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Columbia mall shooting story offers revealing look at local, cable TV news

All the TV stations in Baltimore say they’re the ones to turn to for breaking news.

Coverage of a shooting Saturday morning at the Mall in Columbia that left three dead put those promises to the test in a major way. Not everyone passed.

The local stations that got there first with the most resources were WJZ (Channel 13) and WBAL (Channel 11), which were on the air shortly after 12:30 p.m.

WMAR-TV was on-air with live coverage shortly after 1 p.m, but WBFF (Channel 45) didn’t offer viewers anything except syndicated programming, infomercials and auto racing until 2:30 p.m. And then, it provided only 30 minutes of coverage before returning to Fox network NASCAR coverage.

“We focused on social media until official comments came out from Howard County Police,” Bill Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF, said in an email to The Sun when asked why his station covered the story as it did.

But Howard County Police had conducted a news conference in the mall parking lot almost an hour before WBFF started its TV coverage. WBAL, WJZ and WMAR all carried it live starting about 1:30 p.m.

Some of the most impressive hustle came from CNN. Mike Ahlers, a senior producer from its Washington bureau, was on air shortly after 12:30 p.m., talking via phone over a mall image that he sent as soon as he arrived in Columbia. CNN correspondent Erin McPike was at the mall by 12:40 p.m.

WJZ was ahead of WBAL on Twitter Saturday morning, but at the start of live TV coverage, WBAL had the edge in images, thanks to having its own helicopter over the mall parking lot.

It also had multiple reporters from both the Hearst-owned radio and TV stations on the ground. Scott Wycoff, from WBAL radio, was there and filing reports by noon, and Jayne Miller and producer Shannon Encina arrived a short time later. (Encina is married to Sun sports reporter Eduardo A. Encina.) WBAL-TV’s initial coverage featured audio from Wycoff with maps and still images of the mall until the helicopter got in position and started transmitting live imagery.

WJZ used maps and still photographs over audio until about 1:05 p.m., when it joined a feed from a helicopter that was also providing images to WMAR during the afternoon. The pictures were grainier and more static. But they were good enough given the situation.

WJZ confirmed that it did not get its own helicopter over the mall until 2:15 p.m. But like WBAL, it had a strong presence on the ground at the mall and the in the studio all afternoon.

WBAL did come in for some criticism on social media, with one tweet criticizing an image purported to be that of the store where the shooting took place: “@wbaltv11 You keep showing the storefront of a Zumiez that is 100% not the Zumiez in Columbia. Really bad journalism. Come on now.”

“Zumiez picture is from Google maps …with the address that is correlated to the Columbia Mall,” Dan Joerres, WBAL-TV’s general manager, wrote in an email response to a Sun question about the image and the tweet.

Citing sources, NBC News, CNN and WBAL radio and TV reported the shooting as a "domestic" situation, though all also quoted Howard County Police Chief William J. McMahon saying that officials could not confirm any motive. Responding to an inquiry from The Sun about those reports, WBAL-TV news director Michelle Butt wrote that her station was basing its report on multiple sources.

If it turns out not to be "domestic," WBAL in particular is going to be in for some harsh criticism as it went further than the other two on Twitter in saying the shootings were not random.

The mall shooting was a huge story, and coming on a weekend morning when TV newsrooms are usually not staffed by the first string, it was especially revealing. One of the best ways to judge the depth and commitment of any news operation is how it does when a big story breaks on a weekend or holiday and smaller crews are on hand.

Given what we know at this point, there are three takeaways from Saturday’s coverage that viewers can use to guide their news watching nationally and locally.

First, despite all the turmoil and confusion at CNN about its changing mission the past year, it showed it can still cover a big, breaking news story like no other cable channel going. The fact that Ahlers was on the air within a whisker of the best local stations is impressive.

Second, WMAR was in the hunt on this one after being mostly missing in action (by my analysis) on other stories. It got on the air almost a half-hour after the other stations.

At 1 p.m., it started airing an infomercial for the “Ninja Kitchen” after finishing an infomercial for a mattress that aired while WJZ, WBAL and CNN were covering the shooting. But this time, WMAR quickly dumped out of that “Ninja” infomercial and ran competitively all afternoon with WJZ and WBAL. There was a bump or two in the coverage, but the station’s effort deserves praise.

Third, WBFF’s lack of coverage is inexcusable. You can talk to me about new media and streaming all you want, but on this story, you get your team out there and you cover it for your viewers if you want to be considered a credible TV news operation.

WBFF’s owner, Hunt-Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group, is buying up stations across the country left and right.

Maybe the company should focus more attention on having its hometown station give viewers better coverage when it counts.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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