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News at what cost?

Local reporters and community members discuss ABC6's viral woman-attacks-news crew story. Plus, a talk with Melisa Lawrence
By PHILIP EIL  |  June 13, 2013

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NEWS SENSATION A screen shot from the ABC6 report.

A 16-year-old girl is shot at a graduation party. Days later, after the shooter (also 16) turns himself in, a young TV news reporter heads to the home of the shooting victim’s mother’s in search of a comment.

The resulting news story — in which the mother curses at the reporter, throws a rock at the cameraman, goes into the house to retrieve a baseball bat, then apparently sics her pit bulls on the news crew, sending the reporter screaming, running away, and dropping her microphone — has since been viewed 1,074,408 times on worldstarhiphop.com and 71,213 times on gawker.com. It’s been commented on 278 times on dlisted.com, and shared, via Facebook, 140 times from New York magazine’s “Daily Intelligencer” blog.

It has inspired a close reading through the lens of the “process by which news and internet media dehumanize the African-American community” on policymic.com by a third-year Anthropology student at Brown University. (“Perhaps Abbey Niezgoda of ABC6 Providence insisted in perturbing this family during a difficult time,” Saudi Garcia writes, “because in her subconscious, their right to decency and privacy are non-existent due to their status as minorities in an impoverished community.”)

Meanwhile, on YouTube, a user named “ramzpaul” begins a video blog by admitting “I’ve been drinking,” then goes on to say “someone sent me this link and they were upset about it.” He thinks it’s hilarious, though, he says, chuckling, “because this reporter and the cameraman, they went into this ghetto area because some lady — of course, [a] single mom — one of her spawns was shot...at a graduation party.” That video has been viewed 5560 times, or 1520 more times than the recent “Come Visit Us In Providence” clip posted by the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau.

For viewers in, say, Springfield, Missouri — where local ABC affiliate KSPR-TV posted the story with the headline, “Video: TV news crew in Rhode Island attacked while reporting story” — the ABC6 clip might have simply been something to click, watch, then forget. But viewing it here in Providence, the familiar streetscape and RIPTA trolley rolling through the frame made it more haunting than humorous.

And so, in the hopes that we might learn something from the clip, we sent the video to a few local reporters and community members for their thoughts.

The responses that follow are not meant to end, but, rather, start a conversation that we hope you’ll join via email (peil@phx.com), Twitter (@phileil, @provphoenix), and on Facebook (facebook.com/ProvidencePhoenix).

The following comments have been edited and condensed.

 

STEVE KLAMKIN, NEWS REPORTER, ANCHOR, AND HOST, WPRO 630 AM: Knocking on doors of crime victims or even perpetrators often leaves some people with a low opinion of reporters, yet we set out to paint a more vivid picture of the people at the center of any story. Unless we ask questions, we’re never going to know the impact of a crime [and/or] people’s special circumstances that often make a compelling story. In this case, because the victim was so young, listeners or readers naturally want to know how she’s doing and the effect of the shooting on her life

 

JIM TARICANI, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, WJAR-TV NBC 10: I think the reporter should have approached the woman . . . without the cameraman and asked her if she wanted to comment on the fact that police had someone in custody. If the woman responded in the negative, the reporter should have left the scene. If the woman indicated she wanted to say something, then the reporter could have asked her if she would grant an interview on camera.

In this case, once the woman threw a rock at the cameraman (also a wrong act for which she’s been criminally charged), the reporter and cameraman should have left the scene. And, frankly, when a reporter is threatened like that, common sense for one’s own safety should rule the day. It’s clear that after the rock was thrown, the reporter provoked a more intense response.

When approaching any victim or relative of a victim, there should be sensitivity to the emotional state of the victim or relative. In this case, the woman’s child had been shot. It is not surprising that the woman was emotionally upset, and acted irrationally. Any journalist would have realized this shortly after arriving on the scene, and left.

[W]e live in a media culture where. . . viewers, have an insatiable appetite for the insane, bizarre behavior of anyone. Celebrities charged with DUIs, reporters looking like they belong in the circus, and politicians behaving badly will trump substance all the time. The lesson from this story is that local TV news is losing viewers at a rapid pace. Younger viewers have no need to wait until a destination newscast comes on at 5 or 6 o’clock. Information and news is readily available on any number of electronic devices.

Local TV is trying to hold on to a dwindling audience, and the best way to do that in our brain dead culture is to appeal to the lowest common denominator, hence-reporters sensationalizing sensationalism.

And sadly, there is a new crop of young television reporters who work in TV news for all the wrong reasons. They want to be “a star” . . . they look for ways to involve themselves in the story, to get face time, so the public will talk about them.

On that cheery note, I’m going to get a scotch.

 

TIM WHITE, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, EYEWITNESS NEWS, WPRI–TV 12: If someone allegedly used a dog as a weapon on anyone else and the police charged them for it, would news outlets cover it? The answer is yes. I do think big conversations have to be had with editors when considering running a story in which the reporter is the focus. But in this case it peeled back the curtain to the reporting process and what we saw on the video, unfortunately, rang of the truth.

This one was crystal clear, editorially speaking. Abbey and her photographer were in a public place trying to do their job. She didn’t attempt to follow the woman onto her property or into her home, from that standpoint they did everything right.

It’s a reminder that you cannot predict a situation. It also made me concerned for the “VJs” [video journalists] that markets are using more and more. These are the reporters that shoot, edit, and report all in one. How would that situation have played out if Abbey were alone? I think editors might want to think about that video when dealing with similar stories and say, “Maybe we shouldn’t send the reporter out solo on this one”. . . I was scared for Abbey and the photographer as I watched it unfold. It was a stark reminder how dangerous journalism can be.

 

RAYMOND WATSON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, MOUNT HOPE NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION; CHIEF OF THE WAUCHAUNAT BAND OF THE NARRAGANSETT NATION: [I] think the media should take note of the fact that their reputation isn’t very good in many poor urban communities. To be very honest, there’s a lot of animosity from poor urban communities towards the media because of how our communities are often negatively portrayed, and many feel that the portrayal is consistently intentional.

[A]bout four years ago . . . I remember getting a phone call at about 7:30 am on a Saturday morning (a Saturday morning!!!) from a reporter about a shooting that had taken place in the neighborhood the night before. They wanted to interview me to see “what the community’s reaction was.” I told them that I would be willing to be interviewed, but only if equal time could be spent discussing the various positive things taking place in the neighborhood as well, mainly because I was concerned with the negative reputation that seemed to be cast upon Mt. Hope in general. They agreed and we set a time to meet later in the afternoon.

When I met with the reporter it turned out that they had decided to just send a camera guy to interview me and that he was going to take the footage back to be edited at the station. I reiterated to him the conditions under which I had agreed to be interviewed, to which he responded, “I’ll do my best, but the final say on what goes on air really isn’t up to me.” And so the interview commenced.

I remained true to my statement, discussing the shooting and acknowledging it as an issue, but also framing it in the context of it being something that was not as regular an occurrence as many might believe, or at least not as regular an occurrence as elements such as our summer basketball league, youth council initiative, etc.

After the interview was done, the cameraman thanked me for my time and informed me that he was unaware that so many positive things were happening in the neighborhood. I left the interview feeling like perhaps I had accomplished something good for the neighborhood that afternoon.

That is, of course, until I saw the piece that aired on the news that evening. Not only had they totally ignored all of the positive things I had said, but they exclusively focused on “ongoing violence” in the Mt. Hope community (which I had informed them was not as regular of an occurrence as they believed), only utilizing the portions where I had talked about how the violence was affecting the neighborhood.

I’ve. . . gone as far as to ask reporters in the past why they only seem to come around when something negative happens. The answer I routinely get is that “You have to let us know when that sort of stuff is going on because unless you inform us, we don’t know.” To which my response is “But I’ve never had to call any of you about a shooting or drug bust. You guys just magically appear.”

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