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Surveillance images give unfiltered feel to WMAR standoff coverage

No TV news images can compete with security camera video of truck ramming doors

By David Zurawik

The Baltimore Sun

10:06 PM EDT, May 13, 2014

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An emotionally disturbed man drives a landscaping truck into the lobby of Baltimore TV station WMAR around noon and then spends the afternoon inside the building watching other TV outlets covering his five-hour standoff with police.

Sounds like a media story to me. It sounds as if it could be the story of someone with a troubled mind literally trying to break his way into the bright, shiny world of television — and accomplishing it, for a few hours at least, through his act of violence.

Except we don't yet know what the young man was thinking or trying to accomplish, so let's not get ahead of ourselves on the larger meaning of the standoff as a media event.

But there is at least one clear takeaway on media coverage of Tuesday's standoff, and it's in the way surveillance video is replacing traditional TV news images on big stories more and more often.

For all the overhead helicopter shots high above WMAR and camera crews standing alongside police barricades on York Road, by far the most revealing and important images of the day and night were those captured by WMAR's security cameras.

Once WMAR personnel were able to get back into the station and get those images on-air during the 6 o'clock hour, nothing else visual mattered — certainly nothing from the world of traditional TV news.

We had been hearing the narrative for six hours of a highly agitated young man coming to the glass front doors of the station and angrily rattling them to try to get in. When station personnel locked the doors and refused him entrance, he walked away only to return in the driver's seat of a truck that he started ramming into the doors of the station until he broke through.

It's a compelling story when told in words, but nothing compared to what the security camera showed.

Viewers got to look at the young man head-on as he stood in front of the doors and tried to gain entrance. They could see his rage in the way he stomped back and forth.

And then they saw him walk away only to return in the truck that starts ramming the doors repeatedly until they shatter.

The dark, surveillance-camera look of the footage only made it more alluring in the sense that viewers knew they were watching a criminal act in the raw — one they had been hearing news reporters and anchors interpret for them all day.

In the new world of digital media, raw is always better than pre-digested by the media. Think of security-camera images of Ray Rice and his fiancee getting out of the elevator in a New Jersey casino — or Beyonce's sister, Solange, taking on Jay-Z in an elevator after the Met Gala.

WMAR, Baltimore's ABC affiliate, also had surveillance-camera footage of the young man bent over and seated on the curb in front of the station after police subdued him. That, too, was a powerful image that said loud and clear: The standoff is over; order has been restored.

There were other takeaways. When the folks at Channel 2 couldn't broadcast their story on TV, they turned to social media. They had their own footage of the truck ramming the doors, which anchor Christian Schaffer posted on Vine, and they were reporting bits and pieces of the event throughout the afternoon on Storify and Twitter.

The station remained on-air with nonlocal programming for more than four hours during the standoff but went dark about 4 p.m. It came back on-air about 5:15 and was able to start with local programming — covering this story in front of the station.

Throughout the afternoon, WMAR covered the story on its website. In addition to its own video and stream, it included a live feed of WJZ's on-air coverage.

WJZ sharing its TV feed was nice, but WMAR's surveillance-camera video and social-media coverage were better. They provided the images of Tuesday's event that will be remembered.

Baltimore Sun reporter Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this column.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik