Sep 2, 2010

Color, coverage and confirmation

Just the other day, I told a friend via Twitter not to believe what “they” say, that one really can go home again. By that I meant a return to my native New York City after four years of working the hyperlocal scene in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. I never expected a guy named Lee and his gun-toting, bomb-planting, hostage-taking antics at Discovery Communications would send me back to Silver Spring, if only digitally.

Wednesday afternoon was one long tweet: conversations with friends and former neighbors who work in and around the Discovery building, and retweets of news updates from boots on the ground. Emails and Facebook messages came from larger news organizations, asking for any information I may have had on the suspect or Discovery’s past dealings with him. And I bitched a lot about theories and comments from unnamed sources being passed off as fact (more on that below).

Hindsight being twenty-twenty, and this being the digital age, accolades and criticism of the event’s news coverage surfaced immediately or in real time. Regional news startup TBD.com got well-deserved props for its streaming video and online coverage, with help from its television affiliate WJLA. (Both organizations live under the Allbritton corporate umbrella.) But some of the news coverage (not necessarily that of TBD or WJLA) got gruff from the Asian-American Journalists Association (AAJA), Slate magazine and me:

Was the suspect’s ethnicity relevant? As Wednesday’s events unfolded, the AAJA offered this advice via Twitter: Ethnicity should be reported only when relevant and when that relevance can be explained to the news consumer’s satisfaction. The organization later explained on its website that it objected to “Asian” being the only modifier used to describe the suspected gunman. “It’s doubtful that news organizations would say ‘Black man (or white man) takes hostages.’ This reminder is in that same vein,” the website stated.

I agree, though personally I didn’t see any headlines or tweets describing him only as an Asian gunman. But there was relevance on the hyperlocal level to identifying the suspect as Asian. A lot of Silver Spring residents knew Lee as the village idiot (arguably one of many) who two years ago staged a one-man protest against Discovery Communications and then paid homeless men and women to join his picket line. That same week, he started a near-stampede along the neighborhood’s main shopping strip as he tossed cash in the air to evade his paid-to-picket employees.

Describing the suspect as Asian was germane to the story and a big wink-wink, nudge-nudge to Silver Spring residents. Neighbors knew exactly who took hostages that day — there aren’t too many Asian men with an anti-Discovery agenda running around town — without anyone even saying the dude’s name, and without confirmation from the police (more on that below).

Was there too much coverage of an all-too-frequent event? On Wednesday evening, Slate’s Jack Shafer complained that wall-to-wall coverage of a hostage situation did nothing to improve the state of news, and that it fed the suspect’s agenda. He wrote:

“[H]ostage-takings are pretty routine events in metropolitan areas. Crazed ex-husbands take their ex-wives hostage, bank robbers take cashiers hostage, carjackers take car owners hostage, and home invaders take entire families hostage all the time. These stories get the coverage they deserve, and it’s usually very brief.

Just because a nut job has staged his hostage-taking in the headquarters of a cable TV network, knowing that it would reap maximum publicity, doesn’t mean the press needs to volunteer itself and its audience as hostages, too.”

From my observation, the media wasn’t saturated with this story. In fact, I was able to watch an entire episode of “Days of Our Lives” on NBC’s New York affiliate with nary an interruption — no breaking-news update, not even a scroll. I did turn my attention to TBD’s streaming-video feed whenever “Days” got boring, and my interest in the story was no doubt fed by my ties to the area. (The Discovery building was two blocks from my former home.)

Cable-news networks like CNN, MSNBC and perhaps Fox probably covered the shit out of it, but one has to expect that. The federal government is still in recess, the mobile news crews are itching for action, and downtown Silver Spring is just over the Maryland border with Washington, DC. In that sense, I agree with Shafer: The story was low fruit for the bigger outlets’ picking.

But as a hyperlocalist, I would have been all over that story. Unlike ex-spouses, bank robbers and car jackers who take individuals hostage, the suspect in this case took control of a building that housed 1,900 Discovery employees. Resulting police activity tied up two major thoroughfares in the area near the peak of rush hour. And now the Discovery building, the crown jewel to Silver Spring’s drawn-out economic revitalization, is a crime scene. The hyperlocal implications of this event are massive.

Who’s confirming this shit anyway? I jumped into the nitpicking fray in real time via Twitter, when news outlets big and small began linking to Lee’s online manifesto — even before Lee had been positively identified as the gunman. There were also “confirmed” tweets that Montgomery County police officers had shot and killed Lee, though exactly who was confirming this was a mystery.

I tore everyone a new asshole for their unnamed sources and unfounded theories. The Poynter Institute caught flack, and even TBD general manager Jim Brady felt my well-intentioned, ball-busting wrath:

(Incidentally, check out Bettween.com for that cool new toy above.)

I realize that smaller news outlets often cite larger ones as sources. I’ve done it myself, though I’ll often label the attributed information as unconfirmed by my news organization. But citation and confirmation do not equate in my book — the former functions to cover a news organization’s ass from lawsuits, the latter serves to deliver accurate information to news consumers.

Too much unsubstantiated content bounced around the Twitterverse Wednesday, a lot of it tweeted by experienced journalists, myself included. Like an idiot, I tweeted my suspicions that Lee was the gunman after reading that the suspect was an Asian man with an extreme environmentalist agenda. Others tweeted the same thought, but as a reporter, I should have acted more responsibly before thinking out loud. I trusted my instincts when I should have verified them.

And that’s my hyperlocal take on a big hyperlocal story.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user katmere.

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