Z on TV: Hopkins media coverage -- Good reporting, bad tweets

September 16, 2010

From practically the moment the story broke late Thursday morning until Baltimore police announced that the gunman was dead and the situation was resolved almost three hours later, WBAL-TV led the way locally and nationally with outstanding coverage of the shooting of a Johns Hopkins hospital doctor.

Jennifer Franciotti and Dave Collins were on-scene for WBAL, and Franciotti seemed be eveywhere. She broke the news of the gunman's death moments before the police announced it by passing along to the anchor desk what a WBAL cameraman had overheard a tactical officer say. And just as Sarah Caldwell had done throughout at the WBAL anchor desk, the information was given context.

CNN had the best national coverage in the early going, largely because of its affiliate relationships with WBAL and WMAR-TV in Baltimore. CNN used overhead shots of the Hopkins complex from WBAL's helicopter, on-scene reports from Franciotti, and solid background information at its own anchor desk from Tony Harris, who formerly worked at WBFF.

"WBAL and WMAR are our affiliates in the region, and they were a great help for us," said a CNN spokeswoman. "We were getting early details of the incident from them -- and attributing back to them, of course. We also spoke with Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin Fenton. And he gave us a lot of details, especially in the early moments by phone. And his insights were among the best reporting early on."

WJZ offered solid continuous coverage throughout, highlighted by an interview conducted from the anchor desk with a witness to the shooting. Along with WBAL, the CBS-owned station also provided helicopter pictures of the Hopkins complex in the early going -- and three on-scene reporters.

(Jennifer Franciotti courtesy of WBAL-TV)

Representative of the kind of work WBAL and Franciotti did is an interview that came at 1:28 p.m. with a hospital worker.

At the time, many other media outlets, using information from Baltimore City and Hopkins Medical tweets, were telling viewers, listeners and online readers that outside of the immediate area where the gunman was contained, the rest of the hospital was open for business.

When Franciotti asked the hospital worker about that, the woman flatly contradicted it, telling her buildings were locked, and she herself couldn't get in -- that, in fact, much of the hospital was not open for normal business.

The hospital was not as open as the Twitter traffic indicated. And it was fascinating to see reporters who would otherwise question official pronouncements in such a situation acting like the messages were gospel because they were delivered on Twitter. We need to think about our new media gullibility.

CNN reporter Josh Lev, who specializes in new media, did note a contradiction in the official Tweets from Hopkins and police simultaneously sugggesting most of the Hopkins campus was business as usual and that workers had been urged to lock themselves in their offices.

(An earlier version of this post mis-indentified the Baltimore station at which Tony Harris had worked.)

- David Zurawik

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