Flooding the airwaves 

Simultaneous airing of city-produced documentary makes local TV history, raises questions about blurred ethical lines

click to enlarge A promotional shot of the city-produced documentary - Meth: A Social Plague.
  • A promotional shot of the city-produced documentary Meth: A Social Plague.

"It needs to be clear who is responsible," said Aly Coln, who teaches at the Poynter Institute, a prominent journalism school. "The point is that they don't want to cause the viewer to become confused about what is their own journalistic product."

KRDO Channel 13, the local ABC affiliate, informed viewers they were witnessing a "historic night" in local broadcasting, but did not disclose that the city government had produced the special.

"It was an oversight," said Dave Rose, the station's news director, the next morning.

KKTV Channel 11, the CBS affiliate, also failed to tell viewers who was behind the broadcast. Said news director Nick Matesi: "We didn't say it was a product of KKTV, either."

Both Rose and Matesi claimed that the credits at the end of the documentary identified it as city-produced.

But Coln said it was important to tell viewers before as well, because people might not have watched the entire broadcast.

The effects of addiction

Meth: A Social Plague comes at a time when television stations across the nation have begun to air video news releases produced by the federal government -- right alongside their normal news content.

Steve Dant, general manager of both Fox21 and UPN57 in Colorado Springs, said he wanted to make it clear to his viewers that Monday's documentary was a city production.

"We wanted to be up front with the viewers and let them know this was not our product," he said.

The documentary, which was produced by the Colorado Springs Public Communications Office, included interviews with city and federal drug agents and health officials, as well as reenactments illustrating the effects of methamphetamine addiction. The film, which was directed and edited by Joel Smith, was designed to illustrate the dramatic negative effect the drug has had on the city, according to spokeswoman Sue Skiffington-Blumberg. Between 2001 and 2003, meth lab busts by Colorado Springs police skyrocketed 56 percent.

About a month ago, Skiffington-Blumberg invited television executives to see the documentary. It originally had been slated to appear only on the city-run cable station, SpringsTV, but Skiffington-Blumberg hoped to reach a wider audience.

"This was a high quality, broadcast-able piece --something that should go beyond SpringsTV," she said. "The television stations agreed."

'Why leave it to the city?'

Only one major station in the region didn't air the special -- KTSC Channel 8, the PBS affiliate. Instead, that station ran a special on Swedish pop icons ABBA. A PBS spokesman said station executives simply weren't asked to participate.

Wally Dean, a senior associate with the Project for Excellence in Journalism, called the documentary and cooperation between stations laudable because of the obvious public service goal.

"It sounds like they might have actually stumbled into a good thing," Dean said.

But he also wondered why local television stations hadn't dedicated their own resources to the hot topic.

"Why leave it to the city?" he said. "Are you going to cede journalism on important issues to the government?"

In response, KKTV's Matesi said the station has aired countless stories about meth, including one segment late last year that ran roughly four and a half minutes. However, he added, the station, which shares its newsroom with Fox21, would find it hard to gather the resources to produce its own special.

The future of journalism

After Meth aired, Channels 5 and 30 ran a related feature on gateway drugs in order to broaden the community dialogue, said KOAA general manager David Whitaker. Station anchors Lisa Lyden and Rob Quirk narrated the "Connect with Kids First" segment, but it had actually been produced and written by an educational company, CWK Nework Inc., headquartered in Atlanta.

When asked why the station wasn't producing its own in-depth enterprising segments with subjects who live in Southern Colorado, Whitaker said the station simply can't muster the "time and resources," given the pressures of producing 22 hours of news each week.

"It would be very taxing and pressing for us to do," he said.

Smith, who directed the documentary, said he received much praise from TV executives like Whitaker during a screening at City Hall on Monday night. He said there was a need in the community to tell the story, and that TV stations hadn't dedicated enough resources to it.

"I don't think they have the time to put together what we did tonight," he said.

That left Dean fretting a bit for the future of journalism.

"It's a sad state of affairs when the city has to do that kind of work on a topic because the stations don't have the resources," he said.

-- Michael de Yoanna


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