Thursday, October 15, 2015

Greater Cincinnati SPJ Explores Tensing/DuBose Media Coverage

By Tom McKee


Should the body camera video showing former University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing shooting Sam DuBose have been released?

Was it okay to show the video live on broadcast television stations the moment it was released, even though nobody in the media knew what it depicted?

Were the feelings of the Tensing and DuBose families considered by media outlets as decisions were made whether to show the video or what pictures would best describe the story?

What about the tone of the news conference where Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters announced Tensing was indicted on a murder charge?

Those were some of the major issues debated Thursday, October 8th, at Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center by government leaders, attorneys for each family plus executives from broadcast and print outlets.

(Photo by Tom McKee)
The 90-minute conversation was sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and attended by 175 people at the Harriet Tubman Auditorium.

Participating were Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black, Cincinnati Human Relations Commission Executive Director Dr. Ericka King-Betts, Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office spokesperson Julie Wilson, Ray Tensing's attorney Stewart Mathews and attorney Michael Wright representing the Sam DuBose family.

Media participants were Alex Bongiorno, WCPO-TV News Director; Mike Neelly, WLWT-TV News Director; Tim Geraghty, WKRC-TV News Director; Rob Williams, morning anchor at WXIX-TV and Cincinnati Enquirer Editor Peter Bhatia.

The moderator was Hagit Limor, Professor of Electronic Media at the University of Cincinnati.

The focus of the evening was to review media coverage of the Tensing/DuBose case with an eye toward what was done right and what could have been done better.

The tone was civil.  The reasoning was rational.  The differences of opinion were obvious. 

"After the shooting the media thought of Sam as a criminal," said Wright of the DuBose family's reaction to news coverage.

Mathews took it one step further saying Tensing felt terribly mistreated in the press.

"They tried to convict him," he said.  "The media concluded that Ray Tensing was guilty."

Joe Deters' news conference announcing the indictment and releasing the video from the body camera Tensing was wearing at the time of the shooting was carried live by the four Cincinnati television stations.

Bongiorno cautioned that anyone critical of that decision should consider the difference between the media and the medium.

"This was of extremely high interest," she said.

Neelly agreed, calling the news conference "huge news" and carrying it live was a matter of judgment, ethics and the law.

WLWT-TV showed the body cam video live in its entirety as it was released.

"Why censor information fresh from the horse's mouth?" said Neelly.  "I barked out orders not to censor what was being shown."

"This case is so historical," he said.  "The body cam footage has changed everything."

Bongiorno took a differing view.

WCPO-TV panned its live camera away from the screen when the video was first revealed.  The station later aired a version that blurred the moment DuBose was shot.

"I believe in transparency, but once it's out there you can never take it back," said Bongiorno.  "I felt it was reckless to show.  The thought of someone murdered on television was unconscionable.  We didn't want to play a role in something getting out of hand."

Wilson acknowledged that the blunt tone of Deters' news conference indicated that he was "clearly disturbed."

"This was an asinine act which did not have to occur," Deters said on July 29th when the indictment was announced.  "There was no reason for this. And now, Tensing will face a murder charge."

"Joe Deters doesn't mince words," Wilson said.

WXIX-TV's Williams noted it was the media's duty to be transparent and carry the news conference.

"The words may be harsh, but it is our job to put those words in perspective," he said.

Bhatia agreed that it's important to provide context to a story, but added airing the news conference live was "one of the wisest decisions in the history of media."

"It's the most extraordinary news conference I've ever seen," he added.

Black added the city tried to act swiftly and with as much transparency as possible as the case unfolded to diffuse potential problems.

"Whenever we had information we pushed it out," he said.  "Everything worked well.  The reaction could have been the opposite."

CHRC's King-Betts said she thought using pictures of Tensing (in a police uniform) and DuBose (in a mug shot from police) side-by-side reinforced stereotypes that African American males are criminals and violent.

However, Geraghty pointed out that he felt no one in the media tried to humiliate either side. 

"Immediacy had to be balanced with fact gathering," he said.

Wright said that the DuBose family felt hurt prior to the indictment, but its release along with the body cam video changed their opinion.

"There was a feeling that because Sam was a suspect he must have done something wrong," he said.  "They were relieved at the indictment because it showed that he did nothing wrong.  Sam was in the right."

Mathews said he had no problem the tape being released, although he has a different viewpoint on what it shows. 

"When it was released it tainted the entire jury pool," he said.

Added King-Betts, "We need to find balance so that the DuBose family is not hurt again."

Going forward, Bhatia said the newspaper's challenge is to continue to reveal issues, help find solutions and keep things in context.

"We will write and report about issues that matter -- regardless," he stated.

As the evening wound down, each panelist was asked what they would take away from the forum.  Many responses dealt with more consideration for families of victims in future stories.

BLACK -- Everyone needs to work together from this sad and tragic event.

WRIGHT -- The DuBose family is still grieving and we need to strive for transparency in every situation.

WILSON -- We represent all of Hamilton County and media deadlines don't always correspond with ours.  We must be responsible, but we don't want to hurt cases.

MATHEWS -- The Tensing family grieves for the DuBose family.  Ray Tensing did not set out to harm Sam DuBose.  It's terrible that we all have to be here, but we are and that's it.

BHATIA -- The doors are always open to talk.  The practice of journalism has never been more challenging than it is today.

WILLIAMS -- Social media is cheap information.  The pictures side-by-side are important.  We need to be more thoughtful about the impact on families that are affected.

NEELLY -- I take pride in the awesome duty to inform and thoroughly defend the First Amendment.  We will hold government accountable, but with judgment.

GERAGHTY -- We need to be careful not to intentionally hurt families.

BONGIORNO -- We have to consider the impact of this tragic and horrible incident and deal with the fallout.  We have deadlines, but combine that with thoughtful communication.  They often battle each other, but at the end of the day we're dealing with people.