Looking back on news coverage of Nebraska executions

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June 7, 2011 - 7:00pm



On September 2, 1994, Nebraska television stations went live to cover the execution of Harold Lamont Otey. At the time, Otey was the first person to be put to death in Nebraska's electric chair in 35 years. It was the first of three executions in the state in the 1990s. University of Nebraska at Omaha journalism professor Jeremy Lipschultz analyzed how those executions were reported for a book on crime and local TV news. In this Signature Story from NET News, Lipschultz tells Grant Gerlock that different stations had different angles on the event.


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DR. JEREMY LIPSCHULTZ: You know in the case of the Otey execution as well as the Joubert execution, the big difference was in the particular camera angles of individual stations. In other words, were they shooting video from the side of the anti- or pro-death penalty people who were divided by what became knows as a demilitarized zone?

GRANT GERLOCK: So you get a little different view of the situation based on where they were able to put their cameras?

LIPSCHULTZ: Yeah, because from one perspective you could hear the audio from one group but not the other and you were looking across at the other group. So it really depended on where the cameras were. But the overall coverage was fairly similar, namely, particularly with the (Harold) Otey execution, and maybe to a little bit of a lesser extent with the (John) Joubert execution, it was described as a party-like atmosphere, a carnival-like atmosphere. You had a lot of things going on at the midnight hour in terms of people coming out of bars in Lincoln and that kind of thing. From a public relations standpoint it was an uncontrolled environment in a lot of ways.

GERLOCK: One thing you argued is that the way they were covered put the death penalty, put capital punishment in a certain light. Can you explain how by the way it was covered, by the way those stories were told, what it actually said about the death penalty?

LIPSCHULTZ: It's a bit of a paradox because in one sense the coverage can heighten the heat, the controversy, because of the language people are using, but on the other hand the coverage has an ability to normalize capital punishment as a fairly routine event, because after all, we're not given access to the execution chamber itself. There are observers and the observers describe what they see at these executions, but the public is left to interpret through these observers.

GERLOCK: The event is outside the execution chamber. The actual execution is not really part of the scene.

LIPSCHULTZ: Right. In the case of these three executions in the 1990s, the public event was happening outside the Nebraska penitentiary while the execution itself was obviously inside. Now, there were changes over time with each of these three events, and in the case of the Otey execution it had been 35 years since there had been one and so television had changed a lot, particularly its ability to go live from the scene. The Robert Williams execution was not an evening, midnight execution. It was I believe 10 o'clock in the morning. And so there wasn't a lot of public activity outside the penitentiary. The television cameras captured basically an empty parking lot.

GERLOCK: What else has changed? Now it's been another 14 years since the last execution, Robert Williams in 1997. The electric chair is out. That was declared unconstitutional. Lethal injection is in. If the Carey Dean Moore execution goes through, that would be the first time it was used in Nebraska. So that's changed, but what else has changed in the way the news is done and how might that change how the story is covered?

LIPSCHULTZ: You know, 14 years ago we did not have Facebook. We did not have Twitter. Television was really in the spotlight as the main source of information for people in a live event such as this. Clearly we had newspaper coverage that was more reflective. But I think today if there were a similar kind of execution you would have a lot of this unfolding on social media. So it would be even more uncontrolled in the sense that during this era of television news prominence the local stations really served as the gatekeepers, the people who framed the event, the people who really told us what to think about capital punishment. Today, you would have these social networks operating. And it will be interesting to see if we do have another execution in Nebraska, clearly it will be a different kind of execution, first of all, without the electric chair, because that was a very powerful symbol in these executions. But also how individuals present ideas and exchange ideas in this very interactive social media environment.

GERLOCK: Another thing that's changed significantly since the last execution is public opinion of capital punishment. When those three executions happened in the 1990s, it was actually at a peak of approval, around 80 percent. Now it's down around 60 percent according to Gallup . Is there some interplay between how it's covered and how people feel about the death penalty? Or maybe the other way, how people feel about it and then how it's shown on television?

LIPSCHULTZ: Yeah, it's very interesting how the television coverage portrayed those executions in the 1990s because there is an ideology in journalism that we tell two sides to a story. And you're right the public opinion was strongly (supportive) during this era, but to watch the coverage, because of the way that the events unfolded on those first two executions in the parking lot with the people on both sides, you very much got a sense of a split opinion. You know, you had the candlelight vigil on one hand, and you had the very caustic posters and signs, "Fry Willie" and these kinds of things ... on the other side.

It has been a controversial issue. It continues to be a controversial issue. If you think about issues in the United States - capital punishment, abortion are wedge issues in politics. And I don't think that's changed and probably the public opinion data reflect, if anything, that the country is more divided today than it was in the 1990s. I think there are a lot of influencers in this, both in terms of liberal politics but also in terms of the role that the Catholic Church has played in this debate. You know, these are life and death issues and people struggle with them. I think they're the kind of issues that people have to really look inside themselves and decide where they come down.

You know another thing that we were struck by in the 1990s was we talked to some of the observers and in some cases that experience of seeing the execution changed them. Because we do become kind of detached from the issue. And one of the criticisms that we had in our book about this that I don't think has changed much is we don't get enough conversations about the issue of capital punishment except when we have one of these events - an execution, a high-profile murder case. These kinds of things bring capital punishment in as kind of a side issue, but in terms of really a direct ongoing conversation where the public can reflect and think about the various aspects of it, it doesn't tend to happen. It doesn't happen in our politics. I think politicians are very wary of the issue. But I think all of this tends to not give us the opportunity to really think about the issue at a deeper level.

GERLOCK: Jeremy Lipschultz, thanks a lot.

LIPSCHULTZ: Thank you.

Jeremy Lipschultz is a Journalism professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha and co-author of the book, "Crime and Local Television News."

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