like watching a train wreck

watching the news yesterday morning of the tragic train wreck in orange county, i was struck once again by the difficulties that live newscasting technology causes our anchorpersons. gone are the simple days that their job was to write copy and read it on the air and hope that the support staff got the right graphic up behind them.

these days, the news-viewing public’s apparently insatiable appetite for live on the spot helicopter coverage has placed the studio news staff in an incredibly awkward position. instead of just reading a prepared, fact-checked script, they must ad-lib about the images and information they’re being fed, no matter how vague or incomplete. and how many words can you find to describe different views of the same scene for ten, twenty, thirty minutes on end? they are forced to suppose, surmise, draw conclusions, add sympathetic commentary, and say the same thing in (ideally) different words, over and over and over…

and there are not too many original thoughts you can have thirty minutes into live video feeds of the same thing. ‘well, here we have … the same thing we’ve had for the last half hour, we still don’t really know what we’re seeing, and everybody’s giving us different facts, but here it still is … do we have an expert on the phone? no? ok, so nothing’s changed, as far as we can tell, it might have changed, do you think it’s changed, roger?’

i used to think on-air news personalities had cool jobs. not anymore.

11 thoughts on “like watching a train wreck

  1. It makes me wonder A) how many other crimes are being committed successfully while the police swarm to catch one mental deficient in a stolen van/truck/big rig/whatever and B) do you think it could be possible that there are gangs of criminals who plan robberies or kidnappings who designate one guy as the sacrifical lamb and make him go out and start one of these chases just to divert the police?

  2. i’m not sure how willing a wannabe criminal would be to go take a couple years (up to potentially capital murder if things go wrong) for the team though. however, there is a website that’s in business of notifying people whenever a high speed pursuit is being televised. they even notify pagers and cell phones. (

    what a handy service to alert would-be criminals that large numbers of the police force are going to be otherwise occupied for a few hours!

  3. That reminded me of September 11th. What can you say really? “our world has just come crashing down and no matter what we say or do.. nothing will ever be the same again” Sometimes.. there are no words..

  4. I now know living in another country to you guys can be a detriment.

    What train crash?

    We’re too busy having the press kicking themselves for announcing that missing 13-year old schoolgirl Milly was found dead this morning…she wasn’t, it was a 72 year old woman (Nobody is bothering to report on the fact that a 72 year old woman has been found floating in a river, however).

    So what train crash? and where is Milly?

  5. an amtrak train and a freight train went head-on in southern california yesterday — and i’ve not heard of Millie, who is Millie?

  6. Beware… you just hit my sore spot. 🙂 3… 2… 1…

    Here we go.

    Having been in a newsroom and tv studio during countless car chases, train wrecks, chemical spills, and “get the goddamned chopper up” incidents, it’s amazing how the voyeur-industry thrives on such things. The only intelligent comment I ever heard said on air during one of these was Art Rascon, worst anchor in the universe, saying “I don’t know why they do this… they always get caught and some of them get killed.” during a big-rig truck chase carried live.

    Shuttle launches are covered only because the newsroom is secretly hoping that the shuttle explodes. They won’t admit it, but I would see it in their faces and occasionally saw the pre-loaded template readied in the news system over their shoulders.

    20-something J-school Vultures. Gotta love them.

    “Breaking” and “Live” news is covered not only because it’s cheap and easy, but it’s rarely wrong. Point a camera at an explosion, and you know there’s been an explosion or a crane accident or a guy about to drop his baby off of the freeway overpass. Try investigating a meaningful, real story that has any risk to it and it will be gotten wrong (Andrea Yates is Pregnant!) or it gets the lawyers irked whether it is true or not (Sylvester Turner is a crook! Lloyd is a crook!).

    What I liked the most about it was when the people would call in and bitch about the soaps.Break into soaps, piss off the soap-addicts. If your soap is re-run on SoapNet or other channels, tell the station that you’ll stop watching them because they are always interrupting with useless “breaking news” and instead watch the reruns on SoapNet. Call, send e-mail (no swear words… just do it calmly), and eventually the sales staff will prevail over the testosterone-charged loonies in News. Or, it will give the news director a heart attack. 🙂

    Only took a minute to type all that out. I guess it’s second nature to me now.


  7. Actually there are some criminals that have scanners so they can follow where police are and how soon they are notified of the crimes. Most of the car chase stuff you see – joyriding yes, and the “fun” of getting on tv, yes some of that too. The Brits and some US cops are tryin the solution of using police helicopters to be the primary chase vehicles and keeping the police cars out of it – or having the police follow blocks away while the copter tracks them. An attempt at getting the adrenalin out of it – maybe get the idiots to drive more safely, put fewer people at risk? Maybe. Problem – lotta cash to keep the helicopters up in the air – hard to afford enough to keep large areas in a city covered…

    News has always been about “bring the bodies a little more into the light so we can get a good photo.” Ever looked at some of the newspaper coverage of the Jack the Ripper crimes? Horrific crime, tragic accidents, blood and tears – it’s always sold news. Not that I think this is a nice thing, mind you!

  8. Personally, I think they’re making it all up. There is no breaking news. There’s just a ten thousand dollar computer sitting in your local affilliate’s newsroom, splicing and editing previous footage into new variations. Occassionally something real does happen…but when it does, we’re so burned out that we reflexively doubt its reality, since obviously nothing that outsize could really happen.

    Irony aside, the news coverage creates this dreamlike haze, where we go about our daily lives grateful that no choppers are hovering over us, no tankers exploding in our imminent vicinity, and no hordes of rioters nearby. It’s like my friend Matt W. used to tell me when he’d call from LA that people actually call in sick so that they can watch the car chases on the news. The idea that those are real people seems to be lost somewhere in the translation to pixels on a screen.

  9. i wonder about those police chases. i’m pretty sure LA is the police chase capital of the world, and i have concluded that it must be part of the criminal culture — arrive at jail being that guy on tv, and you have instant respect or something.

    i wonder, if the newschoppers weren’t swarming around like that, if there would be fewer chases. what if the news media stopped making these people instant outlaw heroes?

    but the police chases at least are a little easier to narrate — oh! he almost hit that thing. looks like he’s getting off the freeway, no, wait, he’s weaving onto the shoulder, etc.

    but yesterday’s train coverage consisted of long, long minutes of looking at the same thing — people laying on the ground. emergency workers doing triage. every once in awhile the camera would pan back to show how extremely long the freight train was. then back to looking at people milling about on the ground.

  10. This all-in-your-face news is really enough to make you barf..
    Sometimes real is too real…
    I wanna see “Magic”..
    (don’t tell me to goto the Disney channel please..)

  11. Millie is a 13 year old English schoolgirl who was last seen 4 weeks ago walking home from school. It’s eerie because they even have her on security camera leaving the school grounds. Anyway, someway home someone saw her walking along normally, but nobody knows what happened after that. She certainly didn’t end up at home. She had a good home life and absolutely no worries, and as she hasn’t turned up for 4 weeks now, it’s obvious something has happened to her, but the press/authorities/family/general public is desperate to know what. I think, judging by the fact that she’s female and 13, it’s likely she’s been kidnapped. She could of course have just run off, but it seems with her background that’s a very vague chance.

    As for the Amtrack disaster, the same thing happened near Paddington quite a few years ago, led to major investigations into the train service and such. Though it wasn’t nearly as horrific as when some guy lost control of his van, ran it off the road, down a hill and onto the tracks, and then while phoning for help spotted a busy passenger train headed straight for it. That also caused a major investigation.

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