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Caught on Tape:
A Case Study of How Three Local Television Stations Used A Dramatic Amateur
Videotape in Reporting Crime
Stan Ketterer, Ph.D.
School of Journalism and Broadcasting
Oklahoma State University
310 Paul Miller Building
Stillwater, OK 74078
Office phone: (405) 744-8279
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Marc A. Krein, M.A.
School of Journalism and Broadcasting
Oklahoma State University
306 Paul Miller Building
Stillwater, OK 74078
Office phone: (405) 744-6804
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Tom Weir, Ph.D.
School of Journalism and Broadcasting
Oklahoma State University
206 Paul Miller Building
Stillwater, OK 74078
Office phone: (405) 744-7676
E-mail:[log in to unmask]
A paper submitted for possible presentation to the Radio-Television
Journalism Division at the 2004 annual convention of the Association for
Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in Toronto, Canada.
This case study examines the use of a dramatic amateur videotape in local
television news reporting of a crime story involving a police "rough
arrest." The results indicate three stations in Oklahoma City used the
dramatic videotape because it was available, but the extent of usage
depended on the station. The researchers found the three network affiliates
differed dramatically in story placement, video usage, and presentation.
However, all stations showed police hitting the suspect with batons more
times in a single newscast than in the original tape. Although news
executives said sweeps month did not affect coverage, the station using the
tape the most had the highest ratings.
Amateur videotape is becoming a more prevalent source of information for
local and national television newscasts (Holbert, 1991; Donn, 1997; Cohen,
2001; Elber, 2002). Local residents equipped with camcorders and little or
no journalistic training are in some cases capturing dramatic images that
can send a powerful message when shown repeatedly on newscasts anchored by
Often the most dramatic amateur videotapes involve crime, and some capture
police using force to detain suspects (Sigelman, Welch, Bledsoe and Combs,
1997; Donn, 1997; Elber, 2002). The Rodney King beating tape and its
aftermath dramatically illustrate how such tapes shown repeatedly on
television can powerfully document and shape the news. Critics of the
police departments contend such tapes help expose police brutality that
would otherwise go unreported and can lead to needed reforms (Fiske, 1996
and 1998; Knight, 1996; Donn, 1997; Jacobs, 2000). Supporters of the
departments contend the tapes often tell only a part of the story and the
repeated showings sensationalize and distort the news (Koon, 1992; Dietz,
1996; Cannon, 1998). In cases involving allegations of police misconduct,
these supporters also contend the tapes can bias the potential jury pool,
making it difficult for the officers to get a fair trial (Squitieri, 1991;
Koon, 1992; Dietz, 1996; Cannon, 1998).
In addition, researchers have found that media already cover crime news
more than other topics (Graber, 1980 & 1984; Artwick & Gordon, 1993;
Fletcher, 1996; Gilliam & Iyengar, 2000; Jones, 2001). Critics have charged
the media contain too much crime news, especially on local TV news
(Bulletin of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1992), and studies
have found coverage is often sensational, focusing on the most violent
crimes (Slattery, & Hakanen, 1994; Carroll, Tuggle, McCollum & Mitrook,
1997; Lieberman, 1998; Public Health Reports, 1998; Gilliam & Iyengar,
2000; Slattery, Doremus, and Marcus, 2001). Some scholars have defined
crime news as sensational simply by its nature (Mott, 1962; Slattery,
Doremus, and Marcus, 2001). Further, studies have shown that crime coverage
exceeds the actual crime rate (Gordon and Heath, 1981; O'Keefe and
Reid-Nash, 1987; Gilliam et. al, 1997) and critics say it fosters an
unfounded fear of crime, especially violent crime. As Robert Lichter,
president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said: "If it bleeds
it leads on local news, regardless of the reality of falling crime rates
(Public Health Reports, p. 297)." Moreover, studies have found crime
stories often are incomplete and lack context (Gordon and Robert LeBailly,
1981; Iyengar, 1991; Artwick and Gordon, 1993; Gilliam et.al, 1997; Gilliam
& Iyengar, 2000). Critics say crime stories about incidents, such as those
captured by some amateur videotape, dominate the news and the coverage does
not address the root causes of crime. Thus, they say journalists miss a
chance to enlighten viewers, readers and listeners.
Virtually no academic studies have focused specifically on how the local
media use dramatic amateur video to report and present the news, even
studies involving the Rodney King incident. Thus, the purpose of this case
study is to systematically examine the local television news coverage of a
crime story involving an amateur videotape. This study investigates
coverage of an incident involving white police officers with batons
attempting to subdue and arrest a strong, apparently uncooperative
African-American man in Oklahoma City during July of 2002. Overall, the
situation was similar to the Rodney King incident. The study will help
researchers better understand how these local television news stations used
a dramatic amateur videotape in this coverage.
Amateur Video's 'Coming of Age'
The Rodney King incident marks a watershed in the use of amateur videotape
and demonstrates its power to mold TV news. The incident that the tape
documented became local, national and even international news, led to two
trials of the police officers involved and the worst riot in the Los
Angeles history, and spawned efforts to reform its police department and
others nationwide. At the same time, the repeated use of the tape sparked
criticism of the media coverage, including allegations it helped spark the
In his 1992 book Presumed Guilty: The Tragedy of the Rodney King Affair
with former Nieman Fellow Robert Dietz, LAPD Sgt. Stacey Koon noted no
"thorough academic study" was conducted of how many times the tape was
replayed on national and local TV news outlets. Surprisingly, the authors
could still not find any academic articles devoted exclusively to media
coverage of the King incident in mass communication journals. Likewise, no
studies have appeared in these journals that exclusively investigated the
role of dramatic amateur videotape in local TV coverage of crime news.
However, the topics have been discussed widely in the media and in trade
publications, and the King incident has been investigated in several books.
Soon after the King tape first aired, Hastings and Wilson put into
perspective the importance of the videotape shot by amateur videographer
George Holliday from the balcony of his apartment: "Without pictures,
Rodney Glenn King's violent run-in with police might have been just another
complaint of police brutality in the nation's second-largest city. With the
simple introduction of a home video camera, his beating has become a
national news story seen by millions (1991)." The videotape of King being
struck with batons by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department has
since been shown more times on television that any tape except Abraham
Zapruder's tape of President Kennedy's assassination, Charen observes (1999).
Lichter says such documentary images can have a powerful effect on the
public. "There's something about the combination of sight and sound that
makes the information seem more real (The Associated Press, 2001)." ABC-TV
journalist Ted Koppel put it this way in a 1998 edition of "Nightline"
assessing the impact of the tape: "We know what happened in the case of
Rodney King because we saw it on videotape (1998)."
Further, Thompson says the King videotape represents "the coming of age" of
portable video and "in a very real way, was the beginning of the total
change in how information is gathered (Elber, 2002)." Donn observed that
the use of private videotape has become the "weapon of choice for those who
fight police brutality (1997)." Holliday called it "a very powerful tool
As local TV news budgets are slashed, Holbert notes stations are relying
more on such videotapes (1991). "It's the triumph of technology over
content," says Everette Dennis, executive director of the Gannett Center
for Media Studies. "You use it because it's there (Holbert, 1991)." In
addition, Holbert says often such dramatic pictures are distorting the
notion of news and often "go hand-in-hand with sensationalistic crime
Cohen notes since Holliday's videotape appeared, "amateur video has become
a staple of network news broadcasts (2001)." David Bartlett, former
president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, put it this
way: "When [using amateur video] was first taking off, I knew the day would
come soon when there wouldn't be anything of note that happened that
wouldn't be videotaped by at least one person (Cohen, 2001)." Eason Jordon,
chief news executive and news gathering president for the CNN News Group,
indicates that day has come: "It's a rare day when someone somewhere
doesn't approach us with amateur video (Cohen, 2001)."
Further, the fallout from repeated showings of dramatic videotapes on local
and national TV newscasts can have important consequences. Clark noted the
scenes in the King videotape "eventually brought down a police chief, cut
short the careers of a district attorney and possibly a mayor, and led to
the worst U.S. riots this century (1993)."
At the same time, Alpert and other analysts have observed that part of the
fallout has been increased scrutiny of police and the media that have led
to reforms. Locy called it "the legacy of Rodney King." As Locy pointed
out: "For African Americans and others, a bystander's grainy videotape of
the beating became a symbol of overly aggressive police nationwide (2001)."
Richard Noyes of the Center for Media Studies noted the TV news coverage
was partly to blame for the riot because of its continual airing of the
King videotape during the preceding months. "Everyone thinks they know what
happened, who is guilty, who is not guilty," Noyes said. "It was trial by
videotape. It is easy to second-guess the jury because of the videotape
(Johnson, 1992)." Knight (1996) calls the videotape "the most widely viewed
and evaluated piece of evidence in the history of criminal justice."
Soon after the initial incident occurred, Police Chief Daryl Gates urged
the media to stop broadcasting the tape "again and again and again," noting
the officers "cannot have a fair trial if the tape continues to be played
Sigelman, Welch, Bledsoe and Combs found the tape was shown 27 times from
March 5, 1991, to the end of March by the three major networks alone on
their evening newscasts (1997). Former Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon,
who covered the trial and wrote a book about it, observed the tape "would
be shown hundreds of times on local television in the year to come and in
widely watched segments of CNN Headline News. KTLA would win a Peabody
Award for showing it (Cannon, 1998)."
Saltzman notes such videotapes are "so digestible" that it is easy for
viewers to miss the complete story. "At times, a tape can almost be more
distorted and give the wrong impression than no tape," Saltzman said
(Elber, 2002). Cannon noted the King videotape only gave a partial account
of the incident, and he assessed the tape's impact more bluntly: "It
brought the violent episode to light and the officers to the bar of
justice. Yet it also, in its own way, distorted the truth. And, because of
the graphic power and apparent impartiality of its images, it did so with
enormous impact (1998)."
Specifically, Cannon pointed out the tape only recorded what happened at
the end of the incident. It began when two California Highway Patrol
troopers spotted King, who later admitted he had been drinking and smoking
drugs (Charen, 1999), driving erratically and pursued him on an 8-mile
high-speed chase. Initially, a CHP officer tried to arrest King and the
LAPD officers only took charge when trying to avoid a shooting after the
trooper pulled her gun, which was against LAPD policy. Unlike his two
passengers, King repeatedly refused to comply with her orders. Believing
King was high on PCP and thus inordinately strong, the LAPD officers used a
Taser gun twice on him with no avail. They also tried a "swarm" technique
when four officers rushed King all at once in an attempt to subdue him, but
they were cast aside.
The videotape only began rolling when King charged directly at Officer
Laurence Powell, Cannon pointed out. However, most viewers did not see this
context for the repeated baton blows that followed because nearly all
stations showed an edited version that left out the first 13 seconds of the
81-second tape (Charen, 1999). The first part of the tape showing King
charging was "blurry, and the news station that first broadcast them said
they were edited out for clarity (April, 1998)." Moreover, Cannon pointed
out: "The charge was part of the story because it showed King's resistance
to being taken into custody, but millions of viewers who saw the incident
on television never knew it existed, nor, indeed did many of the producers
at the stations who were responsible for showing the tape (1998)."
Dietz also criticized the editing of the tape, noting viewers did not see
"an aggressive King" whose intentions were unknown and who had not been
searched for possible weapons." Moreover, Dietz said the media mistakenly
assumed the case was racial in nature just because the officers were white
and King was black. The media also influenced the jury in the second trial
by repeatedly showing the unedited tape and suggesting rioting could follow
another not guilty verdict, he said.
Fiske says several King tapes existed. Specifically, he said one tape was
Holliday's original and others were technologically enhanced versions used
by the defense lawyers. Fiske said the original tape showed "authenticity,"
and he called it "America's unfunniest home video." In a larger sense,
Fiske said the tape "was significant not just because of its eighty-one
seconds of electronic reality condensed four hundred years of racial
history into the nation's experience of contemporary race relations, but
also because, technologically, it operated at a crucial point in the flow
of knowledge and visibility (1996, p. 218)."
Ed Turner, executive vice president of CNN at the time, later admitted
"television used the tape like wallpaper (Cannon, 2003)." A year later when
the omission became an issue, Cannon noted Turner ordered the full tape be
shown, but he was in the minority. Local stations in Los Angeles and other
networks continued to use the edited version.
After the riot, some media executives, including Turner, questioned their
repeated use of the tape. "We are now asking ourselves, are we responsible
for the outrage for presenting the tape over and over?" said Turner. "Did
we let ourselves and the public down by a failure to explain further,
rather than rely on the obvious and the easy? I'm afraid there is truth in
that (Jubera, 1992)."
Partly as a result of the King incident, however, Wood notes in
retrospective "it is harder for cops to operate out of the public eye these
days (2002)." He points out 40 percent of American households have video
cameras and a third of police cars now carry them. Ironically, at least one
of King's many subsequent arrests was captured on police videotape
(Greensboro News and Record, 1995). Further, Wood points out the King
incident has lead to better police training regarding sensitive racial
issues, more civilian oversight and easier ways to lodge complaints against
rouge cops. In addition, Woods notes the King and other high-profile cases
"have shown a rush to judgment can multiply misunderstandings." Bob Steele
of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies pointed out the measured
response to the recent videotaped beating of a handcuffed suspect in
Inglewood, Calif., indicates viewers know it is only a part of the
evidence: "People have recognized that this video is only one piece of a
legal puzzle and are allowing for a more measured examination of the entire
situation before passing judgment (Woods, 2002)."
'Video Vigilante' case
In the 12 years since Holliday's videotape first aired, media at all levels
have had ample time to assess and refine their use of dramatic amateur
videotapes in news reporting and presentation. Consequently, it is
appropriate to examine how local television stations are now using such
videotapes in their daily news coverage. This study focuses on one such
To allow for some comparisons to the benchmark Rodney King incident, the
authors chose to study an incident that was similar in many ways. Brian
Bates, a self-proclaimed "video vigilante" in Oklahoma City, videotaped two
white police officers trying to arrest Donald Reed Pete, an African
American (Raymond, 11 July 2002) who was accused of having sex with a
prostitute in a van in a church parking lot. Bates, who routinely
videotapes and reports such incidents and submits them to local news
organizations, called police and videotaped what followed. Greg Driskell,
the first officer to arrive and who weighs about 140 pounds less than Pete,
is depicted using pepper spray and hitting Pete with a baton on the arms
and legs in an attempt to arrest him after Pete began eating what Capt.
Jessica Cummins said appeared to be marijuana. A second officer, E.J. Dyer,
then arrived and both officers struck Pete with their batons and sometimes
knees, stopping when they handcuffed him. A story in the Daily Oklahoman
said the officers appeared to strike Pete 27 times (Raymond, 13 July 2002).
The length of this video was about seven minutes from the time that the
first officer arrived until the suspect was fully restrained with the help
of backup units.
Three major network affiliates in Oklahoma City began showing the videotape
immediately and repeatedly during their newscasts, and it was shown
nationally and internationally as well. All of the stations showed the tape
in its entirety the first night it was received, but it was edited down to
small clips after that focusing primarily on police striking Pete with a
baton. "To the untrained eye, it might look like this man was beaten,"
Capt. Cummins told USA Today (Johnson, 11 July 2002). "He was hit in the
meaty parts of his arms and legs. He was not struck in life-threatening
areas." In an article headlined "American police have been caught at it
The Guardian of London reported: "This is but the latest in a long line of
what have become known as Rodney King incidents (emphasis added; 15 July
The authors sought to systematically investigate the major aspects of the
local television coverage regarding this use of the dramatic amateur
videotape. Consequently, the first research question is:
RQ 1: How did the local competing television stations use the dramatic
amateur videotape in their coverage of this incident?
One way to gauge the extent of the coverage was to examine how much air
time was devoted to the incident. Thus the second research question was:
RQ 2: How much air time did the local competing television stations
dedicate to the dramatic amateur videotape in their coverage of this incident?
Another important gauge of the coverage is the extent to which the local
television stations showed the officers striking the suspect. The more
times that the coverage shows the suspect being struck, the more
sensational the coverage. Thus, the third research question was:
RQ 3: How many times did the local competing television stations show the
suspect being struck by the officers in the dramatic amateur videotape in
their coverage of this incident?
Past research has tended to lump all local television stations together
regarding their coverage of crime stories. To be more insightful, the local
TV coverage also must be compared across stations. Thus, the fourth
research question is:
RQ 4: What are the similarities and differences in the use of the amateur
videotape among the local competing television stations in this incident?
One likely reason no academic study was conducted of local television
coverage of the King incident is because most TV stations only keep copies
of their newscasts for about a month. Fortunately, one of the authors was
conducting a content analysis of local media for an unrelated study during
July of 2002 when the Pete incident occurred on July 8. The same author had
previously conducted several studies regarding media coverage of crime
stories, including the O.J. Simpson murder trial and its coverage, and had
been a journalist in nearby San Diego when the King incident and the
subsequent riot occurred. Consequently, the author thought the coverage of
this incident warranted further study. The fact that this incident occurred
in July is noteworthy because it is a sweeps month for TV broadcasters when
they try to maximize their ratings to get higher advertising rates. In the
course of an unrelated project, the researchers recorded the 30-minute
newscasts at 6 p.m. of three network affiliates KFOR-TV4 (NBC), KOCO-TV5
(ABC) and KWTV-TV9 (CBS) -- because the time slot would contain the most
local news. Local news was not recorded on Sunday because most of the
stations did not have a 6 p.m. newscast. Similarly, no recording was
conducted for KOKH-TV25 (FOX) because the station only had one hour-long
newscast at 9 p.m.
A content analysis was conducted to assess the local TV coverage of the
Pete incident. As Berelson notes, a content analysis allows the researcher
to generate an "objective, systematic and quantitative description of the
manifest content of communication (1952, p. 18)." The units of analysis
were news stories, teases, and promos that mentioned the Pete incident.
Teases and promos for the Pete story were included because most of them
contained a portion of the videotape or a graphic with an image taken from
it. Promos are 30-second spots placed within the newscast to promote
another newscast or program, whereas teases are quick video snips within or
at the beginning of a newscast intended to attract viewers or keep them
watching. The researchers wanted to assess the total impact of the video in
the newscast, and teases and promos are an important part of the package.
Bigelow (2001) found during a sweeps month that teases were routinely used
to manipulate viewers' emotions and mislead them.
In each case, the units of analysis were straightforward and objective,
such as the number of times the suspect was actually hit, and they did not
require a check of intercoder reliability.
Coding Procedures and Definitions
A coding sheet was used for each story, tease and promo mentioning the
incident. In order to more accurately assess the depth of coverage, stories
were divided into main stories and sidebars. A main story was defined as
the first part of the story with the anchor and a reporter, if any. A
sidebar would be a subsequent story about a different but related topic. In
general, the larger the number of sidebars, the more extensive and varied
To assess the overall extent of the coverage during each newscast, the
length in seconds of each main story, sidebar, tease and promo was
recorded. The total amount of coverage for each newscast was calculated by
adding the lengths of all of these elements. Moreover, the station's total
coverage was determined by adding up the coverage of all of the newscasts
mentioning the incident. Additionally, the number of reporters appearing in
each story or sidebar and the amount of live coverage in seconds also was
Two measures were included to assess story play. The story's overall
position in the newscast was recorded based on its order of appearance. For
example, if the story appeared first, it received a 1. If a sidebar
followed, it received a 2. Further, the story's appearance in a section of
the newscast also was noted. The first section is from the beginning of the
newscast until the first commercial, and subsequent sections are defined as
the portion of the newscast between commercials. Thus, if the story
appeared first in the first section, 1A would be recorded. A 1B would be
recorded for the first story in the second section.
To assess the use of the amateur videotape, the number of times it was
shown in the stories, teases and promos was calculated. Similarly, the
length of the tape in seconds was recorded for each time it was shown.
Importantly, the number of times that Pete was struck with a baton was
calculated for each showing of the tape. In addition, one of the authors
conducted an analysis of the original tape for comparison purposes.
Sometimes a freeze-frame from the tape was used as a graphic with the
story, either in lieu of showing the tape or with it. Consequently, the
number of times a graphic was used in stories, teases and promos was
counted, and whether the graphic contained an image from the tape also was
Because teases are used to increase interest in the story, the number of
teases about the incident was counted for each newscast. Further, the
number of times the videotape was shown in each tease and the number of
times Pete was struck in each showing were calculated. The same measures
were calculated for promos, which trumpeted an upcoming program involving
the incident or the station's coverage of it.
To gain more insights into how decisions about news coverage of the
incident were made at these stations, the authors contacted their news
executives and e-mailed them questions about it. Two of the three news
executives responded to the questions.
Solid statistical conclusions cannot be drawn based on data for less than a
month of observation of how these local television stations used this
dramatic amateur videotape involving a crime story, and that was not the
intention of this study. Because the coverage of crime news can have a
profound effect on a community, it is nevertheless helpful to explore how
these stations' used this dramatic amateur videotape in their coverage of
Although local television news coverage of crime stories is often lumped
together in the literature, this study found marked differences in how
these three local TV stations covered the same story in this incident. As
Table 1 in the appendix indicates, KOCO-TV5 (ABC) had by far the most total
coverage in seconds, followed by KFOR-TV4 (NBC) and KWTV-TV9 (CBS) a
distant third. KOCO-TV5 also had the highest mean coverage per newscast.
Similarly, KOCO-TV5 had the most extensive coverage. Not only did it
broadcast the most main stories, it had nearly twice as many sidebars as
KFOR-TV4 and more than six times as many as KWTV-TV9. Further, the total
number of reporters appearing in KOCO-TV5's stories was more than three
times the number of the other two stations and it had about twice as many
newscasts with live video. Thus, KOCO-TV5 gave the most air time to the
story and apparently devoted the most resources to covering it.
Overall, KWTV-TV9 and KFOR-TV4 both positioned the story higher in the
newscast on average than KOCO-TV5. All stories of the two stations were
positioned in the first section of the newscast. The results may be
partially skewed by the fact that KOCO-TV5 had more stories, including some
with lesser news value, and used more extensive teases and promos.
Consequently, it positioned some stories deeper in the newscast.
In addition, the play would likely have been higher for all stations if the
study had not been conducted in July when stormy weather often led the
newscasts in Oklahoma.
The results also indicate that these stations used the dramatic amateur
videotape of a crime story when they had it, although important differences
again emerged. As Table 2 indicates, during the 6 p.m. newscast KOCO-TV5
broadcast the tape the most times, followed by KFOR-TV4. KOCO-TV5 broadcast
the tape twice as many times as KWTV-TV9. Moreover, KOCO-TV5 broadcast the
tape for the most seconds, including nearly three times as long as
KWTV-TV9, and its average time broadcasting the tape per newscast was twice
as long as KWTV-TV9.
It is important to note this data represents only one 30-minute newscast
per day. Most of the stations have at least three other newscasts, so it is
at least conceivable that the use of the videotape would have been at least
tripled during this period.
In addition, all stations aired teases with the videotape during other
programs before their newscasts, which were not counted in this study.
Furthermore, none of the stations aired the videotape in its entirety
during the 6 p.m. newscast, although all of the stations aired the entire
tape during the 10 p.m. newscast on the first night after it was released.
The full tape was 15 minutes, but the part involving the arrest was about
seven minutes. Importantly, all stations posted the entire tape on their
Web sites. However, the stations directed viewers to it less than five
times combined and only during the first week.
One of the authors and a producer from KWTV-TV9 conducted a content
analysis of the entire original amateur videotape that was used by the
station, which was six minutes and 56 seconds long. For the first five
minutes, only one officer was involved. The officer struck Pete six times
to the body with a baton, kneed him nine times to the body, and kicked his
body two times with his shoe. For the remaining two minutes, two officers
struck Pete's body a combined 17 times with a baton and kneed him six times
to the body. Overall, Pete was struck 22 times with a baton.
To fairly operationalize the violence and because of its similarity to the
King case, the authors only counted the number of times that the TV
stations showed officers striking Pete with a baton. As Table 2 indicates,
KOCO-TV5 showed the most strikes, including nearly three times as many hits
as KWTV-TV9. During the first two days after the tape was first aired, all
of the stations showed Pete being struck more times with the baton in their
newscasts than he was struck in the original tape, including 34 times in
one KFOR-TV4 broadcast. In a newscast on July 27, nearly three weeks after
the story was first aired and on a day when it was the only station with
coverage, KOCO-TV5 showed Pete being struck 34 times in the teases alone.
Overall, Pete was struck 46 times in 77 seconds, more than double the
number of times he was actually struck in the 480 seconds of the entire
tape. All stations routinely edited the original tape, with KOCO-TV5
repeatedly showing the most violent part of it where both officers were
striking Pete. Sometimes the station showed this part several times in the
KOCO-TV5, which had the lowest Nielsen Media Research ratings of the three
stations, used the tape the most for promotional purposes, showing Pete
being struck in teases more than four times as much as the other stations.
It was also the only station to use promos for the story, which included a
portion of the tape. Four days after the incident, KOCO-TV5 ran a promo
telling viewers that it was the first station to show the complete tape.
The station also heavily promoted its two-part exclusive interview with
Pete, which was shown in the more lucrative 10 p.m. time slot in Oklahoma
July 12 was a watershed in the coverage of the incident. On the previous
day, KOCO-TV5 interviewed a volunteer with the local NAACP who suggested
that African Americans may be compelled to violence if significant changes
in the police department were not forthcoming. That evening, someone fired
a bullet into a police car in Bethany, a suburb of Oklahoma City. City
officials and African American community leaders appealed for calm the next
day during a news conference and decried the comments that the volunteer
made in some local TV broadcasts. The use of the videotape and the amount
of coverage changed for some stations after the appeal. As Figure 1 shows,
KFOR-TV4 had shown the beating clip the most prior to the appeal, including
eight times during one broadcast. After the appeal, its use of the
videotape dropped dramatically, and Pete was shown being struck fewer times
on each tape. Soon thereafter, KFOR-TV4 dropped its use of a graphic in the
form of a badge with a still image from the tape with an officer with his
arm raised over Pete while holding a baton. Instead, it used a graphic with
a drawing of a generic police officer and a baton. Conversely, KOCO-TV5's
use of the tape increased after the appeal whereas KWTV-TV9's use remained
about the same. KWTV-TV9 continued to use a graphic with a still image from
the videotape. Moreover, all three stations identified the story with catch
phrases on graphics such as "Caught on Tape," Rough Arrest," "Use of Force"
As previously indicated, KOCO-TV5 promoted its coverage of the incident
more than the other stations. As Table 3 indicates, KOCO-TV5 had three
times as many teases as the other stations. KOCO-TV5 also used the video
twice as much in the teases, and aired it more than five times as long.
Additionally, it aired six promos and used the video in all of them,
whereas the other stations did not promote their coverage.
Views of Broadcasters
To investigate the views of those involved in the coverage, the authors
initially contacted the news departments of KOCO-TV5, KFOR-TV4 and KWTV9
and then sent an e-mail message with six questions concerning the use of
the videotape. News executives from two stations replied, and their
identity and the identity of their station was kept anonymous.
When asked how the station acquired the tape and approached its placement
in the newscast, one news executive said the station regularly deals with
video that requires "special considerations." The news executive said the
video of the Pete incident received the same review process as the video
from 9/11 and similar videotapes. "The bottom line is always the value to
the viewer," the news executive said.
Another news executive said the station knows "that pictures speak louder
than words." Consequently, the news executive said the station approached
the video with "some skepticism" but noted "the video clearly shows an
officer beating a man." Further, the news executive said the placement of
the story was "obvious": "It's a lead story." The challenge for the station
was tracking down all of the parties for comment, so the video could be put
into perspective, the news executive said.
The news executives both said several broadcasters in the newsroom,
including news managers, were involved in the decisions concerning which
part of the video to air. When asked what factors were involved in the
selection process, one news executive said the main factor was "time
constraints dictated by the length of newscasts." In addition, the news
executive noted the entire video was aired "during different portions of
the newscasts" and on other platforms, including the station's Web site.
The other news executive said the video was reviewed by legal counsel along
with news managers. Subsequently, the station determined "there was no
legal ramifications from airing the video." Specifically, the news
executive said no editorial decision was made "to not air specific parts of
the tape." The news executive also said the entire tape was aired at 10 p.m.
Both news executives said their stations made no changes in the coverage
after officials appealed for calm. "We had already decided to scale back
use of the video because it was becoming wallpaper video," said one news
executive. The news executive also said: "We understood the importance for
city leaders to be heard addressing the situation and the investigation
we gave a good deal of time to them to do so."
When asked what factors were involved in selecting video for teases and
promos, both news executives said the selection was the same as for other
big stories. After noting the station typically teases the big story in
"topicals and pre-show teases," one news executive from a different station
said: "We did eventually scale back the use of the video because it was
being used as wallpaper video for every new development in the case."
Finally, both news executives said the fact that the video was aired during
sweeps month did not influence decision making involving the story. "The
story was of huge interest to our community the calendar does not play a
part in news coverage," one news executive. Likewise, the other news
executive said the story received "the time it took to tell the story.
Oklahoma City is a metered market, so we compete for viewers every day."
The coverage of the Donald Reed Pete case has important implications for
television news and for the use of dramatic amateur video in local
television coverage of crime news. In Oklahoma City, heightened coverage of
the incident helped lead city officials and leaders of the African-American
community to call for calm, but it also helped lead to changes in the
city's use-offorce policy (Raymond, 2003). Moreover, a citizens' advisory
board was created to address community concerns about the police
department, and all police officers were subsequently required to receive
sensitivity and cultural diversity training. An internal investigation and
a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Justice Department cleared the
officers, and they returned to duty. However, Pete filed a $7.7 million
federal civil lawsuit on July 7, 2003, alleging the officers used excessive
force despite his attempts to cooperate with them (Trougakos, 2003).
The purpose of this study was to shed light on how these local competing
television news stations used the same amateur videotape to report crime
news of an important racially charged story to the community. The results
indicate these stations used the tape if they had it, but the extent of its
use may depend on the news philosophy and market position of the station.
Initially, KFOR-TV4 used the tape heavily, airing parts of it eight times
in one newscast and showing Pete being struck with the baton in its first
newscast more times than in the original tape. After the appeal for calm,
the results indicate the station's use of the tape dropped. It showed the
tape fewer times and featured less violent portions of it. None of the news
executives said the appeal for calm affected their coverage. Thus, the
reduced coverage appears to have been the result of the declining
importance of the story.
On the other hand, the results indicate KOCO-TV5 increased its overall
coverage after the call for calm. It used the tape more in its news
stories, even when the coverage did little to advance the story, as well as
in teases and promos. In fact, self promotion seemed to be one of its chief
goals. Because news executives said the airing of the video was reduced
after the appeal because it had become "wallpaper," the news executive
might not have been aware of the cumulative effect of the teases, promos
In addition, all news executives said the fact that it was a sweeps month
played no role in the coverage and the use of the tape. Because the story
dominated coverage during the month and KOCO-TV5 heavily promoted it, it
appeared to become a de facto sweeps package. The station did not appear to
have many specially prepared packages for sweeps month. Nielsen ratings
show that KOCO-TV5 was the only station to increase its rating by one
point during the month, although it is impossible to tell why. KFOR-TV4's
rating remained unchanged whereas KWTV-TV9's rating dropped a point. These
stations rarely used teases, and they did not use promos to trumpet their
coverage of the story.
KWTV-TV9 had the least coverage of the incident and used the tape the least
throughout the study. It appeared to be a conscious decision to report the
story, but to not focus so much on the violent videotape. Perhaps the
station was sensitive to the criticism of repeated airings that followed
the Rodney King incident because the news executives mentioned it was being
used as "wallpaper." Another explanation could be that the station appeared
to have sweeps packages ready to go. Because these packages were
preprogrammed, the station had less time to spend on the story.
Nevertheless, the reduced coverage illustrates that local TV stations have
wide options concerning how often they expose viewers to violent content
and they can choose a less violent option.
Further, the fact that all stations showed the entire videotape of the
arrest at some point and stations made it available on the Web is an
improvement from the Rodney King incident, when few viewers saw the
complete tape. However, most of the stations showed edited versions after
the first time. Thus, as in the King incident most viewers did not see the
attempts to arrest Pete without the baton. Often, these edited versions
focused on the most violent parts of the tape. Consequently, they showed
more violence per second than actually occurred. Nine times the stations
showed Pete being hit with a baton more times in the newscast than actually
occurred on the tape, including a KFOR-TV4 newscast the day after the
incident and a KOCO-TV5 newscast in which he was struck twice as much. In
about three weeks of 6 p.m. newscasts, Pete was shown being struck 458
times, 224 by KOCO-TV5 alone. As pointed out earlier, this coverage would
likely more than tripled if other newscasts were included and it does not
include the local FOX affiliate, which has a one-hour program. It is
impossible to tell the long-term effects of such coverage, but it raises
concerns about the effects of violent crime coverage, desensitization to
violence and media ethics.
Limitations and Future Research
This case study of the use of the same dramatic amateur videotape in
reporting a crime story by three Oklahoma City stations was conducted in
July 2002. The study focused on this incident, and its findings cannot be
generalized beyond this case. The results might have been different if
another incident had been studied or if this study had been conducted over
a longer time period of time. Nevertheless, the story is not unusual and
news directors across the country either have been or will be faced with
The study did document that these television stations were showing the
dramatic videotape repeatedly, despite the criticism that the media
received for doing so in the Rodney King and other incidents. One news
executive admitted that the dramatic videotape had become "wallpaper," the
same term used by a CNN executive after the Los Angeles riots. A future
study could examine the extent to which this practice occurs a local
television stations and under what conditions.
The incident that was repeatedly shown in the videotape affected the
community in which it was viewed, and resulted in changes in police
department procedures. Further, it is uncertain what possible effects the
repeated showing the same dramatic videotape had on viewers. Future studies
could investigate possible effects, including whether they desensitize
viewers to violence or conversely increase their fear of being a crime victim.
Moreover, future studies could examine how these stories were framed,
looking. semantically at what words were used to describe the incident and
whether the coverage itself was biased or sensational, including comments
made by the reporters and anchors.
In addition, studies should be conducted of all newscasts during the day
and over a longer period of time. They also should include all stations in
the market. Moreover, they should compare the coverage between broadcast
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Overall Coverage of the Pete
KFOR-TV4 KOCO-TV5 KWTV-TV9
Total coverage 1719.0 3086.0 1384.0
Mean coverage 156.0 192.0 125.0
Main stories 12.0 17.0 11.0
Sidebars 10.0 19.0 3.0
Total reporters in stories 9.0 28.0 8.0
Stories with live video 8.0 15.0 7.0
Mean position in newscast 2.8 5.4 2.5
Use of the Amateur Videotape
KFOR-TV4 KOCO-TV5 KWTV-TV9
Total Times video shown 35.0 42.0 18.0
Mean times shown/newscast 3.1 2.6 1.6
Max times shown/newscast 8.0 7.0 6.0
Total length of video 328.0 510.0 187.0
Mean length of video 30.0 34.0 17.0
Max length of video 70.0 120.0 74.0
Total times hit w/baton 165.0 224.0 69.0
Mean times hit w/baton 15.0 15.0 6.0
Max times hit with baton 34.0 46.0 24.0
Total times hit in teases 15.0 70.0 13.0
Mean times hit in teases 3.0 6.0 3.0
Max times hit in teases 7.0 35.0 9.0
Total times hit in promos 0 22.0 0
Mean times hit in promos 0 11.0 0
Max times hit in promos 0 18.0 0
Total graphics with stories 18.0 19.0 13.0
Graphic with video still 4.0 6.0 8.0
Use of Teases and Promos for Story Coverage
KFOR-TV4 KOCO-TV5 KWTV-TV9
Total teases in coverage 5.0 15.0 5.0
Max teases/newscast 1.0 4.0 2.0
Total teases with video 5.0 13.0 5.0
Max tease video/newscast 15.0 52.0 10.0
Total time of teases 56.0 274.0 48.0
with video(in seconds)
Max tease time/newscast 15.0 52.0 10.0
Total promos in coverage 0 6.0 0
Max promos/newscast 0 3.0 0
Total time of promos 0 177.0 0
Max time promos/newscast 0 87.0 0
Total promos with video 0 6.0 0
Max promos with video 0 3.0 0
Times Videotape Shown Per Newscast
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