'Kill a cop' video may undercut WBFF's big plans

The Baltimore Sun
Will the “Kill a cop” video undercut WBFF's big plans?

WBFF (Fox 45) is poised in coming days to take one of its biggest steps since the Sinclair-owned station started doing news in 1991.

On Jan. 19, it will introduce a new lead anchorman in Kai Jackson, who was at the WJZ anchor desk for more than two decades before leaving in 2013. The station will also launch a 4 p.m. newscast on that day in a move that some see as indicative of the newfound resources and muscle the station enjoys now that its Hunt-Valley-based owner has become the largest station group in the country.

But analysts also say all those plans could be undercut as a result of the harm done by an egregious mistake the station made on Dec. 21 when it aired a report on a protest rally in Washington that featured misleadingly edited video from YouTube.

The edited video of a "Justice for All" march called in reaction to the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., made it seem as if protesters led by a Baltimore woman, Tawanda Jones, were chanting "kill a cop."

But what Jones and the protesters were actually chanting was: "We won't stop. We can't stop till killer cops are in cellblocks."

That's a very different meaning and representation of the marchers.

WBFF aired the misleading video at a volatile moment — on the weekend when two New York City police officers were murdered by a gunman who had earlier shot a woman outside Baltimore and who had made anti-police statements in social media. The station rightfully came under heavy criticism within hours after Jones, whose brother died while in custody after an altercation with Baltimore police last year, attacked the edited report on social media and called for a rally Dec. 22 at the station.

Station management has since apologized and fired two of the staffers involved in the report: reporter Melinda Roeder and Greg McNair, the videographer who worked with her on the piece.

But the station and Sinclair have declined to explain how such an awful distortion of the rally found its way onto the air. And in the minds of some analysts, that goes to the heart of credibility, accountability and trust — the kinds of factors that can lead viewers to tune out a station no matter how attractive it might make the packaging of its news with new anchors, new sets and more newscasts.

"What bothers me most about cases like this isn't just the mistake that was made, but the public explanation — or lack of one," said Eric Deggans, TV critic for National Public Radio and author of "Race Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation" (St. Martin's Press, 2012).

"We have seen it when NBC improperly edited audio of George Zimmerman's 911 call to police during his confrontation with Trayvon Martin," he added in an email. "We also saw it in an instance when a Chicago local TV news program improperly edited the quote of a young boy to make it seem as if he was saying he wanted a gun to perpetuate violence in his neighborhood when he was really saying he wanted to be a police officer."

The Chicago incident occurred in 2011 at WBBM-TV. In the wake of a shooting, a photographer asked a 4-year-old boy living in the neighborhood where it took place if he was frightened by the violence. The boy said he wanted a gun so he could be a police officer. But the police part was edited out.

"In both of those cases, the media outlets never explained exactly how they made their mistakes or why," Deggans wrote in an email.

When government officials or corporate executives err, the press demands an explanation as to how it happened, he said.

"But when it happens with journalists, these outlets rarely explain how a mistake was made, leaving outsiders to wonder if it was the result of a systemic problem or a lapse in judgment by a limited number of people."

Deggans believes the unwillingness to be transparent "leaves the community concerned that higher-level executives are being protected and skeptical that a similar mistake won't occur again."

Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University and writes the media criticism blog PressThink, has similar concerns about WBFF and its handling of the matter.

"When I read about this incident, I thought: Journalists are trained to know that 'making stuff up' is just about the worst thing you can do," he wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun.

"Second thought: broadcast news is an intensely collaborative environment. No one works on their own," he continued. "Therefore, this could not be a 'rogue reporter' thing. It had to be collaborative deception, which is a different animal. That in turn suggested that the culture of the WBFF newsroom somehow communicated to the people involved that this was an okay thing to do, that their deception could make it on air, that it would win applause from higher-ups."

The role of "higher-ups" at WBFF is exactly what troubles almost everyone — from readers to other media reporters and critics — who have contacted me about this matter. The terms "scapegoats" and "fall guys" are often used in their emails and texts.

I contacted WBFF General Manager Bill Fanshawe, News Director Mike Tomko and Scott Livingston, the head of news for Sinclair, seeking management's narrative of what occurred. The only response that offered any direct comment came from Livingston.

"I have looked into this situation," he wrote in an email. "We sincerely regret the error. We have apologized to the people directly affected. We did a thorough investigation and took appropriate action. We have reviewed our internal process to ensure something such as this doesn't happen again."

Not exactly details or narrative, but Tomko did not respond at all. Fanshawe wrote "no comment" in an email on how the false report came to be, but later emailed his thoughts on the arrival of Jackson and the new 4 p.m. news.

While Roeder and McNair were "terminated" by the station, Tomko was given a one-day suspension.

I also contacted several staffers at WBFF, but none was willing to go on the record.

Roeder told me that the story idea for the video came from management — it was not hers. Further, she said, management "directed" her "to use a YouTube link."

In conversations with Roeder, a winner of 12 local Emmys and seven Murrow Awards, I get the impression that she understands the dangers of grabbing video off the Web when the provenance of it is not known.

That's another issue WBFF needs to address: Whether or not Roeder and McNair were directed to the video, why are journalistic standards so low at Fox 45 that the station is using video on the air without vetting it — knowing who created it and how?

There are many issues raised by this ugly incident — not the least of which is how the station treats members of the community it covers. If the treatment received by Jones is any indication, the answer is not very well.

In an interview on Fox 45 in which anchorman Jeff Barnd apologized to Jones on behalf of the station, she called the misrepresentation of her words "disgusting" and "horrible." She said she has law enforcement officers in her family and has always insisted that protests be peaceful.

Typical of the transition WBFF is undergoing this month, Barnd, who was part of the first anchor team at the station in 1991, left town last week for a job as national correspondent for Sinclair in Washington. That's the job Jackson held the last year while he waited out a one-year no-compete clause in his contract at WJZ.

I have to admit, when I first heard about Jackson and the added newscast, I was encouraged by the thought of Sinclair directing more resources and talent to covering Baltimore — just as I would be with any of the other stations and media corporations that populate our local media landscape.

But in the wake of the inflammatory edit and the lack of an explanation, not so much.

"As journalists often tell other public officials and prominent people: Transparency can bring trust from the public," Deggans wrote in an email. "And for journalism outlets that have made an error, it's the surest way to win back the confidence of the audience."

Not doing so, on the other hand, is a good way to damage that core relationship with the audience — as well as with critics.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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