Networks juggle speculation and facts

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Shootings keep stations busy

October 23, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

The intensity of the coverage of the sniper shootings has often blurred the difference between local news programs and national cable news channels.

The best evidence: WBAL-TV dislodged the queen of afternoon television to report on yesterday's shooting. "We're pre-empting Oprah, which is a pretty big statement in its own right," says Bill Fine, president and general manager of WBAL-TV.

WJZ-TV could not have initiated its new 4 p.m. news program at a better (read: worse) time. Ratings have gone up for the CBS station at that time - about 18 percent higher than WJZ drew when showing Rosie O'Donnell's talk show last year.

FOR THE RECORD - The TV/Radio column in Wednesday's Today section misstated the time that cable news channel CN8 is broadcasting a series of documentary episodes about this fall's Maryland gubernatorial race. The documentaries are being shown at 6:30 p.m. Sundays. The Sun regrets the error.

WMAR-TV has responded to the welter of shootings by building up its own offerings, creating newscasts at 4 a.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. - all of which are new time slots. WMAR has also drawn upon correspondents sent to Washington suburbs by its sister stations in the E.W. Scripps Co., offering fresh blood and unfamiliar faces to provide the news. The ratings are up at that station, too.

Although WBFF has generally held off, all three other local news stations have played up news coverage throughout the day, disrupting typical daytime programming as they jockey to attract viewers and report developments. It's periodically unclear what developments they expect to occur, although the strength of interest is so strong that it's hard to blame them for wanting to stay on the air.

The consequences, however, are sometimes painful to watch.

On both local and national television channels, reporters are paying close attention to such riveting facts as the shifting schedules for press conferences at which law enforcement officials ultimately offer few additional details.

Here's what Eric Haney, a retired special forces operator serving as CNN's "ballistics expert," had to say Monday morning. Police officials had taken two men into custody at a phone booth outside Richmond near the site of Saturday night's shooting.

Haney: "I just utterly believe these two want to talk, and they're sitting there now, saying, `Guys, sit back, turn on your tape recorder, pay attention, I'm going to give you a lesson on how all this has worked.' "

Anchor Leon Harris asked Haney: "What makes you say that? What makes you think that now they want to talk, after all this?"

Haney: "They've been in complete control, all along. While they were running the killing operations, they were saying, `See, it works according to my will.' And then they negotiated their method of surrender."

CNN's anchors, including Harris, periodically reminded viewers that the men weren't considered suspects yet, but they made it sound as though it were only a matter of time. Except, of course, according to later statements from law enforcement officials, those two men had nothing to do with the killing outside the Ponderosa restaurant, or any other of the sniper shootings.

Yesterday, commentators on several media outlets, such as WCBM radio and WMAR-TV, dwelled on reports that a French army deserter last believed to be in North America was an expert marksman. No evidence of a link, proof of his presence in the greater Washington region or motive for him to do so. He's just a good shot - as are any number of people.

It's almost as though there is an invisible tug-of-war occurring on the air between reported fact and free-for-all speculation. Helpfully, in case there's anyone left in the region who isn't panicked, CNN is labeling its coverage: "Sniper on the Loose."

Bill Clark, a former New York City detective who worked on the Son of Sam serial killings, argues that the media should focus more on the sniper's victims. The whirlwind focus on the few wisps of evidence could romanticize him, in the minds of some people, as someone who's beating the system, Clark says.

"It becomes a scoreboard if they keep emphasizing the number of incidents," Clark says. "These are real people this guy is killing."

The blanket coverage of the shootings has collapsed much interest in other topics, although there are other things worth tracking: deaths in the Middle East, nuclear aspirations in North Korea, even an election or two around the country and around Maryland.

Media and politics

A study conducted jointly by scholars at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications and the University of Wisconsin's political science department tracked stories in the top 50 markets. They found that less than 20 percent of more than 1,000 stories about this fall's political races included any sound bites from the candidates themselves. Of those that did, the average sound bite was a little more than nine seconds.

Local stations are continuing to broadcast some political stories. Those Marylanders interested in seeing a bit more of the state's gubernatorial candidates themselves would be well-advised to catch a recent series of quickly turned half-hour documentaries being broadcast on Sunday evenings at 7:30 on CN8, the Comcast cable news channel.

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