inundated with emails,” he said. “The assignment desk was overwhelmed with calls.” He said it was an easy decision to do the split screen given the circumstances. Hood could have killed hostages if the TV stations had not complied. And basketball fans still got to see the game, albeit on only part of the screen for a few minutes and without game audio.
“It’s hard to serve two masters,” he said. “You just do the best that you can.”
Doug Richards, on his Live Apartment Fire blog, also provides a fascinating take on how WXIA-TV ended up being the “pool” camera guy for the four stations airing the live video of Hood surrendering.
By Rodney Ho, firstname.lastname@example.org, AJCRadioTV blog