With a news department deep in third place locally, Channel 7 usually needs to make a big splash to get any viewer attention.
Yet amazingly, it had its hand on a big story and waited almost two weeks to run the video that still has many Western New Yorkers talking.
The story behind the story of Channel 7’s delayed presentation of the video of a Buffalo police officer beating a man downtown early Thanksgiving morning is an interesting and somewhat head-scratching one.
As the Buffalo Police Department investigates Officer Corey R. Krug after the video showing him slamming a man onto the hood of a car, pushing him to the pavement and beating him with a nightstick surfaced, Channel 7’s handling of the story also has raised some questions.
The key question: Why did Channel 7 wait so long to show the video on its newscasts?
The secondary question: Why doesn’t Channel 7 name the videographer it says recorded the video to give him or her credit for a scoop that has added to the continuing conversation about police behavior?
The delay in airing the video suggests either that Channel 7 didn’t realize what it had or that it was practicing unusual restraint and caution, especially considering the position of 7 Eyewitness News in the market.
The local video certainly was timely, considering police behavior has been on the national news radar for weeks, notably because of outrage over two grand juries’ failure to indict officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City.
There is no comparison between the severity of what was shown on the Channel 7 video and what happened in the national cases. However, the local video does add to the conversation about police behavior.
The delay in airing it is even more unusual since we live in a time when TV news can be driven by citizen journalists who immediately post videos from their cellphones to social network sites.
That trend is going to accelerate. On Monday, an NBC-owned app called Stringwire was introduced in New York City. It is a live video-streaming service that can be used by the smartphones of eyewitnesses at the scenes of breaking news.
All the new technologies make it difficult to wait two minutes, yet alone two weeks, to run newsworthy video. So why Channel 7’s delay?
The video was recorded hours after the end of the November sweeps period, which should alleviate any suggestion that it was held for ratings purposes.
“The incident occurred right before Thanksgiving, and after management returned we took additional time to conduct further research and to investigate the identity of the officer on the video,” explained Channel 7 General Manager Michael Nurse in a text message. “We also wanted to give the police time to address the situation.”
In fairness, the questionable delay in airing the video didn’t hurt Channel 7 or minimize the importance of the story. But it isn’t the news department’s job to investigate police behavior; that’s the police department’s job. In addition, the quickest way to identify the officer on the video would have been to put it on the air immediately so someone might have come forward.
It is believed the Buffalo Police Department was given 48 hours to address the video before Channel 7 aired it on Dec. 10 rather than risking the loss of the scoop, perhaps to a police announcement. Presumably, the delay also gave police time to put what happened in context, something that was missing from the video. This isn’t to say what happened before the beating would excuse the officer’s actions against a defenseless man whose behavior didn’t lead to an arrest.
The secondary question is why the photographer wasn’t identified. Channel 7 just identified the person who shot the exclusive video as “a photographer.” According to sources, the person is a multimedia journalist who both shoots video and reports.
“We didn’t reveal the name of the photographer as he was not part of the story and the video clearly speaks for itself,” wrote Nurse. “There are also ongoing police and other potential investigations that our employee could be required to testify.”
That suggests the employee wanted to remain anonymous, perhaps to try to avoid testifying or for fear of potential retaliation by police for shooting the video.
Mickey Osterreicher, a lawyer who is a former Channel 7 photographer, said he wouldn’t second-guess the decision to keep the photographer’s name out of the story. His law firm has been retained by Channel 7 to deal with any issues that might arise from its handling of the story.
“The decision probably was made because they were concerned about his safety and didn’t want him to be retaliated against, which is unfortunate,” said Osterreicher.
Channel 7 ran a follow-up story Monday night saying that the victim in the video is planning to sue Krug and the city. The Channel 7 multimedia journalist could be called to testify in that lawsuit and in any police proceedings, even if to say only that the video accurately reflects what he witnessed.
News stations have, over the years, faced retaliation for airing unfavorable stories about the police. It can be as petty as having their cars ticketed or police not being as helpful as they can be about crime and accident stories that proliferate on local TV. That power means news organizations can be reluctant to air something that angers the police.
Nurse acknowledged the potential retaliation factor, but wouldn’t directly address that hand grenade. He preferred to accentuate the positive.
“We are proud of our coverage and hope this will ultimately lead to more discussion and action to address issues with the potential few bad apples,” said Nurse. “We respect the amazing work of the police and know that the actions of a few should not reflect on the positive work of the many.”