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Breaking news brings out best and worst of local news stations

By Mark Jurkowitz, Globe Staff, 07/22/99

The trials and travails of covering sporadically breaking news on live television were on full display yesterday as Boston's local affiliates tried frantically to follow the latest dramatic developments in the Kennedy-Bessette tragedy.

The catalyst for the latest frenzy was Senator Edward M. Kennedy's sudden helicopter trip to the wreckage scene early yesterday afternoon. And as reporters and anchors scrambled for solid information, viewers were whipsawed as stations shifted between the scene of the search, a presidential press conference, and the regular diet of talk shows and soap operas.

An early report by NBC and then the Associated Press that John F. Kennedy Jr.'s body was on board a Navy ship had to be solemnly corrected. WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) newsman Andy Hiller practically apologized to viewers for the ''very confusing and contradictory information'' being relayed about the possible recovery of bodies. On WCVB-TV (Ch. 5), anchors Brian Leary and Susan Wornick sparred mildly over the exact nature of Senator Kennedy's helicopter trip. And several news directors tacitly acknowledged that days like yesterday provide daunting challenges.

''It's minute by minute right now,'' said WBZ-TV (Ch. 4) news director Peter Brown, explaining how he was making coverage decisions.

''It's that conundrum of 24-hour `as it happens' coverage,'' added Channel 5 news director Candy Altman.

Brown indicated that at least twice during the early afternoon, WBZ was thinking about breaking off its live coverage for regular programming. But Senator Kennedy's helicopter trip around 12:30 p.m. and President Clinton's news conference two hours later intervened. Later in the afternoon, the station briefly returned to a talk show.

Channel 5 was the first to break away, rejoining its highly rated soap operas early yesterday afternoon. ''I felt strongly we were getting to the point where ... we were edging toward speculation that was not productive,'' explained Altman. ''My concern is that the public is very savvy and knows when you have something to say and when you don't.''

Channel 7 tried its own balancing act, at one point cutting away from its reporting in mid-sentence to temporarily join President Clinton's press conference. But unlike its rivals, the station remained with its live news coverage, something news director Mark Berryhill attributed to ''the unpredictability of breaking news.''

One piece of breaking news that proved to be speculation was the early report, attributed to ''sources close to the operation,'' that Kennedy's body had been brought aboard the ship. It was picked up on TV, radio, and news Web sites (including the Globe's before being retracted less than an hour later. It was another example - like the initial report that there were four people aboard the Kennedy plane - of the peril that awaits a media corps in full chase of breaking news.

But in the same superheated environment, there is little time for introspection or contrition. Shortly after 3 p.m., CBS and Dan Rather broke into Channel 4 programming with the news that the bodies of Lauren Bessette and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy had been found. As he delivered that fresh information moments ahead of his competitors, correspondent Bob Orr issued this classic caveat to his viewers: ''Details of the story seem to change all the time.''

This story ran on page A8 of the Boston Globe on 07/22/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.


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