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TV Coverage of Suicide Criticized

May 1, 1998 GMT

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The camera didn’t blink as Daniel V. Jones stopped on the freeway overpass, unfurled a banner, waved a gun, set fire to himself and then put a bullet in his head.

Viewers, on the other hand, were horrified by the live images and furious at television stations that failed to cut away as Jones killed himself Thursday.

``It’s part of the unfortunate danger of live television,″ KCBS news director Larry Peret said. ``When you have a guy with a shotgun in the back of his pickup and the freeway closed, that’s a news story.″

Cameras were trained on Jones, 40, for nearly an hour as he sat in the truck sipping from a can and petting a dog on the seat next to him. He got out of the truck at least twice to unfurl the banner, which read: ``HMO’s are in it for the money. Live free, love safe or die.″

Rush hour traffic was backed up for miles on several of the area’s busiest freeways.

The man leaped from his truck when it burst into flames, leaving the dog behind. He pulled off his burning clothes, went to the edge of the overpass as if to jump, then backed off, picked up a shotgun and shot himself.

Some TV stations airing the scene live were unable to edit the graphic action, though KCBS cut to a wide-angle shot as Jones appeared about to jump.

``We did not anticipate this man’s actions in time to cut away, and we deeply regret that any of our viewers saw this tragedy on our air,″ KNBC said in a statement. The KNBC feed was shown nationally by the MSNBC cable news channel.

KTLA and KTTV had interrupted children’s programming to cover the incident.

KTLA asked viewers for ``their understanding″ for the upsetting and distressing images that can be broadcast in live news coverage. The station said it wouldn’t replay the incident.

An unidentified receptionist at KCAL-TV quoted in today’s Los Angeles Times said the station received at least 120 calls during the incident, most asking the station to cut away.

``We didn’t like them seeing what they saw any more than they did,″ a KTTV spokeswoman said.

KABC stuck with its afternoon broadcast of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, cutting away to the unfolding tragedy for brief updates.

``We knew it was dicey because of the nature of the story,″ KABC news director Cheryl Fair said.

She and her staff debated shifting to live coverage, but before they decided, Jones was dead. The station aired edited shots of the suicide scene immediately afterward.

At a Burbank Airport terminal, there were shrieks and gasps of horror in a crowd that had gathered around a television set. Several mothers covered their children’s eyes.

``I wouldn’t think this is the proudest day even for those who absurdly call themselves ’helicopter journalists,‴ said professor Bryce Nelson of the University of Southern California School of Journalism.

Joe Saltzman, another USC journalism professor, was more accepting of the coverage. He said that, while his choice would have been to air edited footage, the event had definite immediate news value.

``If I’m home, if I’m going into that area, I want to know about,″ he said. ``Nobody’s asking a viewer to watch. You could go to another channel showing a movie. Or turn it off.″