Morning shows in frenzy for emotional interviews

Monday, December 23, 2002

NEW YORK -- The danger of the morning news show competition for interviews was evident last week in the tears streaming down a 9-year-old boy's face.

Two days after four boys drowned in Lawrence, Mass., after plunging through thin ice on the Merrimack River, the "Today" show's Katie Couric interviewed Jaycob Morales, 10, and Francis Spraus, 9, the two boys fished out of the river alive on Dec. 14.

After the talkative Morales was through, Couric addressed a question to Spraus, who had tried unsuccessfully to hang on to a 7-year-old friend who died before his eyes.

When the camera turned to him, Spraus was sobbing. He could barely talk. Couric asked another question.

"It's OK," she said. "You don't have to. That's OK. But can you describe at least what it is, what you felt like in the water, Francis?"

"It's just so hard for me," he replied. "It was cold, too. I thank God that God gave me another life."

The gut-wrenching interview was soon over. It was a competitive coup for NBC's "Today" on a story its rivals also reported.

But at what cost?

Some people like to talk their way through a traumatic episode, said Dr. David Fassler, a child psychiatrist affiliated with the University of Vermont. But not always, he said.

"It can actually exacerbate the impact of a trauma to push kids to tell their story or to encourage extensive contact with the media," Fassler said.

Both ABC's "Good Morning America" and "The Early Show" on CBS aired filmed reports about the tragedy that contained brief sound bites from either Morales or Spraus.

Sometimes there's so much excitement in booking a big interview that producers don't consider what they booked, said Michael Bass, executive producer of "The Early Show." CBS didn't pursue a live interview in this case.

Tom Touchet, executive producer of "Today," said the Merrimack River interview "was a really tough call." He doesn't second-guess it because he believes Couric did a good job handling the situation.

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