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The Eyes in the Sky

Local TV news stations have a 'copter clash.

It's too soon to know if Channel 7's ratings will improve as a result of the August 23 chase, but there are already signs that one of the station's rivals is eager to create some helicopter buzz of its own. On August 26, Channel 4's chopper tagged along on an early-morning chase, and when the suspects eluded police, the helicopter trailed their car to a Quality Inn, where two men got out and headed inside. The station didn't go live with the footage, which turned out to be mighty dull; replays broadcast moments after the fact showed one guy casually strolling across a parking lot and another jogging in leisurely fashion behind him. But Channel 4 later made a big deal of contributing to the arrest of one of the men (the other was never found), even though this assistance raises ethical issues of its own. Journalists are trained to observe situations, not get actively involved in them, yet this line is crossed with great regularity. During the April 20 siege at Columbine High School, for instance, Channel 7's John Ferrugia willingly gave up his helicopter seat to a deputy from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department. "In that scenario, I think you have a community responsibility in addition to telling the news," says news director Mulligan. "If you can aid law enforcement, that's fine."

Of course, news directors have a vested interest in maintaining this stance. A handful of U.S. cities have recently placed restrictions on the use of TV helicopters in certain circumstances; if a hostage crisis crops up in Boston, Mulligan says, "there will be one pool helicopter and one pool photographer -- and stations have also agreed not to go live." In her opinion, "Blanket policies like that in breaking news are scary things, because you don't know what you've got, and if you sign off on them, you've got to follow the rules. That's why I'd rather prove to people that we're worthy of their trust."

Channel 9's Dennis sounds an even more wary note. "You have to be careful," she says, "because with this kind of thing, you may only be providing entertainment rather than actual news. On some days in Denver, there are a dozen police chases -- and just because we could cover them all doesn't mean that we should."

Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com.

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