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Justice for Titasheen Mitchell Police Brutality!: Watching television

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Watching television

Mayor James R. Miron shone a spotlight on the news media - TV news in particular - last Thursday when he announced in front of their cameras that Saturday's civil rights rally would be called off to keep white supremacists from hijacking the message.

"Nobody will put my five-minute speech on if they have a chance to show skinheads waving Confederate flags," he said.

As we know, the rally wasn't called off. It went forward with a new sponsor, the Rev. Johnny Gamble, instead of Councilman Alvin O'Neal.

Gamble and others said they weren't afraid of a few skinheads and that their issues were about more than O'Neal, so they rejected Miron's reasoning.
But the mayor succeeded in making the media part of the story, and it's about time. News media producers - newspapers, radio stations and television stations - didn't create the events and grievances that are being reported, but to a large extent their reporting is pushing it forward.

No one can deny that the media have influenced the story by their choices of what they report and how they report it. Competition, the rush to meet deadlines, and the nature of the media itself are real factors influencing what you see, hear and read.

With the exception of me and one other print reporter, the reporters at last Thursday's press conference passively recorded the event without asking any questions.

Then, as if to prove that Miron was right, the TV cameras swarmed around a young woman who crashed the press conference and said she was friendly with the White Wolves, a white supremacist group that has made its presence known a few times in the past couple of years.

Near the end of her interview, I asked her if she was friends with the racist group and lived in Stratford. Yes and no, she answered. That these questions weren't asked first tells you something about the coverage.

When digesting the information from a news story (from any media), judge if it is reporting facts or opinions. All opinions all the time is a hallmark of superficiality.

A news business rule of thumb says, "If it bleeds, it leads." Another rule says to simplify the story, so the audience often gets a two-sided story about a conflict, although the situation may in reality be much more complex. Television reporters follow these rules like the Bible, and more and more frequently print reporters follow them too.

Saturday is usually a slow news day, so the rally got extensive coverage across the state. The Hartford Courant was among the newspapers that sent reporters. All the state's television stations covered it, including CBS affiliate Channel 3, ABC affiliate Channel 8, Cablevision's Channel 12, NBC affiliate Channel 30, and Fox affiliate Channel 61.

I caught the reports on Channel 3 and Channel 8. They both carried video clips of Marcia Mitchell-Davis and video of her daughter, who was arrested in the incident that launched the story. Both carried archive video of O'Neal.

Both stations included the white supremacist angle. Channel 3 said the racists did attend; Channel 8 said they didn't.

Both interviewed one woman who was at the rally, but Channel 8 included another resident who sided with the police. Both used the same clip of Miron talking about the cultural diversity training he has ordered town employees to attend.

I estimated about 300 people attended the rally, not including about 50 law officers and 25 news people. Channel 3 said the turnout was "lower than expected" and estimated the crowd at 100 people. Channel 8 said the rally was "huge," without being specific.

On Friday, I called Rich Hanley, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University who has worked in both print and television news, to get his prediction of what the TV stations would do and his opinion of Miron's reason for calling off the rally.

"The media will certainly cover skinheads waving Confederate flags," said Hanley, but he also predicted that television would run a clip of the mayor's speech too.

He said the story legitimately would be the conflict between the civil rights protestors and the white supremacists. "It has to be distilled to its essence, and conflict is the story."

Hanley felt the white supremacists had already achieved their objective by becoming part of the story, but by showing them for what they are, the television audience would interpret them as "ugly and repulsive."

"They don't necessarily win," he said.

He disagreed with Miron that the possible appearance of a group of counter-demonstrators was reason to call off the rally. Instead, he said, the mayor should do what he thinks is right.

"I think he's giving too much power to television instead of to his speech," Hanley said.

This column reflects the opinion of Editor Fred Musante and does not necessarily represent the views of Hometown Publications.

©Stratford Star 2006


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