January 11, 2010

How News Happens

Two Police Wounded In Shoot-Out

On Saturday morning, July 18, a 34-year-old Baltimore man named Shawn Sinclair shot and wounded two city police officers before being wounded and detained himself in a gunfight that culminated a wild, drug-infused morning of violence.

The incident provided a window into the way breaking violent crime stories, a staple of local media, are covered in the emerging digital era.

Lessons from the coverage

  • Twitter broke the story, but new media outlets otherwise had a limited role. A non-news outlet—the Baltimore Police Department Twitter feed— played an important role early on as the story unfolded. It was the mainstream news organizations, however, that provided the lion’s share of coverage and context. With few exceptions, new media outlets—including local crime blogs—were silent.
  • Traditional media drove the coverage using new platforms: The internet was the primary platform for breaking the story and disseminating new information. In most cases, this reporting was done by traditional media outlets, who posted first and published or broadcast in their legacy platforms second.  
  • TV defined news differently. Broadcast television tended to emphasize the emotionally vivid aspects of the story. But in this case, the medium also added new angles to the unfolding narrative.

Twitter broke the story but new media outlets otherwise had a limited role

Except for early on, new and niche media played barely any role in the reporting of the Shawn Sinclair story. Despite the presence of at least five separate crime-oriented niche news outlets, the bulk of information came from the mainstream press—the Baltimore Sun and four local television news stations.

That Saturday, July 18, word of the police shooting was first reported on Twitter at 11:17 a.m. by Justin Fenton, on his Baltimore Sun Twitter feed.[1]  Twenty minutes later, the Baltimore Police Twitter account weighed in, releasing the fact that two officers had been shot, not just one as Fenton had written.[2]  “OFFICERS SHOT: 2 Officers shot while taking suspect into custody. Officers condition stable, police working scene, will hv briefing later,” read the BPD feed at 11:37 a.m.

Fenton and the BPD would each tweet two times that day, mostly to update new information: “UPDATE POLICE INVOLVED SHOOTING: Officers have been stabilized by Shock Trauma physicians. Suspect in custody. Formal briefing later today,” read the BPD feed at 12:17 p.m.

The press briefing, by Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld, was held Saturday afternoon outside of University of Maryland’s shock trauma center, where the officers and the suspect had been taken. Bealefeld addressed reporters, delivering the facts of the story. (After this first day, @BaltimorePolice did not tweet about the case again. Fenton would tweet three more times over the course of the week: linking to a Sun article, quipping about Bealefeld’s candor in the press briefing, and tallying the number of police shootings in the past three years.)

Beyond these, as well as a brief mention of the shooting on the independent crime blog “Baltimore Crime” around 1 p.m., the rest of the coverage of the Sinclair story would come from mainstream outlets.

In all, PEJ found 34 news stories produced on the Sinclair case this week, all of them from mainstream news outlets. There would three brief mentions in blogs and 15 Twitter posts, three of them from the police, six from mainstream news outlets and six from Fenton, the Sun reporter, using his personal account.

Most of the news stories did not break news. Of those 34 news reports, 13 or 38%, contained new information that advanced the story, three from the Baltimore Sun, three from WBAL-TV and six from WJZ-TV, which claimed exclusive access to Sinclair’s family. The rest restated information already known, often stories from one platform replayed on another.
The first news reports came at 11:24 a.m., seven minutes following the Sun reporter’s initial Tweet through a post on wbaltv.com, the website of local TV station WBAL. It amounted to a few sentences adapted from an Associated Press story.

The first full accounting of the morning’s events appeared on baltimoresun.com at 8:37 p.m., about nine hours after the original wbaltv.com posting. The 920-word account by reporters Jill Rosen and Mary Gail Hare included context that had not yet appeared anywhere—background on Sinclair and the details of the suspect’s trail of mayhem: “The 34-year-old male suspect with a long arrest record, first forced himself into a home in the 3200 block of Lake Avenue in Northeast Baltimore, brandishing a handgun.” The Sun article also included historical context, such as the number of cop shootings on record in recent years, and cited the details of specific cases: “In January, an officer was shot twice in the face while trying to make an undercover drug purchase in Seton Hill. Dante Arthur, an eight-year veteran of the city police department, required reconstructive surgeries.”

At 8:58 p.m., 20 minutes later, wbaltv.com updated its earlier report. The story, containing contributions by the AP, did not provide as much detail as the earlier baltimoresun.com story.

None of the stories on the day of the incident named the shooter or the wounded officers.

Sunday, July 19, the day after the shootings, 10 stories appeared at different times in the legacy outlets and websites of the Baltimore Sun and local TV stations. (It is possible that the local stations aired broadcast stories as well. However, the study sample did not include weekend broadcasts.)

Only a few delivered new developments, almost all from mainstream outlets, though they came across different platforms. In print the Baltimore Sun updated the story posted online the night before, revealing that the seriously injured officer was “out of surgery Saturday night and is expected to survive.” WJZ.com, the website of another TV station in town, cited a witness to the arrest who accused police of beating the still unnamed suspect after he was in custody. WBAL-TV tweeted that the suspect had been involved in domestic disputes. And toward the end of the day, news organizations—including WJZ-TV and WBFF-TV—began reporting that the police had released Sinclair’s name.

On Monday, July 20, more news outlets filed or updated stories. Television stations aired packages on their evening broadcasts. WCBM Radio included the story in its morning headlines. And the story went from the front page of the Sun to the pages of its crime blog, written by reporter Peter Hermann.

The Sun’s morning print edition had the most complete account. It revealed the names of both the suspect and the wounded cops and delved into Sinclair’s rap sheet and the history of protective orders filed against him by several women.

The Monday evening newscasts, however, added more dimensions to the story, and the image one got of the case differed depending on which channel one watched.

WJZ-TV’s (CBS) 6 p.m. newscast included exclusive interviews with the suspect’s cousin, who refuted police commissioner Bealefeld’s assertion during his press conference that Sinclair was a “maniac.” Instead, Wendy Williams described her cousin as “a good person, but he snapped,” and the story contained new background on Sinclair’s employment history and the children he supported.

WBAL-TV (NBC), meanwhile, portrayed the darker side of a criminal who “had a gun, and was not afraid to use it.” Reporter Kate Amara characterized Sinclair as “no stranger to the court system,” and echoed the Sun’s foray into Sinclair’s past brushes with the law. The story included an interview with Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore City state’s attorney, in which viewers learned that the suspect’s estranged wife had filed an assault charge against him back in March 2008. 

Meanwhile WMAR-TV (ABC) interviewed one of Sinclair’s assault victims from the day of the shooting, who described him as “not a maniac, but a loving man.”

By Tuesday, the paper was finished with the Sinclair story, but television was not. There were updates throughout the day as local TV websites updated their accounts, but the stories contained no information that had not already been reported elsewhere, mostly the Sun. 

The persistence of violent crime in Baltimore City has fueled a cottage news industry. In addition to independent Twitter feeds, Baltimore has at least five specific crime blogs. Some of the more prominent ones include Baltimore Crime and Baltimore John Watch.

But at least in this case, those outlets were largely silent. The study found only two blogs that addressed the shooting during the week. Baltimore Crime mentioned the shootings in two brief posts Saturday, July 18. On Sunday, the day after the shooting, the author of Buzoncrime wrote a relatively long though unrelated piece about the Internal Affairs Department that raised questions in one paragraph about the lack of details in the reporting of the incident, but it then moved on to another topic.

What were these blogs covering instead? In general, each focused more attention on particular crime trends that dovetailed with their authors’ interests. In the week following the incident, Baltimore Crime published posts on taxing illegal gambling, an off-duty officer that shot a burglar and a few other shootings that had just occurred. Murderland contained no new posts during the week. Baltimore Slumlord Watch and Baltimore John Watch stuck to their niche crime topics. Inside Charm City posted about utility bills and MARC train delays on the July 19, the day after the shooting. And Investigative Voice, an independent local news website that often focuses on crime, covered water bills and city pensions that week.

Traditional media often relied first on new platforms

The Shawn Sinclair story was a breaking news event with new pieces of information revealed over several days. The Web proved to be a useful tool of mainstream outlets in delivering the news quickly, almost as it was available. In most cases, news organizations used Twitter or their websites to disseminate initial information and then repeated or elaborated in their traditional platforms.

The Baltimore Sun website, baltimoresun.com, for instance, carried the first full report about the shooting some 10 hours after the incident occurred. The next day, July 19, the Sun printed the same story, but with updates, including the condition of the severely wounded officer. The same pattern occurred on Monday July 20.

With local TV, too, there were a number of cases in which the stations posted information on the Web that would not resurface until later in the nightly newscast. Out of all of the 34 stories captured about the shooting, 21 were from local TV websites.

Not every outlet broke all its stories online. WJZ’s July 20 evening broadcast brought viewers exclusive interviews with both the suspect’s cousin and also his close friend which had not appeared on the Web.

How important in the end was Twitter, in addition to being the medium that first broke the story? The social media tool functioned as a vehicle for disseminating new information throughout the course of this story. At 9:56 a.m. on Sunday, July 19, WBAL-TV tweeted about the suspect’s history: “Police: Cop Shooter Involved In Domestic Disputes.” The item linked to a story on wbal.com, which revealed the names of the officers and the suspect. The story included a quote from police commissioner Bealefeld, who said “We know he’s (Shawn Sinclair) been involved in other domestic violence incidents.” This would be elaborated in other news reports later on, notably in WBAL-TV’s evening newscast on July 20.

On the evening of Sunday, July 19, at least two local stations used Twitter to alert audiences to other new information in the case. At 5:11 p.m., WJZ-TV tweeted that the name of the suspect had been identified. At 9:04 p.m., WBFF-TV’s (Fox) Twitter feed announced that a suspect had been identified, citing information gleaned from the AP. The tweet linked to WBFF-TV’s website.[3] The next morning, July 20, WJZ-TV tweeted at 6:59 a.m. that the police officers were still recovering.

TV news focused on the vivid but still uncovers new angles

Local TV stations not only ran with the shooting story longer than other media, they also focused heavily on vivid and emotional dimensions of Sinclair’s rampage. Much of this involved often-repeated footage of the crime scene, stock phrases such as “had a gun and was not afraid to use it,” and an emphasis on interviewing witnesses, relatives and friends of the suspect about what kind of man he was.

By Tuesday, most Baltimore news outlets had moved on from the shooting. But one outlet in town carried on. WJZ-TV secured what it dubbed “exclusive access” to the suspect’s family and then promoted that access to portray a more sympathetic portrait of Sinclair.

After interviewing Sinclair’s cousin Monday night, WZJ continued to cover the story online and on air for two more days after others stopped. On Tuesday morning, a WJZ.com story fleshed out the suspect’s history and character: “Sinclair’s relatives say he was a family man, coaching his son’s ball games and working steadily at a Foot Locker.”

That evening, it quoted family members saying that Sinclair had taken Ecstasy the day of the shooting, which “fueled a gun battle that turned the father of five out of control.” 

The final piece came on Thursday evening. WJZ, in its evening broadcast, updated viewers on the condition of one of the wounded police officers and said that Sinclair would face “a number of charges.”


Footnotes

1. July 18 falls before the sample period of July 19-25. Some content was analyzed from July 18, however, due to the fact that the main events of the story unfolded on that day.

2. @BaltimorePolice is followed by 4,136 users. Among its followers are local news organizations, including @FOXBaltimore, @wbaltv11, @wjznews, @baltimoresun and others. The department posted 13 tweets between July 19 and July 25, the sample time frame for PEJ’s analysis.  

3.  Due to the limitations of capturing and archiving all web updates, an analysis of the Twitter link destination in this case could not be conducted.