TOPICS > Nation

Covering Crises

March 29, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Joining us to discuss the cooperative coverage in Baltimore are Jayne Miller, WBAL-TV’s chief investigative reporter, who appeared in the tape report you just saw; Bill Toohey, media relations director for the Baltimore county police, who was also in the tape piece; Gail Bending, news director, WJZ-TV News in Baltimore; and Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, who has co-authored a set of guidelines to help journalists in their dealings with law enforcement. Welcome to you all.

Gail Bending, hindsight is 20/20. A week has passed since this incident was resolved. Do you feel that your station was co-opted here by the police or by Palczynski himself?

GAIL BENDING, News Director, WJZ-TV: I never felt that we were co-opted by police. I will tell you that throughout this entire situation, we were keenly aware every step of the way that the man who was holding three hostages, including a young child, was watching television.

TERENCE SMITH: And calling the shots?

GAIL BENDING: Trying to call the shots. And we had to decide constantly in terms of what we aired, what we reported, what the effect of that might be. And in this case, I would say that it was only the right thing to do to contact police and to talk with them so that we had the best information we could possibly have in order to make a decision about what to air.

TERENCE SMITH: Bill Toohey, from the police perspective, is it a good idea to use television to communicate with a gunman in a situation like this?

BILL TOOHEY, Spokesman, Baltimore County Police: Sometimes it’s the only way to communicate with a gunman in a situation like this. But I think you’ve been a bit harsh on the television stations in this because they did exhibit a great deal of independence. The police department presented them with certain realities. This is what we believe will happen. And then the TV stations made the decision on their own. And I think there was a great deal of independence and thought given to their decision making process by the television stations.

TERENCE SMITH: Jayne Miller, you had to make a lot of these decisions on your feet and of the moment. In the tape there, we saw Bill Toohey urging you to go live right away. You already were live. What went through your head at that point?

JAYNE MILLER, Investigative Reporter, WBAL-TV: My first reaction was “What? What do you mean?” We told our viewers this shortly after that entire episode that, please understand we are being asked to do things that we’re not normally asked to do. This is an extraordinary situation. I mean, Bill — I’ve known Bill for 20 years. It was the first time on record that he ever came out and said, “You have to go live.”

BILL TOOHEY: Can I just interrupt here, because I was very distressed when I saw that tape; I saw it the first time this morning. When I came walking up to the cameras at that point, I thought Jayne was not on the air. Now I’ve known Jayne for a long time. And I said, “Oh, no, she’s not on the air. You must go on the air.” It wasn’t meant as an authoritarian directive.

JAYNE MILLER: What we now know about that moment — and I’ve learned from one of the lawyers that had been involved in the negotiations is that at moment, which was about three hours after the hostage situation had started, was a very volatile time and that they had just gotten the lawyer there. They thought he might be able to communicate with Palczynski, and they didn’t have time to get him to the phone setup. They could hear in the background that he was watching television. They knew who he was watching. And our camera was the quickest means of communication.

TERENCE SMITH: So you were being asked — to provide that conduit of communication.

JAYNE MILLER: We were being used. It’s that simple. We were being used.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. Bob Steele, when you listen to this and this discussion, do you have any problems with this level of cooperation?

ROBERT STEELE, Ethicist, Poynter Institute: Well, stories of this nature are among the most difficult in any news organization or a journalist could discover. You’re balancing your responsibility to be aggressive and hard hitting in a truth-telling, truth-seeking fashion against that principle of journalistic independence. There are times in which news organizations must back off in that aggressive coverage because lives are at stake. They must hear what the law enforcement agencies and the tactical operations officers are saying, and they must weigh that very seriously.

I think every news organization should be prepared for a moment like this because instances like the one that happened in Baltimore County do happen regularly around the country. There should be some sense of guidelines within a newsroom, not rigid rules, but preparation and guidelines and news organizations should practice for the moment in which a situation like this happens just as the tactical operations teams practice before it happens. You won’t know the exact details and circumstances of what will play out but you can be prepared to be professional, cautious, thoughtful and hard-hitting in the best sense of that in a conservative way.

TERENCE SMITH: Gail Bending, did you have any guidelines prepared in advance? Had you given thought to this?

GAIL BENDING: I have been through, unfortunately, similar situations over the years where we had people who had taken hostages or, in the worst case scenario, I think for any news organization, when a person who is taking hostages actually contacts your news room. And that has happened to us in the past. I’m also very fortunate I have a general manager, Jay Newman, who has also been a news director. So we have both been through similar situations.

It isn’t that it’s a written policy but certainly through experience and through certainly an open dialogue during this entire crisis, we really weighed each thing every step of the way and, as Bill said, every TV station, I’m sure, just like ours, management made decisions about how to proceed. We felt the police were giving us the best information from which to base that decision.

TERENCE SMITH: Bill Toohey, some of the local newspaper coverage said that from their perspective anyway, that the gunman, Palczynski, was — you were allowing him, in effect, to dictate what would be on television, listening, and if he was upset with something, asking stations to take it down. If he was looking for something, putting it up. Is that correct?

BILL TOOHEY: (Nodding) That —

TERENCE SMITH: And what do you think of that as a technique?

BILL TOOHEY: That particular scenario with the 911 call happened once. And I think Jayne will tell you that any number of times we gave out information that we came back and had to clarify or tighten up throughout this 97-hour ordeal, so I don’t think Mr. Palczynski was orchestrating coverage. We did know there were things he was watching and things would set him off. And this was an extremely volatile man. We explained that to the TV stations, and they helped us.

TERENCE SMITH: Jayne Miller, did you have any problems with any of the requests or instructions that you had gotten from Bill Toohey or from the police?

BILL TOOHEY: Can I just interrupt to say that I don’t like the word instructions, OK?

TERENCE SMITH: I can understand you wouldn’t, even though it sounded like one on the tape.

BILL TOOHEY: That was an informal comment between two people.

JAYNE MILLER: I think “request” is the right word as a guideline.

TERENCE SMITH: Did you have any problem with the requests that were made of you?

JAYNE MILLER: Well, you know, as a journalist, it hits you in the stomach like, wait a minute, you know, I felt so handcuffed during this whole thing. There were many, many things that we knew during that 97 hours that we chose not to report because of the issue of safety to not only the hostages but also the community.

Every single element of this was a matter of very intense discussion between our management, myself, before we would report anything, we dissected it and considered it. We weighed it very heavily. I think under the circumstances, it would be impossible for any of us to say, you know what — I’m going to ignore that. Here we knew we had a guy who killed four people. I mean he had gone on this tear for 10 days and now was holding three hostages.

I can’t imagine any of us in journalism that would have chosen to ignore any of the things that the police department was asking us and requesting of us knowing that what was at stake. I can’t imagine that we would have handled this any other way.

TERENCE SMITH: Bob Steele, how does this compare with the coverage situations in similar situations that I know have occurred in Tampa and in Boston, elsewhere?

ROBERT STEELE: Well, in some situations, journalists have acted too aggressively in their coverage of situations where there was a gunman with hostages. Here in Tampa a year or so ago, a gunman was holed up with a hostage inside of a service station after killing three law enforcement officers.

And a radio station called the gunman inside the gas station while the hostage was still being held. It was an extremely dangerous and unprofessional move on the part of that local station. A local newspaper also made a call inside that gas station. There have been other instances around the country where journalists have made these calls to gunmen while hostages were hanging on by the threads of their lives. And that is a serious mistake to do so.

Journalists are not trained as hostage negotiators, and they should certainly take into consideration as a primary responsibility the safety of those individuals while also honoring their responsibility and obligation to inform the public meaningfully.

Two questions that journalists should ask at times like these, particularly television journalists: What do our viewers need to know and when do they need to know it? Oftentimes you can withhold certain information for hours or maybe even as in the case happened in Baltimore for days without disserving the public because that information is not vital at that moment when you balance it against somebody’s life being at stake.

TERENCE SMITH: And in fact, Gail Bending, that’s what you did decide to do on the phone calls from the gunman and then when it was over, you felt it necessary to explain to your viewers your decision making process. Why?

GAIL BENDING: The calls came in on Sunday to the assignment desk: one to the assignment desk, to the newsroom and the other one was on a voice mail. As soon as we got those calls, we called the police because obviously we felt they needed to know what he had said so that they could assess, in one case, we turned over, you know, a copy of the tape from when he was on the voice mail.

We wanted to hear — we are not experts at negotiating hostage situation. We’re well aware of that. So our feeling was let us go to the experts, let them know what he had said, what was the context, hear the piece that we have on tape and hear from them what they felt could possibly happen to the hostages or perhaps even the community beyond that if we were to air that at that time. And based on their advice and their expert opinion about what the impact of that would have, we decided we would hold it but that we owed it to our viewers — we have a very open relationship with our viewers — we owed it to them to explain to them why we did what we did because normally we do report things in a more direct manner but we felt that there were lives at stake.

That was the most important thing. And then after it after it was all over, and everybody was safe, or it was resolved, and there was no one else in imminent danger we should explain the whole thing that we went through so they would understand and be a part of the decision.

TERENCE SMITH: Bill Toohey, in hindsight yourself, anything you’d do differently? And do you see this as a model for future situations?

BILL TOOHEY: Well, I wouldn’t have come down the hill and said to Jayne, “You must carry this live.” That is one thing I wouldn’t have done. I’m rather pleased in thinking back over all this. What we did was 97 hours. And we had regular briefings. Anyone who watched this knows nothing was orchestrated — I think we did OK — better than OK. We shared information with the media and the public.

TERENCE SMITH: OK. Thank you all four very much.