Chicago’s news stations deal with another video controversy

A hate crime video shot live on Facebook has stations debating the use of such content 

In a city whose news stations are accustomed to airing gruesome video and reporting on daily shootings and murders, even this was too much to take.

Chicago’s five television newsrooms were debating earlier this month on whether or not repeated airings of a disabled man being beaten by four hoodlums shot on video was shown enough.

As you know by now, four people were arrested and charged with hate crimes two weeks ago after they were found torturing and beating a person in a West Side apartment, shot and broadcast on Facebook Live. The victim was white; the four suspects were black. In the video, the suspects tortured the individual, and can be heard shouting racial epithets and an unflattering reference to President-elect Donald Trump.

And of course, it didn’t take long for the video to go viral. The video added to an already unflattering image Chicago has possessed for the last few years; the city has been slammed in the press for its high homicide rate and violent crime by both the right and the left. Trump has used Chicago – perhaps too much – to describe the poor condition of America’s inner cities.

The journalism website Poynter recently published an article praising Chicago stations for showing restraint on airing the video and using caution.

According to Poynter, WMAQ-TV news director Frank Whittaker wondered at first if the video was legitimate, given the recent controversy surrounding “fake news”. WLS-TV news director Jennifer Graves also shared similar concerns.

Stations decided to hold off airing the video until Chicago Police could confirm its authenticity and the suspects were charged (Graves had concerns if the suspects were juveniles.) The victim’s face was blurred out of the video.

Salacious videos airing on newscasts – often violent – is nothing new. In 1991, KTLA in Los Angeles aired video of Rodney King being beaten by four police officers, setting a new standard in news storytelling. The acquittal of the officers in April 1992 sparked riots that lasted for days, including the live televised beating of truck driver Reginald Denny in South Central Los Angeles shot from a KCOP news helicopter above (despite claims from hosts of “Fox and Friends” on the Fox News Channel, noting they have never seen a white person being attacked on video by black assailants.)

Recently, Chicago stations had a similar debate over the video of the Chicago Police shooting of LaQuan McDonald, released in November 2015.

Poynter also noted when Chicago viewers have had enough of watching such fare.

Despite the never-ending stream of bad news involving Chicago, ratings for the market’s local newscasts have actually remained stable, thanks in part to a renewed emphasis on weather. But back in 2014, Chicago news stations lost ground from the year before in key early fringe, prime access, and late news time slots in the 25-54 demo. Combined, Chicago stations lost more news viewers among top ten markets, only behind Boston. Chicago news’ recent ratings stability is occurring as viewers are tuning out of “linear” (live) television altogether as evidenced by declining ratings for prime-time television and recent events such as Chicago’s competing New Year Eve’s countdown shows and the Winter Classic between the Blackhawks and Blues.

In addition to interviewing three of the market’s five TV news chiefs, the Poynter article praised local Chicago stations for showing resistent with the video and using good judgement. The author also wrote pointers for TV stations to use when faced with airing such video.

The author also points out journalists do have an obligation to air video, even if it is distributing. But that’s the nature of the news business- it is supposed to reflect the real world. It’s not a procedural crime drama, where the suspects are arrested, charged, and justice is dealt in 45 minutes or less.

For now, the story has drifted to the backburner. But it’s just another reminder of how difficult it is to cover a story such as this in a city plagued by violence.