How a local news station prevented the panic

Hank Price

It was Saturday morning, just before Labor Day, and shoppers at the local Walmart in Tupelo, Mississippi, were filling their shopping carts. Suddenly an announcement came on the PA asking everyone to evacuate. A stolen twin-engine plane was flying overhead, threatening to crash into the store.

In this age of terrorism, one can only imagine what these people were thinking.

Fortunately, Allen Media’s WTVA Tupelo aired almost immediately. Over the next few hours, as the pilot flew over community after community, often at dangerously low levels, presenter Craig Ford and chief meteorologist Matt Laubhan followed his every move, sharing a wealth of details and the latest video. Many saw the coverage on their TV screens, others on their phones, but all shared the experience of reliable information in real time.

I also watched live WTVA coverage and was impressed. It was the kind of incident that could easily have caused panic, but in my opinion the professionalism and composure of Ford and Laubhan prevented that from happening. It would have been easy to sensationalise the story, but neither Ford nor Laubhan did. They stuck to the facts, demonstrating why people trust local television even more than any other medium.

Making Laubhan the main cover face was a smart move. As a meteorologist in a tornado-prone market, Laubhan knows the area well, so he was able to give exact locations as the plane wandered from place to place. Using live maps from Flight Aware, Laubhan reported every bounce the plane had as it roamed northeast Mississippi. The Flight Aware map looked like a child’s Crayola scribbles, having no meaning other than to indicate that the plane was in dangerous hands.

While the folks at WTVA were doing their job, the kind of public service that only a local television station can provide, something else was also happening. Neighbors called neighbors to tell them about the threat and tell them they had to turn on ch. 9. As Laubhan updated the plane’s location, people came out of their homes to take photos and videos, many of which were sent to the WTVA and released.

The WTVA also had reporters on the ground, doing their best to follow the aircraft’s ever-changing position. When authorities were finally able to convince the pilot to land in a rural field, a WTVA reporter was on the scene with compelling cellphone video almost immediately after state troopers secured the plane.

After the pilot was arrested, he was found to be a member of the ground crew at a local airport, not a pilot, which may have explained his erratic and dangerous flight plan. He seemed surprised that his threat to crash into a populated area had caused such a disturbance.

Watching all of this, I couldn’t help but think how different things could have been without a local station at work. Lack of accurate information creates fear. Rumors without facts cause panic. A local TV station stopped these things from happening. No other form of media could have done as well.

WTVA has always been one of those stations that plays bigger than its market size. Because the station is affiliated with NBC, ABC, and Fox, it also speaks to the positive case for consolidation in the market. Without revenue from multiple networks, one wonders if WTVA could afford to provide the same level of news service.

Looking back, perhaps the best thing about this day is a reminder that even though our business is going through a drastic change, even though the networks decide they have other priorities, even though people seem to think the world only cares about Tik Tok, we are reminded that the central mission of local television remains healthy and intact.

Across our country, local television stations are always on alert, always ready to make sure people are not only informed, but safe. WTVA did this admirably, but the same could have happened in almost any other community.

As it has done so many times in the past, local television rose to the challenge and served the public. We can be sure that it will continue to do so in the future.

Hank Price is a media consultant. His second book, First local television, has become a standard text for television general managers. During a 30-year general management career, Price ran television stations for Hearst, CBS, and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago, KARE Minneapolis, WVTM Birmingham, Ala., and both WXII and WFMY in Greensboro/ Winston Salem, North Carolina. Earlier, he was a consultant at Frank N. Magid Associates. Price also spent 15 years as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center. He is currently Director of Leadership Development at Ole Miss’ School of Journalism and New Media.