Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Art of Attribution is in Danger

Sunday is usually a day of rest for stilltalkintv but an exception is being made because of the tragic events that led to the shooting deaths of four people after a wedding party in a downtown restaurant.

Here are a few thoughts about the coverage:

* I woke up Sunday morning in time to catch departing Channel 4 “Wake Up” anchor Jericka Duncan (she is going to a Philadelphia station) report that Buffalo police investigators “may have the wrong man in custody.”

A minute or so later, veteran reporter Rich Newberg said “Buffalo police may have arrested the wrong man.”

My immediate thought was whatever happened to attribution?

Channel 4’s reporters appeared to arrive at their conclusions because a relative of a wounded victim said that Keith D. Johnson was the wrong man.

By the end of Channel 4’s story, Newberg reported that Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III was expected to go to City Court today to ask that the murder charges against Johnson be dropped. (They were dropped this morning).

It made this journalist wonder why Channel 4 didn’t say at the top of the story something like this: “District Attorney Frank Sedita said he expects to ask a City Court judge today to dismiss the charges against a Buffalo man arrested in connection with the shooting deaths of four people.”

Attribution like that certainly is much stronger than just having reporters say the wrong man may have been arrested.

After watching Channel 4’s report, I picked up The Buffalo News story. In the second paragraph, the story said “law enforcement officials said they think they got the wrong man.”

Now that’s the proper attribution. It certainly is more powerful hearing law enforcement officials think they have the wrong man than it is hearing a reporter or a relative of a victim think that.

The second paragraph was followed by a comment from Sedita noting he has “serious reservations about whether we have the right guy here.”

The point is that attribution often seems to be a lost art in journalism. And that’s sad.

* Not to pick on Channel 4, but I found it appalling that its Saturday newscast featured some outrageous online comments from viewers about the story that were read by anchor Joe Arena. One viewer comment claimed Buffalo has become “the murder city” and another viewer comment claimed that Buffalo has become “a war zone.”

If a station is going to allow outrageous comments like that to be made on its air, it should at least give statistics that indicate whether there is any evidence to back them up.

* While I am on the subject of attribution, it is time to address a lighter story about the origin of the word “Fandemonium” in regards to the good old days when the Buffalo Bills were very good.

A Buffalo News story today says that former Buffalo Bills play-by-play man Van Miller “coined” the term.

Sorry, that’s not exactly the case.

According to Bills observers, the word “Fandemonium” was initially coined by former Bills linebacker Darryl Talley and quoted by Buffalo News reporter Gene Warner in a story that ran before Miller said it.

However, Miller should be credited for spreading the word on a subsequent radio broadcast and making the phrase part of Bills history.


  1. I don’t see the attribution error from Duncan and Newberg. They both included the qualifier “may” referencing BPD possibly having the wrong person in custody. I believe I heard both follow their leads with a line about the DA’s office is expected to drop the charges.
    * “may have the wrong man in custody.”
    * “Buffalo police may have arrested the wrong man.”
    I’m all for multimedia, but that takes understanding the conversational manner of broadcast. I think the suggested lead below is a bit much for a TV/radio lead.
    "District Attorney Frank Sedita said he expects to ask a City Court judge today to dismiss the charges against a Buffalo man arrested in connection with the shooting deaths of four people.”
    This is wordy and would be best suited for print or online copy.
    Maybe the issue you’re getting to is not attributing “The Buffalo News” for the info since I don’t think the DA talked to (or issued a statement) to any of these stations before their Sunday morning newscasts or the 9am court appearance. #justsaying

  2. Okay. Then shorten it to Buffalo's top prosecutor now says police may have arrested the wrong man.

  3. OK I can see that one working. I see your point.

  4. Two points about the coverage:

    YNN did not broadcast Mayor Brown's initial press conference. This is unacceptable for a 24 news channel. The network did have a reporter present, but they should have followed Channel 2 (live webcast) or Channel 4's (broke into CBS Sports coverage) lead, and broadcasted live.

    For a time Saturday, The Buffalo News erroneously reported on its website that five people had been killed. (The fifth homocide victim was from a separate incident on the city's East Side.) The News should have better checked its sources and facts before displaying a prominent headline with incorrect information on such a serious matter. Too often, especially in breaking news situations, the desire to be first and to speculate triumph over the need to get it right.

  5. I saw the Channel 4 segment with the facebook comments as well...that was incredibly embarrassing to watch. Showing the comments with awful misspellings, all caps, and incredibly over dramatic rhetoric when it would have had more impact to interview people on the street.

    instead, it encouraged more web traffic to or their facebook page for people to say dramatic things so that they too, might get a comment read on the tv. after reading the comments that have come on all the news sites after the shootings, i can say that they hardly need to encourage more of such discussions.