I’ve been watching the media’s coverage of the tragic accident at Kentucky Kingdom, and can’t help but recall how a similar mishap precipitated one of the lengthiest and contentious media defamation cases in local history. As I wrote in LEO last year, a court ruled that WHAS-TV was guilty of, among other things, airing false and damaging information in a series of stories about the Kentucky Kingdom park after a 1994 accident. It hurt its own cause two years later when it aired a series by anchor Doug Proffitt, even as the station and the park were battling in court. As a result, WHAS-TV’s owners paid a $7.4 million judgment to a group representing the local owners of the park, who later sold the park to Six Flags.
So when it was reported last Thursday that a local girl had her legs severed on one of the park’s rides, the reporting of the incident seemed to me to be a little cautious, with reporters making sure they had their facts right and that eyewitness interview subjects were legitimate. And when the park’s spokesperson made statements about the victim, refusing to identify her because she was a minor, no one in the media undertook extraordinary measures to find out who it was. They even bought park spokesman Carolyn McLean‘s story (reported in the C-J) that she didn’t know where the girl was from a day after the accident.
I suspect that TV stations recalled the 2006 judgment too. Unlike the 1994 reports, there was no rush to judgment, no indictment of park officials, and no speculation about the cause of the accident. The story, I thought, was fairly reported and not sensationalized. No one got the ride operator or any non-authorized park official on camera (more good work from the park’s P.R. staff). It was as if media lawyers were screening the reports, which I’ve been told happened in at least one case.
The reporting also left many wondering, though, what really happened. Around town, people wondered how a cable could have severed a body part. They wondered who this girl was and how she was coping. We wanted the gory details of the scene.
The park, it seemed, was doing a pretty good P.R. job on minimizing the damage such an accident can cause for the park’s reputation. But six days after the accident, the girl’s family came forward, and let the public know about the victim — 13-year-old Kaitlyn Lasitter, who recently attended Highland Middle School. And, by the way, the family said in a statement, no one from Six Flags has been in touch with the victim’s family, directly contradicting reports in the media.
That’s going to be a problem for Six Flags management. By creating an adversarial relationship with the family, Six Flags will have a more difficult time coming to a monetary settlement. That’s the story that will continue, even as the human interest aspect fades from the media spotlight.
If the Six Flags folks are smart, they’ll figure out a way to make up with Lasitter’s family, and offer a generous settlement attached to a confidentiality agreement to keep the story out of the press. It will be interesting to see how far the media will go to get that story.