At first, the comments from viewers were just nasty. No problem. Andrea McCarren, a veteran TV reporter, could handle that.
But then the response to McCarren’s reports about underage drinking on WUSA (Channel 9) took a darker, more threatening turn. Specifically, her two teenage children were harassed at school by peers and on Facebook by “friends.”
The volume and intensity of the backlash became so overwhelming last week that McCarren and WUSA decided on an extraordinary step: She would pull herself off the air and hand her latest teen-drinking story to her colleague, anchor Derek McGinty, to present her work Tuesday night.
“My kids were targeted,” McCarren said. “That’s where I drew the line.”
The episode began after McCarren’s Feb. 1 report about Town Square Market, a liquor store in Northwest Washington that allegedly sold alcohol to minors as young as 14. McCarren and WUSA news photographer Dave Satchell collected footage of teens carrying out 12-packs of beer. The news crew recorded statements, using hidden microphones, from the minors about how easy it was to buy booze at the store.
The report drew e-mail and Facebook denunciations of McCarren from young people apparently angered that she had exposed an easy supply of illicit alcohol.
“Way to go! Not,” wrote one self-described college student in a profanity-laced posting. “You are now probably the MOST hated woman in the D.C. area. Yay you! What was the point really of doing that story? No one finds it interesting (well that’s obvious anyways because its channel 9 news), but you also just ruined weekends for all kids underage.”
The following day, McCarren reported on a police raid of a December party in Bethesda, where about three dozen teenagers, mostly students at Walt Whitman High School, were cited for underage drinking. Some parents in the story objected to their child’s detention.
That report coincided with a surge in Facebook posts, including one reading: “You can’t try and take away something that teens love without retaliation. Haven’t you ever heard of teenage rebellion? Teens love to drink and I’m sure they’ll be laughing it up about your report while they party tonight.”
McCarren sought the help of police after a malicious Facebook post asserted that a teen-drinking party was to take place at her house. Police stationed a cruiser in front of the family’s Montgomery County home on the night of the would-be party.
McCarren chose to back away when her children told her that some of their high school classmates were making insulting and threatening comments, in person and electronically, as a result of her reports. She said she and WUSA news director Fred D’Ambrosi agreed that she would stay off the air for a week while McGinty “put his face and voice” on her work.
As a result of the bullying, one of McCarren’s children stayed home from school last week. She said both children are back in class, and “only minor name-calling continues.”
On Tuesday night, McCarren decided to sit out her piece about “pre-gaming,” the practice of drinking heavily or ingesting drugs before a concert or social function. The story included footage of young people drinking and becoming sick.
“We’re surprised by the level and depth of the reaction by parents and students, and especially the students,” D’Ambrosi said. “Some of them felt it was a privilege [to drink], even though it’s illegal. They see it as a rite of passage and that we were somehow interfering with it. We’re all surprised.”
While reporters in foreign locales are often harassed and sometimes injured or killed, local TV journalists rarely face a sustained bullying response to their stories, said Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, a Washington group that represents journalists. “I couldn’t say it never happened,” he said of McCarren’s experience. “I would say it’s unusual. It’s not one I’ve encountered” in 25 years in the news business.
D’Ambrosi said McCarren will continue to report on underage substance abuse but won’t appear in stories that might invite a similar reaction. She’ll be on camera in an coming story about the death of a young person from a heroin overdose; that report will focus primarily on the parents’ reaction.
In view of the treatment of McCarren’s children, D’Ambrosi saw no point in defying the harassers by keeping McCarren on the air. “This is about the story, not the individual reporter,” he said. “I believe content is king. As long as the information we report is accurate, that’s the point.”