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Scott D. Pierce: KSL sensationalized bomb prank by going live

Published May 5, 2014 12:50 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

KSL interrupted programming on Thursday morning to report a bomb threat at East High.

It was the only station to do so. Its competitors knew about the threat. They had reporters there to cover it.

But Channels 2, 4 and 13 chose not to sensationalize the threat, which turned out to be nothing more than a prank.

That's standard procedure for a couple of logical reasons:

1. If you break into regular programming to report a bomb threat, you are fanning the flames of hysteria.

If you tuned in to KSL's coverage on Thursday, you might have thought it was another Columbine or Newtown — simply because it was a live report.

2. If you make a prank into a major news story, you're encouraging copycats.

The Radio Television Digital News Association recommends caution in reporting bomb threats for reasons including creating copycats, "raising the public's level of insecurity even when it is not warranted," and causing the public to become "less responsive when actual danger arises."

This is not to suggest the East High story should have been ignored. There were early, erroneous reports of shots fired, so news outlets (including The Salt Lake Tribune) sent reporters. A brief story reporting the lockdown appeared on sltrib.com.

But none of the reporting approached the level of the live TV cut-in on Channel 5.

KSL's executive vice president of news, Tanya Vea, wrote in an email, "We stand behind our decision" to go live. Her reasons included, "Police response was amplified beyond a typical bomb threat"; the erroneous report of shots fired; and "Major city streets were blocked off."

She added that KSL was responding to "calls/tweets/texts coming from parents, teachers and students (lying on the floor) inside the school asking us for information," and argued that "We did not report anything beyond what was confirmed" — the bomb threat and the lockdown.

But there's a big difference between reporting what happened and going live, which instantly overplayed the story. "The emphasis on live may warp the attention these stories deserve," according to the RTDNA.

Just because you can go live doesn't mean you should.

Local TV stations are competitive, and we're in the midst of a ratings sweeps period. But the reaction to KSL's decision was less about competition than responsible journalism. Ch. 13's news director, Renai Bodley, tweeted, "Confused re news stations reporting bomb threats. I know every story is different, but some outlets seem to be sensationalizing v. informing."

This was not KSL's finest moment.

(Note: The Salt Lake Tribune maintains a news-gathering partnership with KUTV, which did not contribute to this column.)

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.