Thursday, December 6, 2007

How Omaha Media Fared When Put To The Test

Suddenly, that "snow event" forecast for Thursday, seemed insignificant. Even President George W. Bush's trip to Omaha earlier Wednesday - only the ninth time Bush has visited the city and eight more times than President Bill Clinton - was nearly forgotten. (Bush left town about a half-hour before the shootings.)

You didn't have to be at the Westroads Mall Wednesday afternoon to know something big was going down. Omaha Police cruisers, with lights flashing and sirens blaring, barreled down streets from every corner of the city to converge on what would turn out to be the largest one-day shooting massacre in the city's history.

Omaha media have covered mass-scale tragedy before - but not of this magnitude and on such a national stage. Only three people died in the Tornado of 1975, but the widespread, sweeping damage made it a mammoth undertaking for reporters in a time when news didn't travel nearly as fast.

More recently, the crash of a Seward school bus in West Omaha - one that took the lives of four people in October of 2001 - sparked massive, immediate media coverage. But on that Saturday afternoon, college football games took precedence over breaking news coverage.

Perhaps the closest thing to this tragedy was the bank robbery shooting deaths of five people in Norfolk, Neb., in September of 2002. But while that event attracted as much national attention, it did not get wall-to-wall coverage from Omaha media outlets.

The Early Going

The first dispatch by The Associated Press out of its Omaha bureau was headlined, "Man reportedly shot at Omaha mall; stores locked down" and it only hinted at the horror that was to come:

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Police have locked down a busy Omaha mall after at least one person was shot this afternoon.

That report, though, came nearly a half-hour after Omaha TV stations first interrupted regular programming with early reports of the shooting. What followed would be more than eight hours of uninterrupted TV coverage by the city's ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates.

WOWT was clearly the leader in breaking new (and accurate) information. The station recorded many "firsts" including: that the gunman had died of a self-inflicted gunshot (courtesy of investigative reporter Mike McKnight), that he was 19-year-old Sarpy County resident Robert Hawkins and that he had left behind several suicide notes. WOWT was also first on the scene of a Bellevue home with Maniko Barthelemy's interview with the woman who said she was letting him live there after he had been kicked out of his own home.

WOWT also took a rather somber approach in its coverage. Anchor Tracy Madden was overly subdued, then suddenly reverted to her standard delivery during the station's late-evening newscast. Reporter Brian Mastre took a contemplative approach to his delivery - which, combined with his across-the-street location for live shots - made it seem as if he was more distant from the event than he actually was.

KETV broke out its playbook that has consistently made it a must-watch station for breaking news. The ABC affiliate pulled out all the stops with multiple live shots and live streaming coverage on early on. When no new information was coming in hours later, the station trotted out reporter after reporter on set to share their own stories of what they saw and heard.

Of course there's no substitute for experience and KMTV's anchor team of Carol Wang and Carlo Cecchetto - who will have been on the job one year next month - came off as the outsiders they are when compared to their competitive anchor counterparts at WOWT and KETV. Their saving grace was veteran anchor Mary Williams, a Bellevue native who has worked at the station for more than 20 years.

KMTV's Cecchetto, though, offered one of the most compelling first-hand accounts by any media type, though, when he told viewers that he had been in the Von Maur store - at the customer service desk to pay a bill - just five minutes before the shootings.

"(It was) kind of eerie," Cecchetto said during a segment. "Just moments later he (Hawkins) was roughly at the same spot, shooting down at people on the second floor. Watching the video, I saw a lady wearing a turquoise sweater and blouse who was working at the counter who I paid my bill to and who was lovely and wonderful and cheerful and had that holiday spirit. A couple hours later, I see her outside in the cold, comforting herself, shaking and crying. It's a reminder of how violence can shake everything you know and throw it upside down."

Noticeably absent from KMTV's coverage was veteran reporter Joe Jordan, who broke the story earlier Wednesday of an expected showdown between US Senate candidate Mike Johanns and longtime Republican-now-registered Democrat Tony Raimondo, a Columbus, Neb., businessman. Jordan extensively covered the President's visit to Omaha, only to see most of his prepared report shelved in favor of shooting coverage.

World-Herald Left To Play Catch Up

Has the state's largest newspaper ever been so out of touch with a breaking news story? In a day when a website can keep a print outlet even with its electronic competitors, the Omaha World-Herald's web portal,, folded like a Kevin Cosgrove-coached Nebraska defense, buckling under the pressure of thousands of visitors. And it came as no surprise. The same thing has happened twice before in the past month: First, when Tom Osborne was hired and Steve Pederson fired as Nebraska's athletic director; And Sunday, when Bo Pelini was announced as the Huskers' new head coach. The newspaper also had the unfortunate timing of having gone to press with its afternoon edition at about the same time as the shooting was taking place.

There were lows on TV and radio, too. KETV's Todd Andrews practically gushed that he "grew up in Westroads Mall." KPTM's Amanda Mueller asked one of the station's reporter whether Hawkins - other than his depression, the loss of his job and the break-up of his girlfriend - had showed any signs that he might snap.

One station (KMTV) initially reported that police were looking for two suspects. More than one station initially reported that the suspect was "a black male." Both of these erroneous reports came as a result of reporting police scanner traffic - something the Poynter Institute decries.

The dreaded "shots rang out" cliche reared its ugly head several times, though not a single witness to the shooting described the gunfire they heard in that manner. Rather, many said they mistook the sound of the shots as balloons popping or the sound of construction.

Radio station KFAB, which had earlier pulled out all the stops in putting "all hands on deck" at the scene and on the air, interrupted coverage of the Nebraska men's basketball game later Wednesday night for a "report of a bomb at the Westroads Mall." Thankfully, afternoon talk show host Tom Becka quickly interceded to clarify that police were simply checking out a vehicle thought to belong to the shooter. Unfortunately, listeners were left to wonder what was going on thereafter, as the station decided to take audio from KETV's broadcast.

What Lies Ahead

So what's to come over the next few days and weeks and months? Already there is criticism that the media has given Hawkins the very attention he sought by going on his killing spree. A debate rages over gun control in the comments on one website and a 9:30 a.m. press conference is already set to release more details.

There will be the makeshift memorials, the identification of the victims and their stories, many more stories of heroics and tragedy. Questions are sure to come about the six minutes it took for police to respond. Or what involvement mall security had (or did not have). The release of calls to 911. Possibly even surveillance tape will be leaked, particularly since the shooter didn't live to stand trial. Even the Omaha World-Herald is expected to face questions about its front page story in Sunday's editions marking the 50th anniversary of Charles Starkweather's killings (He, too, was 19 at the time.) and whether it glorified a tragedy and served as a blueprint for Hawkins' massacre.

"Good Morning America," "The Today Show" and countless other network and cable news programs are sure to have interviews with those who were in the store when the tragedy unfolded. Someone will undoubtedly court an interview with the Von Maur pianist, who reportedly played on (unwittingly) after the first sound of gunshot. And what became of the mall Santa Claus during the shooting? Where and how did he take shelter?

And you can expect World-Herald columnist Mike Kelly to write something along the lines of "Omaha will no longer just be known as the home of the College World Series."


Anonymous said...

The coverage in no way glorified the shooter. The coverage was absolutely essential in meeting a need for people to focus on something other than the shock and sick feeling that developed on hearing the news.

One thing left out of the blogging...the honest, real, and impressive Jim Von Maur. He got there as quickly as possible, he didn't hide from the press, and he obviously was not under the counseling of a PR flack.

Almost gives you hope for the future of corporate America...

Anonymous said...

Nice wrap up of a tragedy fellas. This media criticism was well done and other cities should look at this at how by and large a tragic breaking news event should be covered. Being from Omaha but living elsewhere now, I must say early on and driving in a car, I was real impressed by KFAB's radio coverage. Between their own staff and cutting to their TV partner they offered much detail. Also simmilar to the part about listening to veteran TV anchors deliver tragic news, it was settling early on to hear Gary Sadelmeyer on KFAB deliver the news. Now the real struggle begins as the a town copes with the National media watching, although the early morning shows do show that this story may not continue as long as one may think and much of the National media will be out by the weekend. The stations were on to other topics in many of the second segments, only of course to come back a number times throughout the morning.

Anonymous said...

KETV not WOWT broke the news about the gunman: name, weapon used, job loss and according to your coverage yesterday was the first to get video back from the scene. Now you are making it sound like WOWT was first with everything.

Jon said...

Nice recap, as always, Sean.

Jon D.

stella was a diver and she's always down said...

I thought the same thing about the KMTV. I'm going, "Who cares what Carlo and Carol think? They've been in this town for about five minutes". And I also had the impression that WOWT was the first to bring news on multiple fronts. Which actually really surprised me. I wouldn't have guessed that to be the case.

However, we all know the stations will soon start trotting out the promos: "We checked our scorecard and we broke this first and this and the machine gun and so-on". Really tacky.

In situations like this, I imagine the anchors are kind of winging things, without a teleprompter. Tracy Madden did an awesome job. So did the KETV anchors. But John Kniceley was so frustrating to watch. I kind of felt bad for him. Without a written script, he is clearly out of his element. Tracy Madden had to finish a sentence for him on more than one occassion.

Though part of me wants to scream to KETV: A person who hasn't talked to the gunman in several months probably isn't going to have any insight as to what may have "set him off"

Anonymous said...




Anonymous said...

@ 6:46 AM...Ted Brockman is dead. And...your CAPS LOCK key is broken. You might want to have that looked at. :-p

Anonymous said...

@ "Stella"...... Great point about the KMTV anchors! Only people who grew up in Omaha can have an opinion about a nut-job who slaughters innocent people at a shopping mall. I'm surprised Carlo & Carol even thought this story was newsworthy.

Anonymous said...

How much more hypocritical can you get then to call into a radio station complaining that they are glorifying the murderer with all thee news coverage of the shooting. Me thinks that the people that make those calls crying about the media are full of b.s and if they were that concerned about the media coverage then they wouldnt be calling into radio stations therefore contributing the the media frenzy. I use the word contributing loosely because those people amking those calls have absolutely nothing to contribute other then to falp their lips!

Anonymous said...

Nice job ... shame on the OMW for their Web work, everyone else's sites worked fine ...

And I had to smile as you dinged media for using one cliche by using another ... "The dreaded "shots rang out" cliche reared its ugly head several times"

Anonymous said...

The World Herald website is a joke. 24 hours later and you still can not access it.

Anonymous said...

Even the AP story today has the old "Shots Rang Out" line.

Was that like a doorbell? Ding... Dong..... or was it more like a telephone ringing?

The people who heard him shooting all said it sounded like pop pop pop.

Anonymous said...

The OWH's web site is about as good as their paper.

Anonymous said...

Wow. The OWH site is STILL down. It's been well over 24 hours.


Anonymous said...

@ 12:30 PM...the OWH site hasn't been down for the entire time. I was on it several times in the early evening last night, just to see what they happened to have on all of what was going on.

Perhaps they should ask Cox for help with their internet stuff and get themselves into "the digital age". :-)

Anonymous said...

I can't wait till KM3 trots out Carlo's "I was at the mall that day" story during February sweeps.

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