Scanner duty and breaking news then and now

Back in my first TV job, I used to pull “scanner duty” once a week, and then about every fourth or fifth weekend. Scanner

Scanner duty meant bringing home a station car loaded with gear, and keeping a police and fire scanner at your side overnight.scanner

Scanner duty also brought a lot of pressure. Miss a major breaking news story over night, and you had hell to pay the next day. Those of you who remember T.J. from his days at KIMA (owned then Cascade and Retlaw, now Fisher and about to be Sinclair) know that, “Gosh, I’m sorry I missed that” didn’t really work.

T.J. was all about fatal car wrecks, fires, shootings, stickings and all manor of overnight mayhem. We were “Newsbeat” after all!

Scanner duty took a long time to get used to, but eventually the mind adapted. I got to where I never really had to “listen” to the scanner. My brain was trained to tune it out, but instantly alert – even out of a dead sleep – on certain alert tones and certain key words. Everything else was filtered out.

In the good old days of Spy -vs- Spy television news, the authorities would try to disguise their transmissions to throw us off the scent. But over time you got to know the voices, who worked what kind of cases or events, and all the 10-codes.

Level two of Spy -vs- Spy was then to try to throw “Brand X”, as we used to call the other stations, OFF the scent by putting mis-information out over your two-way.

If you were heading North, call the desk and hint that you were really going South. Story turn out to be a bust? Imply that there was something to it to let the other crews waste their time making the trip.

It was dumb – but we were barely out of our teens, and the small slights handed out in the Spy -vs- Spy game were salved later by beverages shared off the clock.

Why this trip down memory lane?

Because one of the few tools that remains the same (albeit digital in your phone) in today’s newsroom is the scanner.

What HAS changed though are news operation’s willingness to broadcast information directly off the scanner. The scanner is supposed to be used as a device to give the newsroom a heads up, to alert it to the fact that there might be something going on that needs coverage, NOT as a primary source of reportable information.

In fact – there are actually LEGAL questions about reporting, or even more egregiously, re-broadcasting, scanner traffic.

Now, in all fairness, I have been involved in some HUGE public safety-sensitive disasters and crime stories that I and station management felt necessarily required the careful reporting and attribution of scanner traffic. It got down to weighing the desire to follow the rules against the possible risk of injury or death to people in the area. But by the same token, I have also been in several situations where reporting off the scanner could have gotten somebody killed had we not been sensitized to the risks involved.

I think you can argue several sides of the coin during the explosions and manhunts in Boston. Both required local media to exercise a lot of judgement about what to report, and what not to. Both required quick assessments of each individual event and scenario as to what was appropriate, and what was not.

Beyond Boston though, there is a growing trend to use the scanner as a primary reporting tool – or even just to rebroadcast it. That is dangerous ground on several fronts.

When the big one hits though, as with most things in the newsroom, it comes down to experience and instinct.