All eyes were on Baltimore in 2015

Which TV outlet did the best job of covering Baltimore in 2015?

From the moment the first citizen video of the arrest of Freddie Gray surfaced in April, I have been focused on images of Baltimore like never before in more than two decades on this beat. My adopted hometown was being sliced, diced and redefined this year on network, cable, streamed TV and social media, sometimes 24 hours a day.

The national and international press came here with an intensity unseen in recent memory. And many of the words and images published to worldwide audiences were not pretty. But some of them also were not accurate in the social reality they claimed to portray. In analyzing them, I came to some truths about the polarized state of media today, the effect it has on Baltimore's image and my own feelings toward my profession and hometown after living here for 26 years.

Some of the calls were easy to make. But even on these, there are layers within layers of how stereotypes and ideology embedded in the institutional thinking of a news operation can affect what is presented as news and journalistic "truth." And it is not limited to overtly right- or left-wing politically oriented outlets.

Among the more obviously problematic depictions of Baltimore in words or images during the unrest in April that followed Gray's death were those on Fox News.

During an interview with state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh on April 28, just as a curfew was about to take effect, Fox correspondent Geraldo Rivera said of the residents still on the streets, "It seems they want trouble."

The next night, correspondent Leland Vittert literally stalked Rep. Elijah E. Cummings while the Baltimore Democrat was trying to clear the streets at curfew.

Coverage on Fox got even worse on May 4 when correspondent Mike Tobin reported that police had shot a black male near Pennsylvania and West North Avenues, where much of the Gray story had played out. In fact, a suspect's gun had gone off.

In these depictions, Baltimore was a city out of control with streets full of people presented as troublemakers and unresponsive elected officials. No sense was given of the people as individual human beings or the socio-economic conditions that brought some of them into the streets. That is not surprising, given that the conservative worldview of Fox hosts such as Sean Hannity is not exactly sympathetic to the problems of urban America.

At the other end of the ideological dial, in the documentary "Baltimore: A Moment to a Movement," those conditions were not only emphasized, they were used to justify the violence and destruction that took place on April 25 and 27.

In the report, which streamed on GRITtv, the first words from the first person interviewed are: "Nobody's been talking about the economic inequality and economic violence that's been happening all over the city all the time until somebody lights a cop car on fire. And then, there's attention there."

The second voice in the piece comes from a young man sitting on the steps of an abandoned rowhouse. The shot looks like a scene opener from the HBO drama "The Wire."

Speaking of the April unrest, the young man says, "I'm proud of what we've done in Baltimore. I don't condone the violence and destruction of property. However, if that's what it takes to unite and motivate people, then so be it. It's a small price."

The depiction here is one of Baltimore as a flash point for righteous social revolution against economic inequality with an army of proud street-fighting men and women on the march for justice.

While the view is from the opposite side of the political divide, the overriding message is much the same as that on Fox: Baltimore is a city at war. Only from this rampart, it is seen as a totally righteous revolution.

Al Jazeera's coverage was the turning point for me.

The cable channel is known for its gripping nonfiction TV. And "Baltimore Rising," a documentary report on police-community relations by correspondent Anjali Kamat, was no exception.

But I was struck by the extent to which the report was filled with the sound of sirens and images of helicopters constantly hovering overhead. When talking heads started describing city police as an "occupation force," I came to understand that the unstated but overriding story line here was Baltimore as Gaza during the Israeli incursion of 2014. Inner-city residents were the Palestinians, and Baltimore police were the Israel Defense Forces.

There's a point of view present in much Al Jazeera coverage that media scholars call Global South, according to Philip Seib, author of "The Al Jazeera Effect."

This ideology focuses on those seen as victims of colonialism. While it originally applied to populations of non-European nations south of the equator, Al Jazeera has come to see persons of color in American cities such as Baltimore, Detroit and New Orleans as victims of oppression in the same way.

So Baltimore becomes Gaza in this telling, with words and images from the city marshaled to fit that narrative.

But in September, Al Jazeera America national correspondent Adam May reported a prime-time special for the channel titled "Saving Baltimore." It also focused on the Penn North neighborhood, but it featured in-depth interviews and mini-profiles of people working to improve life there.

May's report included workers in a nonprofit operation that takes down abandoned rowhouses brick by brick, providing good jobs for people in the neighborhood while removing a visual image of abandonment that has come to define the city in the minds of many. He also introduced viewers to some of the people at a branch library that serves as a haven for children and some parents.

Rather than reducing the residents of Penn North to one-dimensional stick figures in story lines constructed by editors in New York or Washington as so many out-of-town pieces had done, May gave viewers the chance to hear and see these citizens of Baltimore mostly in their own words and through a lens that captured some of their inner lives — their dreams, hopes, faith and work ethic in the face of tough odds.

And with his visit to that branch of the Pratt Library at Pennsylvania and North Avenues, he made another important point that was sorely overlooked by so many out-of-town reporters: Even in the most ravaged neighborhoods, there are still institutions that connect vitally with and serve the needs of the people who live there.

Of all the documentaries and reports on Baltimore after the death of Gray, I saw only one other that highlighted the enduring strength of some institutions and presented the people living in inner-city neighborhoods as more than stereotypical figures either to be feared or pitied.

That report, "Sandtown: The Path Forward," aired on one of the last channels I would look to for exemplary journalism: Charm TV, the city-run public access channel, which I thought had too often been used as a promotional tool for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the city.

The biggest difference between the Charm TV report and others was the element of hope. But this was no whitewash. The producers talked to people in Sandtown before and after the unrest to try to measure how views might have changed — and some that did change for the worse were included.

I was struck by the way some residents of that neighborhood were pictured in front of buildings and institutions rather than abandoned rowhouses. Ray Kelly, president of the No Boundaries Coalition, for example, was shown standing in front of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, a congregation with a tradition of civil rights activism, as he talked about problems facing the community.

Such stagings show not just the institutions, but people whose lives are connected to them in meaningful ways.

The link between the Charm TV report and May's on Al Jazeera is that both were done by residents of Baltimore. May, who left WJZ-TV in 2013 to work out of Al Jazeera's Washington bureau, still lives here.

I talked to him and dozens of other correspondents, producers and executives in New York, Washington and Atlanta about the different ways stories are covered by hometown versus out-of-town reporters and photographers. And I came to believe in a way that I never have previously that being part of a community can profoundly affect the way you cover it — for the better.

I was biased in the other direction. Because Baltimore is a relatively small TV market, I did not think there was any broadcast operation here that could cover a big story as well as the talent with which an operation such as CNN could flood the zone. I thought top national talent, deep resources and a commitment to fact-based reporting mattered more than anything else. I had seen too many cases in which being invested in a community led to boosterism instead of honest journalism.

But on Freddie Gray, that wasn't the case.

The national-local divide continued to play out this month with network and cable outlets on the afternoon and early evening of Dec. 16 depicting Baltimore as a city about to explode into violence, while local channels stressed the peaceful nature of protests after a mistrial was declared in the case of Officer William G. Porter, the first of six officers to be tried in Gray's death.

As I wrote at the time, it was a tale of two Baltimores, depending on whether you were watching national or local TV. The latter got it right.

But the larger media story for 2015 is that it was a tale of many Baltimores, depending on the world views of those behind the cameras. The correspondents and producers who came from around the world mainly told the stories they expected to find, whether or not those stories corresponded with reality.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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