It was the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend 1997 and it quickly became an “all hands on deck” situation. I was working as a local TV news producer and I, along with virtually all of my colleagues, had to give up our holiday weekend time because of a story that was anything but local.
Princess Diana, of Britain, died in a car crash in France. In the quest for eyeballs in front of TV sets, it had to be made into a “local news.” This is the story of the beginning of the end of my tenure in broadcast news.
Princess Diana, as far as we knew, had never set foot in Michigan and had no ties to the area. But we were under pressure to create “make it local” to drive viewership. It was blowout, wall-to-wall coverage for days on end. With 20 years of hindsight, the feelings about parts of it have not changed.
We did an absurd “could it happen here?” story, as if paparazzi and princesses were commonplace in Detroit, focused on the tunnel under the Cobo convention center, because it somewhat resembled the area in Paris where the Diana crash took place. We actually sent a crew to talk to people on the street across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario because, as our news director put it, “Canada used to be a part of England.” And perhaps most ridiculously, we were forced to stage news by creating a part of the station building where viewers could come to sign condolence books that would be “sent to The Royal Family” (I can’t say for sure whatever happened to them, but they did make for many live shots).
It was a test of my ethical standards and any semblance of work/life balance I hoped to achieve. It got me thinking critically about whether I could have a future in that line of work. About six months later, I made a career change.
There’s much nostalgia online these days about how media used to be “so much better.” But I believe this is a case where we’re actually better off now than we were 20 years ago. Ethically, I can’t see the professionals now running at least that newsroom staging stories for faux-localization.
Importantly, while local TV news still causes work/life challenges for those in it, it’s arguably more local than ever before. When a big, international story (tabloid or otherwise) happens now, local stations don’t go all-out, they leave that to cable news and other sources. With the resources they have left, local outlets have no choice but to respect the primacy of their local roles.
After the Diana coverage, I feared for the future of local media and re-considered my own. I have never regretted my career move but we can all appreciate the fact that the worst of that editorial experience has not become the norm.