By Bill McMahon
The Authentic Personality
“Most journalists share the same skill sets and the same approaches to stories, seek out the same sources, ask similar questions, and produce relatively similar stories. Across the news industry, processes and procedures for news gathering are guided by standardized news values, producing standardized stories in standardized formats that are presented in standardized styles. The result is extraordinary sameness and minimal differentiation.”
Case Study: Events versus Stories, the Execution of Cal Brown
Radio and television news organizations in Seattle devoted significant amounts of time and resources to covering the execution of Cal Brown, a convicted murderer and rapist. Crews were sent to the site of the execution in Walla Walla, a 4½ hour drive from Seattle, to report live from the scene. The stories produced by the various news organizations and their reporters had an extraordinary sameness. Each focused primarily on the execution itself.
Radio listeners and television viewers learned that this was the first execution in Washington since 2001. They were told that Cal Brown’s final pleas for clemency were denied. They learned about a small demonstration and protest outside the site of the execution. They were told what Cal Brown ate for his last meal, how he spent his final day, what time he died, and what drugs were used to kill him. They also heard a description of the final moments of Cal Brown’s life including where he died and how he died. It was as if each of the news organizations had gotten together and agreed to standardize their coverage.
What Seattle area radio listeners and television viewers didn’t hear much about was the story of Holly Washa, the story of the Washa family, the story of Cal Brown, and the story of Dan Satterberg.
Today’s “standardized news” organizations and people are event oriented, not story oriented, because events are easy to see and comparatively easy to cover. The result is a presentation of the news that focuses on events and the facts about events — what happened, where it happened, when it happened, and sometimes, why it happened. This concentration on events results in a stunning sameness in newscasts across the dial. More importantly, it often obscures interesting and meaningful stories of which the events are only a part. Stories that place these events in a larger more important context.
The Cal Brown Execution Event
The Cal Brown execution was but one event in the story of Holly Washa. Holly was 18 when she left her hometown of Ogallala, Nebraska to move to Seattle to pursue her dream of becoming a flight attendant. Three years later she was carjacked at knife point near Seattle Tacoma International Airport and forced to drive her car to her bank to withdraw her life savings. She was then held for 34 hours at a motel where she was repeatedly raped, robbed, tortured, and then slashed to death. Her dream ended in the trunk of her Oldsmobile in the parking lot of a SeaTac car rental agency.
The Cal Brown execution was but one event in the life of the Washa family from the tiny town of Ogallala, Nebraska. Their daughter dreamed of being a flight attendant. When she graduated from high school, she moved halfway across the country to pursue her dream in Seattle. Three years later, she was dead, killed by a man who had been released two months earlier from an Oregon prison where he served time for assaulting a woman. The family waited 16 1/2 years from the time their daughter’s killer was convicted and sentenced to death before he was executed. During that time, a court reversed the killer’s conviction and death sentence. The family had to wait nearly two years for the Supreme Court to reinstate the conviction and death sentence. Then, after they had driven from Nebraska to Walla Walla to witness the execution of their daughter’s killer, the Supreme Court issued a stay just eight hours before the scheduled execution. They drove back to Nebraska. A year and a half later, they returned to Walla Walla where their daughter’s murderer was finally executed.
The Cal Brown execution was but one event in the story of Cal Brown. Cal Brown was a cold-blooded killer. He was convicted of assaulting a woman in 1984. He served seven years in an Oregon State penitentiary and was released on parole. Two months later, he carjacked, robbed, and held Holly Washa captive for 34 hours while he repeatedly raped, tortured, and slashed her to death. He flew immediately to Palm Springs where he attempted to rape and kill another woman before he was captured.
The Cal Brown execution was but one event in the story of Dan Satterberg. He is the King County prosecutor who came to know the family of Holly Washa. He was so moved by their story and the emotional bond he established with them that he traveled to Walla Walla to witness the execution of their daughter’s killer with them.
Hearing radio and watching television news coverage of the Cal Brown execution, it became apparent the myopic focus on the event obscured or diminished the presentation of these amazing stories. The commitment to send reporters and resources to Walla Walla for the equivalent of a full day to cover the execution heightened the importance and tightened the focus of the news presentation on the event rather than the incredible stories of which the execution event was only a part.
Bill McMahon, CEO of The Authentic Personality, is a longtime talk radio station and talent consultant who has played a role in the development of the careers of many leading hosts over the past three decades. He can be phoned at 208-887-5670 or emailed at Bill@AuthenticPersonality.biz.