- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Television news crews scrambled Monday afternoon to cover the attack on a Fairfax County police station that left two dead and two wounded. The story demanded fast, accurate and sensitive coverage under difficult circumstances. It was a mixed performance.

Detective Vicky O. Armel, 40, was killed in the shootout, as was the gunman, thought to be 18-year-old Michael William Kennedy of Centreville, although it was not clear yesterday whether police fired that fatal shot or whether he took his own life.

The first station with live coverage from the scene appeared to be WJLA-TV (Channel 7). The shooting occurred at about 3:30 p.m., and the station had a camera at Inova Fairfax Hospital about 5 p.m. and a live shot from the gunfight site about five minutes later, said Bill Lord, vice president of news for WJLA and its cable sister, NewsChannel 8. The stations are owned by Allbritton Communications Co.

But WJLA also was the first local station to end its live coverage, choosing not to pre-empt ABC’s “World News Tonight” at 6:30 p.m.

“We believed the story had stabilized by 6:30,” Mr. Lord wrote in e-mail yesterday. “We knew there was just one suspect and he was dead. The danger to the public appeared to be over. New information on the injured officers did not seem to be immediately forthcoming.”

NewsChannel 8 continued with its live coverage and WJLA did interrupt “Jeopardy” to air the police press conference at 7:30 p.m., he added.

WTTG-TV (Channel 5) was the first to air a picture of Kennedy and include details about police going to his house, said news director Katherine Green. The Fox station extended news coverage by an hour and stayed with the story until 7 p.m., pre-empting half-hour episodes of “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons.”

“To be really honest, I do not care about being first. I care about being right,” Ms. Green wrote in e-mail. “Our viewers are watching us. They do not know if another station has info first because they are not watching those stations. I want to make sure the people who are watching us get accurate information that they can rely upon.”

WUSA-TV (Channel 9) pre-empted the “CBS Evening News” at 6:30 p.m., and continued with live coverage throughout its half-hour 7 p.m. newscast, the lone local news program at that time.

The CBS station had anchors Tracey Neale and Todd McDermott pass coverage to veteran reporter Dave Statter in the newsroom. Mr. Statter did an effective job of explaining the facts as they emerged and eliminating confusion about how many people were injured or killed.

But WUSA’s coverage suffered when airing phone calls from witnesses. There were lingering camera shots of Ms. Neale and Mr. McDermott looking concerned when footage from the scene could have been shown instead.

WRC-TV (Channel 4) was first with the story on its Web site, posting an initial version at 4:12 p.m., more than 20 minutes ahead of its closest competitor, WUSA. But the NBC station also suffered the most embarrassing moment of the coverage when a prank caller pretending to be a witness conversed live on air with anchors Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler for a few minutes before shouting “Baba Booey,” the nickname of a producer on Howard Stern’s radio show. Mr. Vance immediately apologized.

Before a witness is put on air, the person is pre-interviewed and must provide a name and phone number for verification, news executives said.

Channel Surfing runs Wednesdays. Call 202/636-3173 or e-mail dcat@washingtontimes.com.

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