Media thrust into role of aiding police; Journalists weigh ethics of helping vs. objectivity

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 12A

When police negotiators tried to talk Patrick Murphy Jr. and Donald Newbury out of their hotel room Tuesday night, the men didn’t bargain for leniency. They bargained for airtime.

“Well, the way I see it, I had to make a statement,” Mr. Newbury said during a live interview the two men gave to Colorado Springs TV station KKTV before giving up their 42-day run. With their interviews early Wednesday, the two men joined a list of criminals – from David Koresh to Ted Kaczynski – who have used the platform of a police negotiation to expound their views.

KKTV anchor Eric Singer joined an equally long list of journalists who have been torn between covering the news and becoming part of it.

“This is the most important story I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “I never in my wildest dreams ever imagined that I would play a role like this.”

The anchor said he did something he normally wouldn’t and let police guide his questioning of the two. Negotiators did not tell him what to ask but warned him not to bring up any issues that might anger the escapees. He avoided topics such as the killing of Irving police Officer Aubrey Hawkins because “those things were potential hot buttons. Talking about, or having them relive those situations perhaps could have done more harm than good,” Mr. Singer told NBC’s Today Show.

Being part of the story

For reporters trained as observers, not participants, cooperating with authorities can pose ethical dilemmas.

“You’re really weighing journalistic independence against the obligation of all of us as human beings to prevent profound harm,” said Dr. Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education center in St. Petersburg, Fla. “If KKTV believed the only reasonable alternative to prevent profound harm was to give over its airwaves to escaped convicts, that’s a choice they can make and defend.”

From the perspective of police, however, members of the media can be useful aides in their efforts to bring a peaceful end to crises.

“Ten minutes of air time is well worth a police officer’s, EMT person’s or a firefighter’s life,” said Peter DiVasto, a former hostage negotiation instructor for the U.S. Department of Energy.

It was about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday when Mr. Singer learned that the fugitives wanted to be interviewed before surrendering.

“Eric Singer, and I don’t mind saying it, was a major player” in the operation, said FBI Special Agent Greg Groves.

Dr. Steele defended the anchor’s choice of questions. “It wasn’t Eric Singer’s role to ask hard journalistic questions at that point. Law enforcement wasn’t asking for his reportorial expertise. They wanted assistance in resolving a dangerous situation.”

Because of their prominence, journalists are often thrown into the role of middlemen during a crisis.

In 1992, George Lott killed two lawyers and wounded three other people in the Tarrant County Courthouse. When he wanted to turn himself in, Mr. Lott went to the Dallas studios of WFAA (Channel 8), not police. Anchor Tracy Rowlett got an interview with Mr. Lott before police arrested him.

In 1995, the Unabomber, later identified as Mr. Kaczynski, announced he would cease his decade-long campaign of violence if news organizations published his 35,000-word Luddite manifesto. The New York Times and The Washington Post agreed in the name of public safety.

“I thought there was nothing wrong with publishing it,” said Richard Harwood, who was ombudsman for The Washington Post at the time. “We print propaganda all the time in the form of ads or statements from people. It was an independent decision we made that no one forced on us.”

Branch Davidian standoff

An instance of a Dallas news organization being thrust into a story came in 1993, during the standoff at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco.

“I was driving to Waco when I got a call on my cell phone from the station,” said Rick Ericson, then news director of radio station KRLD-AM (1080). “They said that a guy from Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms had called and wanted us to help him out in their negotiations.”

Hours earlier, a shootout at the compound had left four ATF agents dead. Authorities had informed leader David Koresh that they wanted a cease-fire, but Mr. Koresh didn’t believe them. “He said he would believe it when he heard it on KRLD,” Mr. Ericson said.

At first, station officials were unsure how to proceed. “I said, ‘I’m a little leery about going from the role of being a journalist to a more active role like this.’ Then the agent said, ‘We’ve already got three, possibly four dead agents, and I don’t know how many they’ve got dead on their side. This could explode again. We believe that if you do this, it’ll help save lives.’

“I had no choice but to do it,” Mr. Ericson said.

Later, federal officials asked the station to broadcast an unedited 58-minute Koresh sermon. Station officials reluctantly agreed.

“An FBI agent said we’re getting a tape from [Mr. Koresh], and he says if KRLD plays it, he and everyone else will surrender peacefully,” Mr. Ericson said. “We thought it was in the public interest to play it.” But shortly after the broadcast, Mr. Koresh announced God had told him not to surrender.

Mr. Ericson, now senior communications director for the LeMaster Group public relations firm, said he would likely take the same actions today. “It is one of the most difficult decisions a news director could ever have to make.”

Basking in morning’s glory; 6th-graders savor the limelight while producing school TV show

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 33A

DUNCANVILLE – She might not yet have the cultivated perkiness of a Katie Couric – she’s only 12, after all – but Morgan Turner already knows how to deliver a line with vigor.

“Welcome to Good Morning Smith Academy!” she says into the mike. “We’re proud to be part of your morning!”

Morgan is one of five sixth-graders at Smith Academy of Arts and Sciences who puts together a 10-minute morning TV show for the school’s students. Curious about whether it’s cheesy chicken bake or beef steak fingers at the cafeteria today? Need to know where that student council meeting will be this afternoon? Good Morning Smith is the place to turn.

“The kids are learning a lot, particularly about being smooth under pressure,” said Jeff Johnson, a science teacher who helped organize the show. “Some of the kids who are shy in class can sit down in front of the camera and have no problems.

“I teach every day, and I sometimes have a problem in front of the camera.”

The broadcasts began last semester after the Duncanville ISD Foundation awarded the school a $1,400 grant to buy equipment. While the show isn’t live, it’s awfully close. Taping starts about 7:40 a.m., and with airtime only 15 minutes later, there’s little margin for error and no time for a second take.

A recent show began with Morgan Turner’s intro before a segue into the Pledge of Allegiance and the Texas Pledge. Off camera, Mr. Johnson reminded the two anchors, Morgan Jones and Krystal Pena, to slow their pace next time: “The younger kids are still learning the pledges, and they need to hear all the words.”

After a brief weather update came cafeteria time, when Jennifer Washington told students that it was their lucky day: Both cheesy chicken bake and beef steak fingers would be served at lunch. Then the anchors returned with the day’s announcements, giggling only slightly when the topic of lice checks came up.

Finally, Jennifer and Morgan Turner shared a few words of wisdom for the day – “Never deprive someone of hope, it might be all they have” – and signed off to the sounds of jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet’s “St. Louis Blues.”

The broadcasts have made minor celebrities out of the show’s stars, particularly among the younger set at this kindergarten through sixth-grade school. Eran Bryant, a 12-year-old who anchored the show last semester, became a campus star with his onscreen antics, most memorably a raised-eyebrow shtick modeled after wrestler The Rock. Probably his being the only boy on the show helped, too.

“People liked the eyebrow thing,” he said, reflecting back on his days in the spotlight. “The little kids wanted my autograph. It was pretty fun.”

Surprisingly, the students said they are not planning careers in television, but all said they were having fun. “I like being on the spot,” Morgan Jones said. “We can’t redo anything. If you mess up, it’s over. We taped a whole show without sound by mistake once.”

The daily programs don’t change much, except for the addition of a joke-telling time on Fridays. (“They’re not that funny,” Jennifer acknowledges.) But the students and teachers have plans to expand the programming.

They plan to air commercials for the goodies they’ll hawk at a bake sale. Once the teachers figure out the technology, they’ll send students to report on events around the school. And Mr. Johnson hopes to have the students take over his job of writing the show’s script every day.

“Over time, as they learn more, they’ll be handling more and more of the details,” he said.

Efforts for teachers get a D; Education newspaper’s report says Texas not doing enough

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 25A

Over the last decade, Texas has put enormous emphasis on improving how children learn. A new report says it should pay more attention to how teachers learn.

“Quality Counts 2001,” a state-by-state school assessment released Wednesday by Education Week, gives Texas a D in its efforts to improve the quality of its teachers. A score of 66 ranks the state 36th out of 50.

The study says Texas doesn’t do enough to help new teachers adjust to the stresses of the profession and doesn’t help veteran teachers stay at the cutting edge of educational research.

The Quality Counts report is an annual study published by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Education Week, an independent newspaper.

Dallas-area school officials acknowledged that teachers need more training, but noted an opportunity: If done right, they say, teacher education is one of the easiest ways to improve the quality of instruction that students receive.

“We’ve done a lot of teacher training with elementary reading and writing, and I can definitely see the improvements in the students,” said Becky Pitzer, coordinator of staff development for the Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD.

“A man asked me once, ‘What’s the one indicator that will tell you if a teacher education program works,'” said Robert Cooter, an associate superintendent for Dallas schools. “I told him, ‘The only indicator that matters is how well are the children doing.'”

The report gave Texas higher marks in other areas, including a B in standards and accountability and a C in school climate.

The state got a D for the second straight year in improving teacher quality because it lacks several initiatives that have been applauded elsewhere. For example, Texas is among 43 states that don’t require follow-up evaluations of new teachers’ performance in the classroom in order to maintain their certification.

Texas also doesn’t provide any financial incentives for teachers to become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Thirty-four states provide grants for national certification, which has been shown to lead to better instruction.

Texas has only 35 nationally certified teachers, according to the study. North Carolina, which offers incentives, leads the nation with more than 2,300. The Texas Legislature is set to consider a bill in the current session that would pay nationally certified teachers an extra $7,500 a year.

“There are some gaps in Texas,” said Lori Meyer, a research associate who helped put together the study.

Other flaws the study found:

*Parents are not notified when their children are being taught by someone working outside the teacher’s specialty, such as a certified math instructor teaching English.

*Districts are not required to set aside time for professional development.

Patrick Shaughnessy, spokesman for the State Board for Educator Certification, criticized the study, saying it couldn’t accurately compare programs in all 50 states. But he said the state is working to change; a bill now before the Legislature would extend a small pilot program that helps new teachers adjust to the profession, for example.

But John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, is less optimistic. “That D is being quite generous,” he said.

Mr. Cole singled out the state’s November creation of a “transitional permit,” which would allow districts to hire college graduates with no educational training and no college coursework in their teaching field.

State officials said the move will make it easier for midcareer professionals to become teachers, bringing maturity and experience into the classroom. The new teachers would be required to pass several certification exams within three years.

But Mr. Cole said the measure will put unqualified teachers in the classroom.

“Texas is the worst state that I know of in terms of making sure that the teacher in the classroom is qualified,” he said.

Mr. Shaughnessy said the rules would give superintendents flexibility in hiring. And with Texas grappling with a teacher shortage, schools must find more teachers somewhere.

Critics of the study also noted that just because the state doesn’t sponsor certain programs doesn’t mean they don’t exist locally. Dr. Cooter leads a Dallas Independent School District reading initiative that identifies “master teachers” who are used to instruct colleagues on successful methods. About 900 teachers are enrolled in the program.

In the Richardson Independent School District, all new teachers are matched up with veteran mentors selected by principals. The mentors help prepare lesson plans and teach rookies how to control their classrooms and fill out paperwork.

Lisa Casto, who runs the Richardson program, said her files are filled with dozens of paeans to mentors who made the transition to teaching less stressful.

“She listens to me cry, she listens to me pray, she always knows what to say to make the situation less intimidating,” reads one.

“I would have drowned without my mentor,” reads another.