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What media should learn from the Freddie Gray case

Now that most of the national news trucks have rolled out of town, we have to ask: What have we learned from all the hours of coverage of the death of Freddie Gray?

We need to process some of the lessons if we in the Baltimore media are going to be up to the job of covering this story as it moves through the legal system amid what is already a vicious war of words.

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This isn't just a big story — it's a huge and complicated one. An arc that started with Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., has bent its way through Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., and North Charleston, S.C., coming to rest in Baltimore. And it is now our challenge to deal responsibly with a story rooted in issues that extend to the earliest days of race relations in this nation.

Here then, are five media takeaways from coverage of the death of Freddie Gray.

1. TV news is capable of sparking in-depth conversations about American life.

There is reasonable disagreement about Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes using the "N" word to challenge CNN host Erin Burnett during an interview in which she suggested it was OK to call the young men who threw rocks at police and set cars on fire "thugs." But the Democrat cut through the clutter of 24/7 cable coverage to prompt a discussion that is still going on about the use and meaning of "thug."

The first cycle of Internet and social media reaction was mostly focused on the "N" word and was critical of Stokes for using it to show how offensive "thug" was to him. But he stood his ground and came back for another cable news cycle of interviews explaining how such damning words can make young people believe they are what people call them — especially when the people calling them such damning names are presented as "experts" on TV.

In the wake of the discussion started by Stokes, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake apologized for her use of the word to describe lawbreakers in Baltimore during the two nights of violence here. Several colleagues in the media told me the discussion has resulted in them no longer using the word.

2. There is no national TV news coverage on weekends anymore.

I still cannot get over the fact that CNN would not break away from the White House Correspondents' Dinner on April 25 to offer even a cut-in of the civil unrest 40 miles away that Saturday night.

Are smashed windows, looting, vandalism and three hours of confrontations between police and protesters — resulting in gridlock downtown —not enough to warrant coverage?

We will never know for sure, but authorities might have been better prepared for what happened two nights later if the nation had seen those live images from Baltimore on that Saturday night.

But don't blame just CNN. MSNBC has long been wedded to canned reality-docs about prison life on weekends, while Fox is also moving away from weekend news with docu-series like "Legends & Lies: Into the West," featuring profiles of Wild West figures.

Not having a national TV news source on weekends is a serious matter for one of the leading nations in the free world. And the first Saturday of violence in Baltimore exposed the void.

3. Ethics matter.

On May 1, Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, wrote to Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, asking her to step aside and appoint a "special independent prosecutor" in the case because of "conflicts of interest" in her office.

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One conflict he cited was "the lead prosecutor's connections with members of the local media."

I have been trying since May 1 to get Ryan to name those "members of the local media" who he believes have conflicts of interest with Mosby's office. But Ryan has not returned my calls.

His letter did have one effect, though.

The lead prosecutor in Mosby's office, who led the investigation in the Gray case, is veteran attorney Janice Bledsoe. Bledsoe is in a relationship with WBAL investigative reporter Jayne Miller.

Because of that relationship, I wrote on May 1 that Miller should not have been covering the Freddie Gary case. Or, if she was going to cover it, she should disclose the relationship each time she reported on it. That's Ethics 101.

Last week, Miller said in a radio interview that she would "step back" from Gray coverage because of that relationship. But she did not explain what "step back" means when I asked her afterward. Total recusal? I don't think anything less is appropriate.

What she did say is that she and WBAL had always planned for her to step back once the case moved into "the legal arena."

But neither she nor WBAL general manager Dan Joerres had told me of any such plan when I asked about the conflict May 1.

WBAL needs to be clear, clean and transparent in handling this conflict, which has the potential to taint all of its coverage — and, perhaps, even the state's attorney's prosecution of the case — if they try to blur the lines.

4. Don't let your ideological baggage shape your coverage.

Fox News came to town with Geraldo Rivera as one of its street correspondents. And Rivera brought a mindset suggested by his on-camera remark to state Sen. Catherine Pugh that residents of Baltimore who were standing around them as the curfew approached seemed to be "looking for trouble."

She tried to set him straight, as did some of the residents around them. But Fox News correspondents never seemed to be listening or respecting the citizens they were talking to and covering. They seemed to be courting confrontation.

During one interview, City Councilman Nick Mosby wondered if correspondent Leland Vittert had heard anything he said in trying to explain the "socioeconomics of urban America."

On April 29, Vittert hounded U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings while the congressman was trying to help clear the streets at curfew. Vittert wanted Cummings to stop what he was doing to answer questions from show host Sean Hannity back in the studio. After answering a few, Cummings walked away, but Vittert stalked him.

Fox executives and correspondents have long insisted that the news reporting is separate from the ideology of the prime-time shows and that the reporting is as evenhanded and down-the-middle as anything in TV news.

But that's not what I saw of the grandstanding, ill-informed coverage from the streets of Baltimore. I don't know why the managers at Fox News can't understand that there are stories that are so important to a community and the nation that you have to get past the kinds of attitudes and behavior Rivera and Vittert showed in their reporting.

5. Verify, verify, verify.

Coverage from Fox News reached its nadir Monday when it reported that police had shot a young black man in the back near Pennsylvania and West North avenues, where so much of the Gray story had played out.

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It was a shocking twist in the story — except police shot no one.

The street scene was admittedly confusing, with a young man running, dropping a gun and falling to the ground after the gun went off. An eyewitness said she saw police shoot a man. Correspondent Michael Tobin thought he saw a shooting take place.

Except no police gun was ever fired.

The 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 — I don't care what you thought you saw.

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

It's hard to imagine how any news organization could have done worse.

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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