July 18, 2016

When WAFB anchor and investigative reporter Greg Meriwether got an 8:58 a.m. call that somebody had fired upon Baton Rouge police Sunday, he began his mental routine while throwing on clothes and calling sources he had built up over 15 years of working in the market.

“I wanted to be careful about whatever language we used,” Meriwether said. “We were about to break in on people’s Sunday morning TV programming just as they were going to be waking up or leaving for church.”

He didn’t want to be “over the top.”

“…I kept thinking about how I would break this news to my next-door neighbor,” he said. “The only word I could think of was ‘disturbing.’ So initially that is what I said: ‘We have disturbing news.'”

Just how disturbing the news would be unraveled in the nine straight hours Meriwether and co-anchor Lauren Westbrook stayed on the air and live-streamed the coverage online.

Meriwether was on the air within a half-hour of getting the call at home. Shortly after he went live, a source close to the situation told him two officers had died.

“We were not ready to let everybody know that,” Meriwether said. “We didn’t know if families had been notified. So I chose to say two officers ‘are in very grave condition.'”

The situation in Baton Rouge was especially sensitive after the funeral of Alton Sterling, who was shot to death by police on July 5 and buried on Friday. After days of tense protests, the funeral didn’t stir new demonstrations, and Sterling’s family pleaded for peace.

But Meriwether purposefully didn’t mention Sterling by name for “at least an hour and a half,” he said.

“It would have been easy to make a connection, this shooting Sunday was within walking distance of some of the most fierce protests,” Meriwether said. “I wanted this to sit on its own, let the facts do the work and let people make whatever connections they wanted to on their own.”

Meanwhile, WAFB was calling around the scene of the crime to try to get eyewitness video. As it had in Sterling’s death, video posted to social media helped shed light on the developing situation.

“Our news director, Robb Hays, for years, has had us call the places next door to wherever news happens to try to get eyewitness video,” Meriwether said. “So we called the Taco Bell, the Albertson’s grocery store, the car wash and right away we got video from people who recorded what happened. One lady had already posted her video on Facebook.”

Sunday’s coverage illustrates how newsrooms now rely on every staffer to go on-air, if necessary. Photographers “are not afraid to go on television,” Meriwether said, and made use of a technology called Unity Intercom that allows journalists in the field to stay on top of what’s happening on set and talk on the air.

The station also used LiveU, a widely used cellphone-based mobile video connection to stay live from the field without a bulky live truck. The station established a live steady shot of the shooting scene that it could switch back to when it was juggling other elements. It also kept the live camera off the anchors while they checked computers, phones and listened to producers for updates.

“Having that shot of such a well-known intersection allowed viewers to stay connected with where this was happening,” Meriwether said.

Baton Rouge media found they had an immediate global reach when they took their coverage online. Cable TV dipped in and out of local coverage. The Advocate, Baton Rouge’s daily newspaper, updated its coverage constantly.

“I got messages from London and around the country,” Meriwether said. “…You have to remember your first job is to serve your community, but the world was getting its information from us. It was a weird balance.”

Meriwether’s work Sunday is an example of why it’s important for local media to hold onto experienced journalists. He lives where the shooting took place. He washes his car next to where it happened.

“When I got out of Western Kentucky University, I thought I wanted to work in a big market somewhere,” he said. “But I found out a long time ago that you make yourself more valuable the longer you stay somewhere. You make yourself more valuable to your viewers when you know them, and they know you, and you know your community.”

Baton Rouge media, not just WAFB, thoughtfully reported the unfolding story Sunday not knowing if the day would end in another shootout. For most of the day, police operated under the notion that there might be other conspirators. Journalists understood that anything they reported might inflame the situation.

Sadly, in the last couple of weeks, they’ve grown accustomed to that pressure.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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