The News Director’s nightmare – Live Breaking News during sporting events. You make the call.

There are days in this business and then there ARE days you will never forget.

Normally our life is fairly routine – if you can call covering news routine. But normally there is a rhythm to our jobs, much like many of your jobs.

But then there are days. In fact, the last several days would fit into the category of insanity, decision making on the fly and in this new social/digital/media age instant, and I mean instant, feedback from our viewers.

Let me set the stage.

For most of last week we had been covering the intensive manhunt for the killer of an Athens police officer. We knew the memorial service was going to be Saturday and police wanted to have the bad guy in custody before the services and funeral.

Around 3:30 p.m. Friday, we got word police had accused, and later admitted, killer Jamie Hood surrounded. Our live pictures showed a huge police presence. Then word came out that there were hostages. Hostages complicate police responses, tactics and news coverage. We work very hard not to show what police are doing or give specific police response information that could be used by the hostage taker if he’s watching TV.  It’s a touchy situation.

This is now going on for hours, but the perfect storm is starting to form.

We got a request from police – the GBI – asking us to carry live their plea for Jamie Hood to come out peacefully and nothing will happen. We were now into CBS coverage of the NCAAs.  We were right in the middle of the first game. But police were asking for our help in defusing a very tense situation.

What would you do? Stay with the game or carry the GBI announcement? You don’t have minutes to decide, you have seconds because of all the technical issues that have to happen to get it to air.

These are cases where we make decision on the fly.  Almost instantaneous.  No time for meetings, no big discussions, but a quick decision and that falls on me. That’s part of my job.

So I decided we would do what we called a “double box;” put the GBI and their audio on the screen along with a box for the game without audio.  The event started and we put up the double box. It took less than a minute or so from beginning to end. There were no emails, no phones calls from you.  Honestly, our main goal was to see if we could help in getting these hostages released from an admitted cop killer while still trying to keep you updated on the game.

But at 10:45 p.m. came the issue that would become the nightmare of the night.

Police were talking with Hood. Hood said was willing to surrender, but he wanted all the TV stations to carry his surrender live because he was worried for his safety. Police asked us to carry it live.  I’m not going to get into the issue of whether we should be worried about his safety. We were worried about the safety of the hostages.

Police said he would come out at 11:01 p.m. when we were all carrying it live. For all the other stations, this was easy. They were all in their local newscasts. We were in the midst of the second game – Kentucky versus Ohio State. 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.

Again, I had to make a quick decision, as police were asking for us to show him surrendering. It could all be over in a couple of minutes and we could go on with our lives.

So at 11:01 p.m. we go back to the double box. In one box you see “The Door” and you hear Stephany Fisher, our anchor, describing what we expect to see. In a little bit bigger box we provide video of the game.

And we wait. No surrender yet. We have no idea how long this will take. There’s no way to know or find out. This is a real live scene playing out on live television.

It’s 11:05 and he hasn’t come out. Do we stay or do we leave? Maybe he’s watching us and won’t come out if we switch away and go back to the game full screen. If we go back to the game full screen he may get angry and decide to shoot a hostage.

We stay with it.

It’s 11:10 and the emails and calls are pouring in. “We don’t care about Hood or the hostages we want our game.” That’s what we’re hearing from many viewers.

Do I stay with the double box or do I go back to the game fullscreen. Again, an easy answer. We’re staying.

But now we’re making plans to drop our anchor’s voice and bring the game audio up. Keep in mind all this time you can see the game and it’s still early in the second half. And we’re honestly dealing in seconds and real time decision making. I’m on the phone with our producer in the control room – we’re making decisions on the fly. It’s live TV. There’s no script for this.

As we’re about ready to bring up the game audio we see the door open and the hostages walk out. I’ve been in this business more years than I want to admit. This is rather amazing television. We’re seeing hostages safely come out of the home and live pictures of the accused cop killer being arrested. (I’ve been a part of a story like this in the past, but it wasn’t on live TV.)

We get quickly back to the game and at this point we’re almost ready to call it a night, except for what feels like dozens if not hundreds of phone calls and emails complaining and “yelling” at us. I respond to many and head to bed shortly after 1 a.m.

I’m ready for the weekend.

But then we have serious weather on Saturday. It’s around 2:30 p.m. when the storms start to intensify and we’re doing special reports about tornado warnings.  Basically a warning indicated that radar had seen tornadic properties or someone has witnessed a tornado. This is serious stuff.

But again, guess what’s getting ready to tip off. Yup, the NCAAs.

We really were trying to be judicious, using a double box, covering commercials and trying to provide truly life saving information. Telling folks to immediately take shelter to me is more important than hearing game commentary. You could still see the game, but you would also hear and see our weather experts showing you where the storms are heading.

The emails start flowing again. How dare we interrupt the game or show the crawls about warnings and watches where many of you live?

Sorry, to make this simple, but it is an easy call. If a tornado is bearing down on you and your family would you rather hear critical life saving info or basketball commentary?

OK, so after this looooong blog post, what’s the bottom line?

It’s simple. Our number one goal is making sure you get critical life saving information. You expect it. In fact, it’s part of what we are licensed to provide. You expect us to keep you informed about critical weather information. And we will.

Regarding the plan of interrupting the game to show you “The Door?” Well, I wanted to watch the game myself, but this was also an easy call. 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.


13 Responses to “The News Director’s nightmare – Live Breaking News during sporting events. You make the call.”

  1. Ed Esposito Says:

    Excellent column and decisions, Steve. Truth is, the sports fans will still watch even though they are upset…and you are clearly giving them both. There’s always a group of viewers who will complain you interrupt their programs for the weather — even if a tornado is swirling around outside their window. Comes with the territory. The use of graphics such as the double box satisfies both needs to be informed and entertained. Complaints are part of the process. That’s why there’s a public file.

  2. Brett Martin Says:

    Good start to a blog. Try to incorporate some images and video within the text. I found the article very interesting, however, video and images (which you have vast amounts of) would help, in my humble opinion.

  3. Michael Shoer Says:

    Fascinating chronicle of the quandry and the intensity of the split second decision-making that comes with your territory.

    But aren’t there other options in today’s world? Your “digital” channels, your social feeds?

    Did you consider streaming the hostage feed video/audio live on your web site with video only on the air (and a flag promoting the url) and some live commentary on fb/twitter?

    • steveschwaid Says:

      Police asked us to broadcast it live. We could have streamed but there was no indication the confessed cop killer has internet.

  4. Jason DeRusha Says:

    There’s no question that you did the right thing – but as always, the people who appreciate what you did aren’t the ones who email or call the TV station.

    Really interesting to hear the behind-the-scenes drama that played out, while the real life drama played out on the air. Thanks for this window into a ND’s mind.

  5. NCAA Basketball or Hostage Situation? POLL: You make the call - TVSpy Says:

    […] content for all Meredith stations and head of news at Atlanta’s WGCL (CBS) writes on his personal blog about a “news director’s nightmare,” deciding between carrying a breaking news […]

  6. az Says:

    if youre so concerned about news, id prefer not to see promos for your morning show talking about how fun and entertaining it is – I cant recall right now the exact words used on the promo for bma – but it was lame and nothing to do with news…but then again i dont watch your channel – its been pretty poor quality for years

  7. Mario500 Says:

    If I were to see and hear a tornado near my home, I would walk or run toward one of the safest places of the house rather than watch or hear weather information on TV. Covering the national commercial advertisements with weather reports was a good idea for a local station.

    I would suggest something better: a digital sub-channel dedicated to local news and weather. It would be available to all cable and satellite TV customers and there would be no need to interrupt someone’s favorite programs. You may continue to interrupt commercial advertisements on the main channel for special weather reports if this digital sub-channel were to exist, just tell your weather employees to tell viewers and listeners they could get more information from the sub-channel.

  8. WGCL VP Steve Schwaid explains NCAA/Athens hostage dilemma last Friday | Radio & TV Talk Says:

    […] 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 […]

  9. Ascott Says:

    Perhaps you didn’t have a choice and your hands were tied. But my opinion is, Hood stroked the Police and Media. He wanted it to end his way and he was able to accomplish it. It sucks because the criminals won again with the assistance of the Media and Law Enforcement. If I was the GBI, there wouldn’t have been any bargaining. If Hood started harming the hostages, the game would be over in a second. I am sure many in the Law Enforcement community would share the same thoughts.

  10. NCAA Basketball vs Hostage Situation Poll Results: ‘News Always Trumps Sports’ - TVSpy Says:

    […] Schwaid, VP of digital content for all Meredith stations and head of news at WGCL, called the situation a “news director’s […]

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