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Grading television news coverage

SOMETHING useful is going on concerning the way television covers the news -- and specifically the way it covered the TWA hostage crisis. In a number of private sessions, and some public ones, the people who run television news have been taking a look at the way they and other news organizations handled the story.

The conclusion seems to be that there were both positive and negative aspects to the coverage.

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On the positive side, obviously a number of newsmen and newswomen showed considerable valor operating in the dangerous city of Beirut, sometimes getting shot at for their trouble.

Their film provided the United States government with a lot of its primary information about what was happening. The same film provided the hostages' families with their first proof that their relatives were alive. The television film enabled those hostages who chose to be interviewed to send messages to the outside world.

The television correspondents were used as instant couriers by such individuals as Nabih Berri, who kept popping up live to relay the hijackers' demands. Television was also used deliberately on occasion by the United States government, for example to convey the impression that President Reagan's patience was running thin and that without some movement he might order tough action against Beirut.

There has been much debate also about more negative aspects of the coverage.

Was television news irresponsible, for example, in reporting that a Delta Force antiterrorist unit had been flown to the area? The same question relates to a press flight over American naval units in the Mediterranean to pinpoint their redeployment.

Clearly, television was exploited by the hijackers for their own ends, to get their story across, to frighten the American public, to embarrass the American and Israeli governments, and to put the kind of minute-by-minute pressure on the President that would not have been there without television's instant and all-embracing coverage by satellite.

Even some network executives admit that there were excesses and tastelessness in their coverage. Hostage families were harried, and there was the unedifying spectacle of television (and other) reporters camped out on the lawns of hostage families to capture their grief and concern as they shopped, and prayed, and went about their business.

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The public relations departments were quick to trumpet their networks' particular scoops, raising questions as to whether the intense professional competition on a story of this character might sometimes conflict with national interest and the safety of individuals. Then there are such questions as whether networks should use film supplied by terrorists, whether terrorists should ever gain live air time to voice their demands, whether hostages should be interviewed with terrorist pistols at their heads,

and whether anchor men interviewing key foreign participants in the story sometimes come close to negotiating.

This self-appraisal by the press is very timely, because terrorists somewhere are probably plotting new actions against Americans and American installations. If there is a next time, perhaps the press can do better. For instance, what if hijackers fly a plane of hostages to Libya? And instead of Nabih Berri, Colonel Qaddafi is the go-between. Would the American networks put his rantings live on television?

Although some congressmen are holding hearings on television coverage of the hostage story, government regulation of news coverage is not the answer, and Americans are far too independent and freedom-conscious to tolerate that.

What is desirable and reasonable is that television, and other news organizations, should review their performance and, where necessary, exercise self-restraint and show greater responsibility and better taste in covering such stories in the future.

Every day, editors have more material than they can use and have to make quantitative judgments about what they publish and air.

It is not censorship for them to also make qualitative judgments about taste, and privacy, and the national interest.

John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.

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