Couch Potato Wednesday: The Protocol for Covering Serious Incidents

Oh boy.  Daytona brings us plenty to talk about this week.  Given what happened Monday, we need to start there.

As you all know by now, Ryan Newman is currently at Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach.  His injuries have not been made public, but as of this writing, he is awake, alert and communicating.  Good news all around in this case.

For the sake of this column, there is but one question to ask.  How do you cover such an incident?

In our case here at Frontstretch, you won’t see anything speculating about Newman’s injuries or the next steps in his recovery. That said, we’re not TV partners of NASCAR, and we’re not producing a broadcast.  FOX Sports was.  Let’s take a non-visual look at how they handled the situation.

Since the crash happened right at the front of the field, FOX Sports had this covered.  It was obvious what caused the wreck and likely what caused Newman’s injuries.

After the checkers, you ended up with two stories.  Newman’s crash was obviously the primary one, but you also had the close finish.

The finish was determined pretty quickly.  Meanwhile, it was very quiet on the broadcast.  In regards to the Newman crash, the only update given on the broadcast was that once Newman was extricated from his Koch Industries Ford, he would be immediately transported to the hospital.

Were there replays shown on the crash?  Yes.  Those at the track saw these replays during a commercial break, approximately one minute before the FOX audience.  I don’t think that was the best idea.

Given the circumstances, everything turned to the situation at the end of pit road.  FOX ended up getting interviews with the top three finishers, but no one seemed to be in the mood to do anything.

Mike Joy is a veteran with over 40 years’ seniority.  It’s tough to keep your cool under these circumstances, but Joy was able to do so and speak authoritatively.  Jeff Gordon was seemingly at a loss for words.  He is very close to Newman given their shared background.

Obviously, given the circumstances, fans were going to want more in the way of updates on the situation.  That coverage ended up being rather lean.  The coverage from Daytona ended about 8:10 p.m.

What happened from there?  Following via social media.  FOX Sports 1 cut into programming when Steve O’Donnell made an announcement about Newman’s condition in the media center at the track.  Personally, I wasn’t watching FOX Sports 1 at the time, so I missed that.  Given that the announcement was less than a minute with no opportunity for questions from the assembled media, I’m not surprised.

In NASCAR, these kinds of situations are thankfully quite rare.  The last time this happened was after the huge crash at the end of the then-Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 in 2013.  I went back to look at how I covered that mess that back then.

Honestly, there were some similarities Monday to how ESPN approached the situation, but a lot of differences.  Driver injury wasn’t anywhere near as much of a concern.  In that circumstance, drivers were more willing to speak on camera.  That said, they were still very concerned about those in the stands.  ESPN was able to fill their time with interviews.  FOX really couldn’t do that Monday night.

Scheduling-wise, ESPN didn’t have to worry about prime-time programming since the race was run in the afternoon back then.  They ended up staying 40 minutes beyond the sign-off time.  FOX didn’t have a sign-off time (my on-screen guide never updated to show the race being on there), but they likely wanted to get done before 8 p.m. so that they could get to prime-time programming.

I believe they used more cut-ins than FOX Sports, though.  ESPN did have the advantage of more networks to put that programming on than what FOX Sports has at their disposal.  In FOX Sports’ case, they broke into programming on FOX Sports 1 to air Steve O’Donnell providing an official update on the situation around 10 p.m. ET, nearly two hours after the race coverage ended.

For that race, we did have people there.  Our own fearless leader (Tom Bowles) was in Daytona and I recall him interviewing fans at one point after the press box was cleared.

There were no questions taken.  As a result, the whole thing was over in a little under a minute.

The lack of an actual press conference after the crash likely can be traced back to the 2013 incident.  Back then, NASCAR had one with O’Donnell and then-Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood, III.  They ended up being peppered with questions about conditions of those injured in the grandstands that they couldn’t legally answer.  This is due to HIPAA regulations.  To make a long explanation short, that information can only be released with the permission of the victim or the victim’s family.

NASCAR (and Roush Fenway Racing, for that matter), as we’ve seen over the past day and change, is willing to help coordinate things, but they’re not going to release anything without permission from the family.  As a result, they were forced to deflect.

In 2013, I worked in the healthcare industry.  We were constantly reminded about the importance of confidentiality.  While I no longer work in a hospital, the importance of patient privacy has not changed.  It’s just gotten more electronic.

Something that didn’t happen was NASCAR trying to eliminate evidence of the crash from the internet.  Back then, fan videos from the stands were posted to YouTube shortly after the crash that NASCAR claimed copyright on in order to get them off the internet.  YouTube ruled against NASCAR, especially after the clips were used on SportsCenter and other programs.  They were viewed as newsworthy.

What did happen was some sketchy social media decisions from FOX Sports.  They uploaded one tweet quickly after the crash, then deleted it.  Later on, their Twitter account uploaded a clip of the crash to Twitter very quickly afterward before any real news on Newman’s condition was made available.  This was a move that was heavily criticized.  It could have waited an hour.

Overall, I thought Joy did a good job with the situation.  I’m sure that next to no one wanted to talk on-air given the circumstances.  Plus, NASCAR cleared pit road pretty quickly after the race, so there may not have been much of a chance to even get interviews.

In Gordon, this was the first time he’d truly been in a situation where he had to cover something like this as a commentator.  He didn’t really know how to handle it.  I suppose that’s how you learn in these situations.  By doing.  It’s tough.  Simple as that.

Outside of the Newman crash, you had the fact that Donald Trump was at the race on Sunday, something that I feared could be nightmarish when it was announced.  Ultimately, it really wasn’t, although the increased security meant longer lines for those entering the track.  Trump was visible on the broadcast, but there was no dwelling on his politics.  This is in line with the general policies that FOX Sports has for their broadcasters, which has been stated on-air in the past.  Most topics are fair game, but politics and religion are topics that are considered a no-go for discussion.

There was a brief interview with Jamie Little on pit road before the race, then Trump gave the command.  Based on the cue card pictures that are on Twitter, he technically deviated from the script but got it done.

Then, you had the lap where the presidential limousine, nicknamed The Beast, made a lap of the track pacing the field.  This was punctuated with facts about the car itself.  FOX handled this situation fairly well.  Nothing got out of hand.  No editorializing of the situation at all.

My guess is that Trump’s appearance at the race was substantially responsible for the TV ratings increase (19 percent over 2019, despite only 20 laps being completed before the rains came), but it didn’t affect attendance.  The race was basically sold out before Trump’s attendance was announced.

During the race itself, there were some complaints about the sheer number of commercial breaks.  Based on my findings, the break lengths weren’t any longer than normal (most were around 135 seconds).  Even the number of breaks wasn’t really abnormal.  It just seemed like they didn’t make as much use of the side-by-side breaks, so you seemingly missed more.

Sunday’s expansive pre-race coverage, plus the stoppage during the pace laps meant that there were plenty of driver interviews before the race got underway.  The red flag coverage saw more interviews before the broadcast broke away to last year’s race.

They were really close to restarting the race before the deluge showed up and ended the festivities Sunday evening.  Some of my colleagues were able to stay dry.  Others, like our own Bryan Nolen, not so much.

I’ve been there before.  The idea of me bringing a poncho into the media center at Watkins Glen a couple of years ago was deemed hilarious at one point.  In 2014 at Daytona, a quick Target run to get a rain suit worked out great.

Monday’s broadcast started off with a couple of tape-delayed interviews with Kyle Busch and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.  As a result, FOX actually skipped the command to restart engines, which was led by current Daytona International Speedway president Chip Wile along with the fans.  And while it wasn’t the initial command for the race, FOX should have gone ahead and aired it anyway.

For Vince Welch, Monday was not the best day, but it was completely out of his control at the same time.  He spent most of the day struggling with a hoarse voice. Given the delayed nature of the race, FOX Sports was not really in position to swap him out.  A number of their on-air personalities that were in Daytona on Sunday had flown back to Charlotte after the race was postponed, so there was no one there that could have backed him.  Hopefully, Welch feels better by Friday.

Overall, FOX’s broadcast of the Daytona 500 went places that no one really wants a race broadcast to go.  Effectively, it was an entire season’s worth of issues in a day.  In a situation like what we got Monday night, you have to have poise, know what to report and what not to report.  Joy did a very good job in this role.  The quest for information in these situations is all-conquering at times, along with the ever-present churning.  I don’t like these situations.  I’ve experienced my share of these situations over the years and they never get any easier.

That’s all for this week.  Next weekend is a quadruple-header of NASCAR action.  The NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series will be in action at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  The ARCA Menards Series West will start its season Thursday night at the Bullring at Las Vegas.  Meanwhile, the FIA World Endurance Championship will be at Circuit of the Americas and the Asian Le Mans Series finishes up their season in Thailand.

We will have critiques of the Cup, Xfinity and Truck races from Las Vegas in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch.  Given Monday’s situation, we were unable to get to the Xfinity and Truck broadcasts from Daytona.  They will be covered in this week’s edition of The Critic’s Annex in the Frontstretch Newsletter.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below.  Even though I can’t always respond, I do read your comments. Also, if you want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons. If you would like to contact either of NASCAR’s media partners, click on either of the links below.

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About Phil Allaway

Phil Allaway
Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor. Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as Tony Stewart's Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions.

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3 comments

  1. Avatar

    NASCAR management is primarily to blame for Ryan Newman’s tragic accident at Daytona.

    Super speedway racing with the NASCAR formula is a recipe for disaster. It is designed to create “the big one”, which misguided minds believe fans want to see.

    Wrong! We want to see real racing. Not an insane system which requires the help of two or more cars to execute a pass at 200+ miles per hour.

    The fix is relatively simple. Knock down the banking or throw in a dogleg to naturally lower treacherous speeds at or above airborne level.

    Another suggestion to NASCAR mismanagers: As long as you’re fixing things, start the race at 11 a.m. to avoid the inevitable afternoon rain front. The way it used to be. Duh.

    I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. NASCAR has become a broken entity similar to the Federal government — micro-managing people and machines until nothing actually works as it should, if at all.

    What vexes me even more is this. Very much like the national “WOKE” media, NASCAR pundits and writers refuse to even mention one negative word about grossly misguided NASCAR management. Let’s hear from the majority of drivers we know hate races and current life-endangering rules of super speedways.

    But no! Goodie-two-shoes Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon and all TV commentators are under the dictator thumb of NASCAR and cannot breathe an honest negative word.

    Someone at the top had better pay attention. Fans are leaving the sinking NASCAR ship in droves.

  2. Avatar

    I confess it was a relief to not need to mute the TV when the green flag dropped to avoid that obnoxious phrase I’ve been subjected to for years. I tuned out until the actual green flag, as I’m trying very hard to avoid politics in any form right now. I tuned out as soon as Hamlin started doing donuts, so I didn’t hear about Ryan Newman going to the hospital until I watch the late news.

    • Avatar

      Knowing how much I hated BBB, my best friend made sure he uttered the phrase at the start of the race. What else are best friends for? LOL