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Published: Friday, 1/28/2005

Some stations reckless in rush to report

To interrupt American Idol, you knew it had to be a big story.

With an audience estimated at 150,000 Wednesday night, Fox affiliate WUPW-TV, Channel 36, broke from the network's most popular program to inform viewers of the shooting at DaimlerChrysler's North Toledo Jeep assembly plant.

At 8:54 p.m., WUPW news anchor Karl Rundgren answered three of the four basic journalistic questions -- what?, when?, and where? -- in 45 seconds. Then it was back to Idol.

WTOL-TV, Channel 11, followed at 9:01 p.m.

WNWO-TV, Channel 24, and WTVG-TV, Channel 13, came soon thereafter.

While WNWO's initial cut-in included a telephone interview with a Jeep employee, which was fairly impressive considering the shooting had taken place just 21 minutes earlier (8:42 p.m.), the NBC affiliate was reckless in its zeal to report the story.

The Jeep employee told WNWO news anchor Jennifer Stacy the full name of the man who was shot to death, Roy Thacker, and the first name of the shooter, Myles Meyers.

It would have been logistically impossible for authorities to notify the next of kin during that time frame.

The media are called "the gatekeeper" for a reason. WNWO failed to tend the gate at a time when it was most needed -- when rumors were running rampant.

How many of Mr. Thacker's family and friends received word of his death via television? One would be one too many.

Sad to say, Ms. Stacy offered no apology to viewers.

And she didn't offer a disclaimer. What if the Jeep employee had been wrong in identifying Mr. Thacker as one of the deceased? What if someone other than "Myles" did the shooting?

No apology. No disclaimer. Inexcusable.

WTVG made the same mistake more than an hour later. News anchor Lee Conklin, who was at the Jeep plant, interviewed an employee, and the name of one of the deceased made it onto the air. To their credit, news anchor Diane Larson, who was in the studio, and Mr. Conklin immediately apologized to viewers.

Mistakes are going to happen in a chaotic situation. The challenge for journalists at the scene is to resist the temptation of rumors and report only the facts.

In a competitive TV market, that's easier said than done.

WUPW was first with the story and the last to leave it. It was on the air continuously from 9:42 p.m. until midnight. Though plagued by technical problems, particularly with its live shots, WUPW's reporting was solid and, best of all, rumor-free.

More than any other station, WTOL was efficient with its cut-ins. It had five cut-ins from 9 to 10 p.m., but none lasted more than five minutes.

WTOL gave viewers the pertinent information and returned to programming, whereas WNWO, WTVG, and WUPW each had much longer cut-ins, no doubt aggravating a percentage of their viewers.

It should be noted that Ms. Stacy did offer one "apology" -- but it was for the station interrupting The West Wing.

WTVG seemed to be caught flat-footed. Its coverage before 10 p.m. was a step behind the others. It fared better after 11.

WNWO's Jim Blue, who was at the scene, had the best pre-11 p.m. interview -- one with a Jeep employee who said he witnessed the shooting. Mr. Blue's experience was evident as he guided the Jeep employee through the interview; the employee refrained from naming any of the people involved in the shooting.

On a different night, the local stations might have reported the shooting in crawls at the bottom of the TV screen and waited until their regularly scheduled newscasts (10 p.m. for WUPW; 11 p.m. for the other three) to dive into the story. But with all four stations breaking into network programming within 25 minutes of the shooting, the crawl gave way to competitive pressures.



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