WBAL-TV breaks robocall story

November 02, 2010|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

Old-fashioned reporting and the skilled use of new media helped WBAL-TV score an early and important scoop in election coverage Tuesday night, some 90 minutes before the polls that everyone else was waiting for even closed.

WBAL broke the news that robocalls were being made in Maryland telling Democratic voters that Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was up for re-election, and President Barack Obama, who was not, had won. The calls went on to say that no further action was required by Democratic voters — and that anyone receiving the call didn't need to do anything further except stay home and watch the happy results on TV.

WBAL first heard of the robocalls through viewer tips called into the newsroom and to reporter Jayne Miller sometime around 6 p.m., when Miller was on the air, according to Michelle Butt, the station's news director.

Miller managed to confirm the information and turn it into a story and an online post within 20 minutes after getting off the set and back to her desk, Butt said.

The station then used a range of new and traditional media to get the information to viewers in a way that could directly affect their decision to vote 92 minutes before the polls closed at 8 p.m.

Here's the post Miller put online at WBAL's "Live Wire" blog at 6:28 p.m.: "Don't be fooled if you're getting a phone call, one of those recorded calls, that tells you stay home, relax, no need to vote — the election is already decided. It appears the calls are going to registered Democrats. The polls, of course, are still open till 8 pm. This probably falls into the category of the tricks that get played to keep voters at home."

A story with Miller reporting the robocalls as a dirty trick was posted at WBALTV.com at the same time, with the station sending out an e-mail blast alerting viewers and readers to it at 6:32 p.m. An MP3 audio of one of the calls was posted to the "Live Wire" blog at 6:36 p.m.

The result: WBAL broke a story that truly served the public by countering an attempt to keep voters from going to the polls.

The Associated Press didn't publish a version of the robocall story until 7:21 p.m., according to searches done at The Baltimore Sun.

At 7:20 p.m., WBAL had reaction to the story it broke, with a statement from Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake denouncing the calls.

"I was deeply troubled to hear this misleading robocall targeting Baltimore City residents urging them to relax and stay home as if the election was over and the polls have been closed," Rawlings-Blake said. "Sadly, this is the kind of gutter politics that we have come to expect from Bob Ehrlich and the Republican Party. In 2006, Bob Ehrlich's campaign distributed intentionally false and misleading fliers intended to confuse minority voters, and today they've reached a new low."

Perhaps WBAL should have held off on publishing the mayor's allegation against Ehrlich before giving the GOP candidate a chance to respond. But the fact that the mayor made the allegations is news in its own right. And in the world of digital media, publishing certainly seems justified on a big night like Tuesday.

A lot of good work was done by local media Tuesday night on the election. WJZ was on the air with the robocall story by 6:31 p.m., station management said.

It is encouraging to see traditional, first-rate reporting and digital media used so skillfully to serve the public with such important breaking news.

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