As first Gray trial begins, media must step up

A lot is riding on the media performance covering the trials in the Freddie Gray case.

The start of jury selection in the first Freddie Gray trial will bring a big media presence to town Monday — and major challenges for the journalists trying to cover the proceedings.

The courthouse logistics are tough enough. There will be no cameras in the courtroom, and all electronic devices must be turned off in both the courtroom and an overflow room where reporters will watch a closed-circuit feed.

To tweet or post about the trial, members of the press will have to go to a media room where there will be no feed of court proceedings. Sheriff's deputies have the right to "inspect all electronic devices for misuse" and confiscate them. Nor are they responsible for "damage or loss" of any devices they inspect or seize, according to an order signed by Administrative Judge W. Michel Pierson.

But restrictive as that might seem, the greater challenge for journalists involves the sociology and timing of the trial. In the wake of the release of a video showing a black teenager being shot and killed by a white police officer in Chicago, the trial arrives at a moment when the eyes of the nation are on race and community-police relations like no other time since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

Just about this time last year, a grand jury decided not to bring charges against a white officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and rioting broke out there. The trial that starts Monday is not just about what happened to Gray in that police van in April. It's about Ferguson, Staten Island, N.Y., and Charleston, S.C. — straight through to Chicago and Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old who was shot 16 times in 15 secondsthere. While that shooting is more than a year old, the officer was only indicted this week as video of the incident was released.

There has been peace in Baltimore since six officers were charged in Gray's case. But the results of the trials could threaten that — as could the way in which the trials and verdicts are reported. This story demands the strictest standards of social responsibility.

CNN is sending two correspondents and crews, as well as Ann O'Neill, a digital reporter called "The 13th Juror" by the cable channel. She specializes in high-visibility court cases and is one of the ways CNN responds to no-cameras-in-the-courtroom restrictions on coverage.

Vice News, which has done news and talk-show coverage of the Gray case, will also be providing online coverage out of Baltimore, with New York reporter Liz Fields.

Miguel Marquez and Jean Casarez, the two correspondents CNN is sending, have been here to cover the Gray story before. Marquez was on the streets in the thick of the arson and looting in Penn North on April 27.

Fox News and MSNBC are also sending crews. Fox will have Leland Vittert in Baltimore. He was also one of the correspondents who covered the unrest — and so frustrated Nick Mosby during a live interview that the city councilman asked if the correspondent had actually heard anything he'd said about the "socioeconomics of urban America" in trying to provide context for the violence in the streets.

Al Jazeera America will also have a crew and correspondent covering the "nuts and bolts" of the trial on a daily basis, as well as Adam May, national correspondent for the channel's prime-time show, "America Tonight." May will be "monitoring" the trial for what he described in an interview this week as "the bigger issues in society that come out of it."

May, who lives in Baltimore and works out of Al Jazeera's Washington bureau, said he has been researching some of those issues through reports on the war on drugs and interviews with University of Baltimore President Kurt Schmoke, one of the first public officials to question the nation's drug policy when he was mayor of Baltimore. May, a onetime WJZ reporter, also recently interviewed playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith, a Baltimore native who has incorporated the voices of urban America into her work.

"It's very important to have reporters in there who are going to cover the trial and note what 'i' was dotted and 't' was crossed," May said in a phone interview.

"But there are also the bigger issues involving multigenerational poverty and the war on drugs. That's the kind of thing I'm looking at. How did we get here? How did Freddie Gray become the person that he did? Why did the police act they way they did? And what can be done to improve the situation for everybody, so that this isn't repeated again in another city like Ferguson and New York, over and over and over again."

May said "some media" are probably returning to Baltimore because of the unrest triggered by Gray's death in April.

"I think some are like, 'Oh, wow, whatever happens in this trial, maybe there's going to be some more rioting,'" he said. "There is the thinking: 'We need to be there to cover this in case something happens.'"

But, he added, "I also think it's an opportunity for us to dig deeper into these bigger issues, the root issues of the case."

The media definitely need to dig deeper and do better than they did in April.

This is too big a story for mistakes like the one WBAL made in trusting its coverage to Jayne Miller, a reporter with an obvious conflict of interest. Miller is in a relationship with Janice Bledsoe, the lawyer who led the Gray investigation for Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby.

And not only did Miller's conflict of interest compromise WBAL's coverage, it did the same for MSNBC, which used Miller more than once as a talking head on the story without disclosing the conflict.

CNN, by comparison, relied heavily on contributor Sunny Hostin for legal analysis, and every time Hostin appeared on camera, the interviewer informed viewers that Hostin was a friend of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. I must have seen it happen a dozen times during coverage.

Hostin's conflict was not as large or clear as Miller's, but CNN took the ethical high road and was rewarded, as the performance of Rawlings-Blake during the unrest became a major part of the story.

No one has more room for improvement than Fox News, which came to town in April with correspondent Geraldo Rivera. He brought an attitude suggested by his on-camera remark to state Sen. Catherine Pugh that residents who were on the streets as a curfew was being enforced seemed to be "looking for trouble."

As for Vittert, he hounded Rep. Elijah E. Cummings while the congressman was helping to clear the streets at curfew on April 29. Vittert wanted Cummings to answer questions from show host Sean Hannity in New York. After answering a few, Cummings walked away, but Vittert came after him in a manner best described as stalking.

Coverage from Fox News hit bottom May 4 when correspondent Mike Tobin reported that police had shot a young black man near Pennsylvania and West North avenues, where much of the Gray story had played out.

It lit up the Internet and social media, but it was wrong. Police had shot no one. A man running from police fell to the ground and, as he did, he threw away his gun. The gun went off, and some people in the crowd thought they saw a shooting. It was admittedly confusing.

But media are supposed to be better than the person on the street when it comes to accuracy and verification. As a reporter, you don't say something as explosive as "Police shot a black man who was running away" until you have absolutely confirmed it — especially in such a potentially explosive situation.

The false report by Fox News could have triggered more violence in Baltimore.

That potential remains as the media swarm gathers for the start of the trial of William G. Porter, the first officer to be tried in the death of Gray.

This time, let's all try to rise to challenge and think about doing our jobs professionally and ethically before all else. Let's aim for public service first rather than ratings, page views, political agendas or fitting the death of Gray into some self-serving narrative.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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