How A Local News Station Prevented Panic

Recent coverage by WTVA Tupelo, Miss., of a man threatening to crash a plane into a local Walmart demonstrated once again why solid news coverage by local stations that display professionalism and calm is so crucial. The decision to not speculate or sensationalize, but stick to the facts, demonstrated why people still trust local television more than any other media.

Hank Price

It was Saturday morning, just before Labor Day, and shoppers at the local Walmart in Tupelo, Miss., were filling their baskets. Suddenly, an announcement came over the PA asking everyone to evacuate. A stolen twin-engine aircraft was circling the area, threatening to crash into the store.

In this age of terrorism, once can only imagine what those people were thinking.

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

I also watched WTVA’s live coverage and was impressed. This was the kind of incident that could have easily created panic, but in my opinion Ford and Laubhan’s professionalism and calm demeanor kept that from happening. It would have been easy to sensationalize the story, but neither Ford nor Laubhan did. They stuck to the facts, demonstrating why people still trust local television more than any other media.

Bringing in Laubhan as a primary face of the coverage 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 the plane’s every twist and turn as it wandered across northeast Mississippi. The Flight Aware map looked like a child’s Crayola squiggles, making no sense other than to indicate the plane was in dangerous hands.


While the folk at WTVA were doing their job, the kind of public service only a local television station can perform, something else was also happening. Neighbors called neighbors to tell them about the threat and to say they should turn on ch. 9. As Laubhan updated the plane’s location, people poured out of their houses to take pictures and videos, many of which were sent to WTVA and aired.

WTVA also had reporters on the ground, doing their best to keep up with the airplane’s ever-changing position. When authorities were finally able to talk the pilot into landing 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 taken into custody, it turned out he was a ground crew member at a local airport, not a pilot, which perhaps accounted for his erratic and dangerous flight pattern. He seemed surprised that his threat to crash into a populated area had caused such disruption.

Watching all this, I couldn’t help thinking how different things could have been without a local station on the job. Lack of accurate information creates fear. Rumors without facts cause panic. A local television station kept those things from happening. No other form of media could have done as well.

WTVA has always been one of those stations that plays larger than its market size. Because the station is affiliated with NBC, ABC and Fox, it is also a testament to the positive case for in-market consolidation. 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 that day is a reminder that even as our business goes through radical change, even as the networks decide they have other priorities, even as people seem to think the whole world only cares about Tik Tok, we are reminded that the core mission of local television remains healthy and intact.

Throughout our nation, local TV stations are always on the alert, aways ready to make sure people are not only informed, but kept safe. WTVA did that admirably, but the same thing 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 confident it will continue to do so in the future.

Hank Price is a media consultant. His second book, Leading Local Television, has become a standard text for television general managers. In a 30-year general management career, Price led TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago, KARE Minneapolis, WVTM Birmingham, Ala., and both WXII and WFMY in Greensboro/Winston Salem, N.C. Earlier, he was a consultant with 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 for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.

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tvn-member-1103977 says:

September 12, 2022 at 9:34 pm

Watched WTVA throughout over the Internet from West Alabama. As I could, passed on the link to WTVA to whomever I could, including FlightAware