Tuesday, September 01, 2009

More on TV's Sparse Fire Coverage: The L.A. Times Weighs In, While Stations Defend Themselves

(Photo: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

We've been running a poll asking whether L.A.'s local TV stations have dropped the ball in covering the Station fire. The stations have pretty much stuck with their local newscasts despite the growing ferocity of the flames.

A whopping 94% of voters so far believe the stations' coverage has been lacking. L.A. Times TV critic Mary McNamara, who was forced to flee her La Crescenta home, agrees:

"If only Kate Gosselin lived in La Crescenta," I found myself thinking Monday morning as I watched KTLA-TV Channel 5 (which is owned by Tribune Co., as is The Times) move quickly off a brief report of the fire -- it's spreading -- into a segment about decoding carbs, then we'd have the news crews out in full force.

At least on Monday there was some coverage. The death of two firefighters and the threat to the communications towers on Mt. Wilson seem to have gotten everyone's attention. Now that some phone, radio and television service was in peril, suddenly everyone rushed to find La Crescenta/La CaƱada and Acton on a map. The national news stations began covering it occasionally and KCAL-TV Channel 9 devoted much of the day to the "Breaking News" of what is being described as one of the most unpredictable and widespread wildfires in recent history.

But over the weekend, it was a virtual, and inexplicable, news blackout.

The Times' Greg Braxton asked local station execs to respond to critics, including L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich's charge that the outlets had shirked their duty:

Keith Esparros, assistant news director for KNBC-TV Channel 4, said that his station did cover the fire extensively in newscasts, updates and on the station's website with several reporters and crews over the weekend. He called it an "odd fire" that started small and generally burned away from populated areas when it started midweek.

Esparros said the station usually provides wall-to-wall coverage in a disaster when there is "an imminent threat to life and property."

He rejected assertions by some viewers that a diminished bottom line imposed by the recent economic downturn, which has hit local television stations particularly hard, influenced coverage.

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