If you want to get a real sense of a TV newsroom's priorities and values beyond all the "we're on your side" hype, check it out in times of stress.
Stress is defined here as major stories breaking or unfolding at a time when there is an extra emphasis on ratings performance — and not enough cameras and bodies to cover all of the waterfront.
Last week in Baltimore certainly qualifies, with two major trials under way at the downtown courthouse, the police commissioner resigning and the Ravens NFL Defensive Player of the Year tearing his Achilles tendon. And all of it happened during May sweeps, when many local TV news operations historically have overcommitted limited resources to journalistically questionable but heavily promoted stories about sex, scams and weird things intended to scare you into watching when you otherwise might not.
The take-away here is that, by and large, Baltimore TV news did better than certainly I expected. And when you place that performance within the larger context of the entire media ecosystem — including radio, newspapers, websites and social media — area residents were very well served. In fact, as easy as it is to develop a local-media inferiority complex living between the much bigger markets of Washington and New York, I don't believe residents in those cities are getting higher-grade information and context on local stories than Baltimore-area residents got last week.
The resignation of Frederick H. Bealefeld III and the injury to linebacker Terrell Suggs both arrived on Thursday, as did a verdict in the trial of Eliyahu and Avi Werdesheim, members of Shomrim, a Jewish citizen patrol group in Northwest Baltimore, who were charged after confronting an African-American teenager they deemed suspicious.
(Avi Werdesheim, 22, was cleared of all charges, while his 24-year-old brother was found guilty of false imprisonment and second-degree assault in the attack on Corey Ausby, who was 15 at the time.)
The trial, which was watched closely by members of Baltimore's African-American and Jewish communities, had been going on all week alongside the robocall case of political consultant Julius Henson. Both trials were loaded with issues of race, power and social conflict — just the sort of matters that local TV news is often characterized as being too superficial or commercially compromised to cover.
Of all the news, the trials offered the best snapshot, because to cover them both took a major commitment of resources without the guarantee of an immediate payoff on the nightly newscast. A reporter and videographer might spend all day at the courthouse with nothing of a headline-grabbing nature to report.
"That is a lot of resources when you look at all the news that you have to cover during the day," said Mike Tomko, news director at WBFF-TV (Channel 45). His station put a reporter and a videographer on both trials nearly every day. And WBFF used two of its most experienced reporters, Joy Lepola and John Rydell.
Veteran WEAA-FM radio talk-show host Marc Steiner agreed on the importance of both cases to the community. And Steiner's Thursday show, which started at 5 p.m., is indicative of the way that much of Baltimore media reacted to it. Steiner and his Thursday co-host, Anthony McCarthy, came straight off the afternoon news of the Werdesheim verdict with a discussion involving State's Attorney Greg Bernstein and state Sen. Lisa Gladden, whose district includes the site of the confrontation between the Werdesheims and Ausby.
"We actually had another show planned, but we dumped it to do this," Steiner said in a phone interview after the Werdesheim show Thursday. "Beyond just the criminal cases, I think this and the Henson trial are really important because they show the kinds of divides that still exist in this city. … They both are far more than just criminal cases."
The media discussion continued on Friday at WYPR's "Midday" show with Dan Rodricks, where he interviewed Bealefeld and explored the Werdesheim verdict with University of Maryland law professor David Gray. The public radio station also had morning reports on both trials during the week from Art Buist.
Clarence Mitchell IV, known as C4 to WBAL radio listeners, talked about the trials all week on his show.
No broadcasters did more reporting on the Henson robocall case than WBAL-TV (Channel 11) and WJZ-TV (Channel 13). CBS-owned WJZ and Hearst-owned WBAL are the stations with the highest ratings and largest newsrooms in Baltimore television.
Both stations staffed both trials every day. WJZ had Weijia Jiang and Derek Valcourt at the Mitchell Courthouse, while WBAL had Jayne Miller and Lowell Melser. The latter two also reported for WBAL radio.
The TV station that did the least with the trials was Scripps-owned WMAR (Channel 2).
The station did not staff the Henson trial last week, but it did send reporter Jeff Hager and a videographer to the Werdesheims' proceedings on some days, according to WMAR news director Kelly Groft.
"We relied on AP and file video from when we originally did the story," Groft said of the robocall trial.
As for the Werdesheims' trial: "We picked days when we would be in the courtroom based on what we thought was going to happen," she said
WMAR had Hager at the courthouse for a report on Thursday's verdict. The station also had a May "sweeps" piece Thursday night. It looked at the issue of Maryland doctors with drug and alcohol addictions. Here's how it was being promoted Thursday night by Channel 2 on Facebook:
"What would you do if your doctor started doing cocaine right in front of you?! It may sound like something out of a TV show, but that's just one of the unbelievable allegations Joce Sterman discovered in tonight's investigation. IN JUST 30 MINUTES get an exclusive look inside this world of troubled local doctors! Join us at 11pm on ABC2. Addicted Doctors Preview."
In fairness, the reporting was solid, and there was an online package with links that viewers could use to check for disciplinary actions taken against area doctors.
And, to be even fairer, it should be noted that making choices during such heavy news weeks is much tougher for stations with smaller newsrooms like WBFF and WMAR.
But the choices made by WBFF and WMAR suggest very different priorities.
David Zurawik appears weekly on WYPR through a content-sharing agreement with The Baltimore Sun, which also has a content-sharing agreement with WJZ.
Recent tweets from Baltimore Sun media and television critic David Zurawik: