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Originally published March 21, 2014 at 2:20 PM | Page modified March 21, 2014 at 4:06 PM

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When is it worth using a helicopter for a TV news report?

Local TV news stations should reassess the role of helicopters in the newsgathering process after a KOMO-TV helicopter crash, writes columnist Thanh Tan.


Times editorial columnist

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I remember the rush I used to feel while hovering over news scenes in a helicopter. At the time, I was a TV reporter in Portland, Ore. The thrill of those moments was always tempered by morbid thoughts of “What if this thing falls? Is this story worth losing my life over?”

Our crews always made it back safe, but accidents happen. At least three previous crashes involving Seattle news helicopters ended with pilots and photographers walking away.

On Tuesday, a KOMO-TV helicopter crashed into the street, killing photojournalist Bill Strothman and pilot Gary Pfitzner, and seriously injuring the driver of a car. Strothman and Pfitzner had covered a water-main break and stopped to refuel on the station’s rooftop helipad in Seattle.

Investigators are looking into what caused Air 4 to go down. In the meantime, the local TV news stations should reassess the role of helicopters in the newsgathering process. These expensive contraptions ought to be used judiciously, if at all.

Newsrooms should not send crews into the skies just because they can or to vie for viewership. Aerial shots of water-main breaks, traffic jams and parades might boost ratings, but they come at a cost. Last Tuesday, we learned just how high.

I met Bill in 2002 while I was an intern at KOMO-TV. Over two summers, Bill and his colleagues taught me the power of visual stories. He believed simple scripts and solid video could change hearts and minds. Bill was a moral compass in the newsroom and beyond.

I never knew Gary, but those who did speak of a man who loved to fly and valued safety.

A few years into my career in local TV news, I had grown weary of mindless stories and the frenetic pace of the daily news cycle. In 2007, I documented one of my experiences in a piece for the public radio program “This American Life.” Bill heard the story and emailed me.

“The push for ratings and the rush of live TV often puts us at odds with solid journalistic ethical judgment,” he lamented in that note. “Your story reminds us all that we are dealing with real lives here and we need to tread carefully.”

Bill was talking about the general state of local news, but his words were eerily prescient.

A perpetual ratings battle between newsrooms prompts broadcasters to use every tool at their disposal. Choppers are an appealing resource and the quickest way to get to a news scene, but they should be used sparingly.

Viewers need information about mass riots, natural disasters and building explosions, especially when news crews on the ground can’t reach the sites. But do mundane street closures and beauty shots really serve the public? Transportation department traffic cameras already post photos and videos online.

KING-TV and KOMO-TV wisely share a helicopter lease, but perhaps all Seattle stations should send up just one chopper — when a story merits such coverage — and share the video, while reporters compete for information on the ground.

Now is the time for stations to redefine the parameters of aerial coverage.

The National Transportation Safety Board has made civilian helicopter safety its highest priority after an “overwhelming growth” of copter use, according to a Seattle Times news report.

Mayor Ed Murray is right to call for a look at helipad policies in downtown Seattle, where the skyline is continually changing. New construction is everywhere. Power lines, too. Stations in the area should limit takeoffs and landings.

Viewers must also note their role in all this. Stations often deploy helicopters to feed the audience’s appetite for interesting video. Hopefully, viewers will now consider what it takes to get those shots.

Seattle has lost two media veterans. Bill Strothman and Gary Pfitzner were doing their jobs when they were killed. They leave behind anguished families and colleagues.

The allure of helicopter newsgathering won’t be easy to shake off, but last week’s accident proves news choppers can become too dangerous, too quickly. The benefits of their use do not always outweigh the risks.

Thanh Tan's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is ttan@seattletimes.com On Twitter @TaninSeattle



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