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On air, on edge 

Since Anne Pressly’s death, news stations are taking a closer look at the line between harmless admirer and obsessed fan. Will it change the way they do business?

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It was, by anyone's estimation, an unspeakable crime: On Oct. 20, Anne Pressly — a vivacious, fun-loving young woman with a smile for everyone she met and an up-and-comer at KATV Channel 7 who seemed destined for TV journalism's Big Leagues — was found badly beaten and near death in her own bed, in her tidy house, in one of Little Rock's quietest neighborhoods. Though she hung on, lingering in a coma for five days, Anne died in a Little Rock hospital Oct. 25. 

As of this writing, the motive behind Pressly's murder is still unknown, and her killer is still at large. Police say they have found nothing to indicate that Pressly's assault was at the hands of an obsessed fan or stalker. It may have only been cruel fate that a murderous intruder chose the house of a local celebratity to invade.

But the crime and the inability of the police to quickly catch who did it has many people in Little Rock television news more worried than ever — and they were, as a lot, pretty worried to begin with. Behind the camera, local news directors are thinking deeply about security, and the way they push their on-air talent. Meanwhile, some of those in the harsh glare of the spotlight speak of a newfound sense of fear. The question is: In an age when you can find out almost anything about anybody if you've got five minutes and an Internet connection, where's the line between promotion and privacy? Can a person be both well-known and safe?

 

If this was any other moment in Little Rock, it might strike some as ironic that the woman on the cover of this newspaper — a consummate professional who spends at least six hours of her life every week working live in front of a camera — didn't want her face photographed for this story. It's just one example of the wall of caution, if not outright fear, that has imposed itself around local news stations since Pressly's death, a barrier we hit again and again in writing this story.

Of the local news anchors that we talked to, only one agreed to discuss the issue. Honoring her request for anonymity, we'll call her Jane.

Jane said that since the assault on Pressly, she has lived in an almost constant state of fear. “My whole life has changed,” she said. “I lived on my own for 10 years and now I can't spend a night alone because I'm fearful to even walk out to my car.” 

Jane said that almost everyone she knows has a theory about the motive behind Pressly's murder. Hearing rumors circulate only heightens her frustration and anxiety. She said that while she was always cautious about her privacy — she didn't join the popular online social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace for that reason — Pressly's killing has made her much more cautious about what she says and does, both in front of the camera and in her personal life.

“I don't talk about personal stuff on the air,” Jane said. “I keep my life very private. I'm not necessarily responding to requests for autographed pictures or anything like that. … We were all issued pepper spray, and I carry that with me all the time.”

Jane said that while getting letters and gifts from viewers is just part of being in local, community-based news, even the fans are more mindful of potentially crossing the line. “Most of them are harmless,” Jane said. “But it's funny, because now a lot of people will preface their letter with ‘I'm not a stalker.' They'll say to you: ‘I'm not a stalker, but I really enjoy watching you on the air.' ” 

Jane said the stations could do more to protect the privacy of their on-air personalities. Especially troubling for her are some of the things that can be found on a typical station's website. While Jane didn't mention it specifically, a good example of this might be KATV's “Choose Your News,” a streaming website feed that features reporter Kristin Fisher working at her desk in real time — typing, chatting on the phone, rushing out to cover stories. Viewers choose the stories she works on, keep in contact with Fisher through e-mail and Twitter, and watch the reporting process unfold. The station is trying to cash in on new technology and pioneer a new type of journalism, but it raises questions about the voyeuristic nature of the project. Before Pressly's assault, the feature could have rightly been called smart and innovative — a great way to give viewers a glimpse into the inner workings of the station, not to mention a golden opportunity for one of KATV's rising stars. These days, however, it's hard not to think about who might be watching. Fisher, however, says she's comfortable with the process and KATV has made efforts to protect her safety. 

“Of course there were conversations about my safety. But we decided that I'm not taking a risk that's any bigger than any other reporter. I'm always with somebody. A lot of times I'm in the newsroom so people can watch the desk camera. If I need to say something, or if I need to make a personal phone call I have a mute button,” Fisher says.

Stations are taking measures to beef up security. Ed Trauschke, news director at Fox 16, says the station has hired an armed guard to come in every night. But some doubt that promoting on-air talent will change.

“I don't think they're going to change any policy,” Jane said, “I really don't. I think putting our e-mail address right underneath our faces on the air — that probably shouldn't be as readily available. But I don't feel any change.”

Until a suspect is arrested, Jane's anxiety and the fears of the broadcast community as a whole are unlikely to recede. From the minute she wakes up until she goes to bed at night and nearly every moment in between, Jane said she finds herself thinking about whether someone might be out there who would do her harm. “It has made me more guarded,” Jane said. “But that's more when I'm not working. I feel the most safety at work. I feel so unsafe at home. Home, where it's supposed to be your little nest — I dread it.”  

 

Though word of the crime against Anne Pressly hit the Little Rock news business like an earthquake, nowhere has it been felt so deeply as Pressly's home station, KATV Channel 7. “Everyone's still in shock,” said news director Randy Dixon. “Nothing like this has ever happened at this station or in this market. It rarely happens anywhere in the country. There's a heightened concern, of course … the police department has spoken to some of our staff about personal safety, and we're going to have some self-defense classes.” 

Dixon said that the safety of KATV employees and on-air talent has long been a concern. While he didn't want to comment on specific new security measures the station has implemented, he said that the building and its parking lots have had surveillance cameras in place for years. As for how the station handles letters, e-mails and other communications with fans — especially those whose tone or language causes concern — Dixon said he has always been “wary and careful” in dealing with that, including keeping a correspondence file and informing police about those who send suspicious or repeated e-mails. As did many we talked to in the news business, Dixon said there's a line that can be crossed when communicating with a television personality. Where that line is, he said, is often a “gut thing” for a news director.

“You get the typical letters saying, hey, I hate your hair and other things like that where the viewer is just trying to get some input,” he said. “If someone says, ‘I want to come meet you,' then it's easy to tell when they cross that line. We err on the side of conservatism, especially in cases like that.” Several of those the Times talked to also rely on gut feeling when determining when a writer or caller has gone from being a fan to a potential hazard.

Rob Heverling, news director at KARK Channel 4, said that every communication has to be judged on a case-by-case basis, but when a fan does say or do something that crosses the line, intervention by a third party usually stops things from escalating, especially if that third party is the police.

“Most of the time it's harmless, but it is scary when you have somebody calling repeatedly or saying they want to come by and meet you,” Heverling said. “But you have to be aware of it, because we want our people to be safe.” Heverling said that shortly after the assault on Anne Pressly, he held a meeting in which he told staffers to be “a little more wary” and call and check up on each other. In addition, he said, the station combed through the talent bios on their website and removed anything that might be potentially dangerous or too personal, including whether a person was unmarried or lived alone. “It makes you stop and think,” he said, “that it could happen here.”

Bob Steel worked for more than 18 years in Little Rock's TV news business, serving as news director at both KARK and KATV. Like others the Times interviewed, Steel kept files on any communication that raised a red flag. Most of the letters the talent received were harmless, he said. Several, he recalled, were from mentally challenged people who saw an anchor on TV and innocently thought they were in love. Still, Steel said, it's hard to know who is a threat and who isn't, which makes it important to keep things on file.

“Then if somebody crosses the line, you have a record that they have made contact and you can probably find out who the person is pretty quickly. … If there's a lot of vile language, if there's a lot of sexual talk, I'm going to notify the authorities right then,” Steel said. “If it's just a guy who thinks she's beautiful and he's in love with her, I'm not going to worry too much about that, but I am going to save the letter.” 

Though Steel said male anchors under his watch received threatening calls or letters from time to time — usually in protest to a story they had reported — females bore the brunt of the sexually explicit and potentially violent communication with fans. In rare cases, face-to-face encounters left them shaken for weeks.

“I remember one instance in which one of our anchors — and I wouldn't want to say who — was followed by a gentleman in a Jeep to a local mall. She went into the mall, and when she came out, the gentleman had his pants down and was masturbating as she got into her car. It scared her literally to death.” Steel said the man was apprehended days later when he did the same thing to the wife of another on-air personality at the station. In another case Steel recalled, a man sent a videotape to a female anchor in which the man disrobed.

To alleviate the uneasiness among staff, all stations have made counseling available in either group or one-on-one sessions. More than one has arranged for an expert in personal security to speak to the staff. “The other thing we've tried to do is put some perspective on [the] crime,” Heverling said. “At some point, you want to say, yeah, this is serious, but let's not overdo it. Let's not live our lives in fear.”

One thing Heverling said he has specifically talked to his reporters and anchors about is their participation in online social networking sites. While there are restrictions on who can look at a Myspace or Facebook page — the owner of the page usually has to designate a visitor as a “friend” before that person can view their page — it's common for users to have placed a trove of private information, from family photos to daily diaries to their cell phone number, on the other side of that rather flimsy barrier.

“We've counseled our reporters, especially after the Pressly event, that this isn't a two-way communication,” Heverling said. “Somebody might be viewing a Myspace page and they get the sense that they know you. We've cautioned them to lock those sites down and suggested it might not be a good idea to have a page at all.”     

 

For viewers, possibly the biggest question in all this is: How much will the anxiety over the Pressly case change what you see on the local news and at the news stations' websites? The answer, most in the business say, is not a lot. The industry rises and falls on the perceived connection between the talent and the audience. If a reporter or anchor is seen as approachable and friendly, ratings tend to go up. If an anchor or reporter is seen as distant and cold, ratings go down. For most local stations in America, that means making sure the talent comes across as a friend and neighbor, be that via umpteen trips to county fairs and parades, or just by that certain knack for likeability that some gifted personalities seem to have. The goal is simple: make the viewers feel like someone they never met is part of the family.

“If you're looked upon, whether by design or just naturally, as someone approachable, you're going to get better numbers,” said Doug Krile, anchor at KARK from 1986 to 1997. “One of the questions they would use when they were talking to viewers was: If Doug Krile knocked on your front door right now, would you, A) Let him in, B) Let him stand in the front hallway, C) Let him into the living room, or D) Let him into the kitchen? If you got to the kitchen, you were golden.”  

Jeanne Rollberg is an associate professor in the School of Mass Communication at UALR. A former reporter and news anchor, Rollberg said news stations — especially those in smaller markets like Little Rock — rely on their ability to create a relationship with the public, especially when it comes to morning show anchors like Anne Pressly.

“It only makes sense that the news teams that lead those newscasts so early in the day portray themselves as friendly, personable, and lighthearted as well as competent,” Rollberg said. “Viewers are often engaged in multiple tasks as they prepare for their day, so they're not as likely to be paying the level of attention to news stories per se. … Personalities matter there.”

This relentless promotion of anchors and reporters as friendly and approachable can lead to a “false reality” for certain viewers, Rollberg said. “It is easy for viewers to come to feel that they know anchors [and] reporters personally when they do not. … I'm personally uncomfortable with much of the previously private information that shows up in promos or online. Not only do I think it isn't wise to have much of it available for safety reasons, but I also think it elevates the personality factor far too much and takes away attention from the real, meaningful news of the day.”

Anne Jansen would agree with at least some of that. A reporter and anchor with KTHV Channel 11 for over 25 years, Jansen retired earlier this year to become a full-time mom. She said that stations have always pushed the personality angle, but believes that some have taken things to a new level in recent years. “Even back in the 1970s, they did stupid promos to make you think the anchors were one big happy family and went sailing together on the weekends,” Jansen said. “But the industry has changed so much. It's almost like the person saying the news has become a celebrity. The modern day anchor has an aura of fame around them.” 

Jansen said she never had anyone she'd consider a stalker or obsessed fan during her days on the desk, but added that concern for her family's privacy was one factor that figured into her decision to step out of the spotlight. There were times when she felt the station sought to delve too far into the details of her personal life. When she was pregnant with her first child, Jansen said, station officials approached her about doing a series of promotional spots to coincide with a drive to get women to take folic acid, a vitamin necessary for proper fetal development. After some thought, she kindly refused.  

“I always felt kind of strange about that,” she said. “They came to me when I had my first son and they wanted to do some kind of promotional thing and tie it to my pregnancy. It was for a good cause, but I just didn't feel right about it. That's not to say that it isn't the right thing to do, but it just didn't feel right for me.”

Chuck Maulden, news director at KTHV Channel 11, said the public's appetite for details about anchors' lives is nearly limitless. “There's such an insatiable appetite for the people who are in your living room every day,” Maulden said. “They get married or have children, people want to know: What happened? Are they OK?”

 

While stations have a heightened concern for their on-air talent in the wake of Pressly's murder, they are also uniformly — albeit a bit reluctantly — unapologetic about the issue of promotion. As KTHV's Chuck Maulden put it: “You do have to have people represent your brand, and obviously in television that's the way it is.”

KATV'S Dixon doesn't expect any change in the way stations present their talent to viewers. “That's what we do for our business,” Dixon said, “and if you don't do it, you're not doing your job. That's the nature of what the business is.”

“We do want people to bond with and appreciate our anchors,” said KARK's Heverling. “Basically we're going into their living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens and we want people to be comfortable with them and relate to them. Now, having said that, while that's very, very important, I think if you pay attention, you won't really learn that much about them.”     

Steel doesn't see the industry moving away from personalities to sell the news programs. He does, however, believe that the crime against Pressly will remind stations to protect their talent.

“I have a saying that there's not a story worth your life,” Steel said. “Be cautious at all times — and I'm talking about storms, fire, pestilence and stalkers.”

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