washingtonpost.com
Brawl on the Metro: Where was the coverage?

By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, August 15, 2010; A11

Post managers, from the top down, regularly remind the newsroom that coverage must have a "for and about Washington" focus. So when a large brawl broke out in the Metro system on a recent Friday night, it seemed a perfect chance to show local readers that The Post is their indispensable source for news.

The fracas occurred near midnight on Aug. 6, and authorities said it involved as many as 70 people. It started at the Gallery Place Station and continued to the L'Enfant Plaza Station. There were arrests, and several people landed in the hospital. On deadline, The Post gathered enough information for a news brief in Saturday's paper, and a short story was quickly posted online.

Throughout Saturday, it was among the most-viewed stories on the Web site, signaling intense reader interest. But as the day wore on, some readers grew frustrated that there was nothing more.

"What, when, where, who and why?" District reader Robert W. Porter e-mailed me mid-afternoon Saturday. "For the life of me, I can't find an answer to any of the above questions. I expect better from The Washington Post."

When a story for Sunday's paper finally did appear, it offered little new. Promoted on the front page and tucked at the bottom of Sunday's Metro section, it didn't answer key questions: What caused the fighting? Were the people who were injured participants or bystanders? Was Metro beefing up security?

Why such thin coverage? Much of the explanation is that The Post responded with too little, too late.

As is typical on weekends, only three local reporters were on duty that Saturday, and two of them were summer interns with other assignments. In years past, before staff cuts, it would have been double that. The lead role fell to Ann E. Marimow, a seasoned full-time reporter. But she also had been on a morning assignment and wasn't given the brawl story until she arrived in the newsroom after 1 p.m. Even with others trying to locate eyewitnesses through social media Web sites, it was expecting a lot for her to produce a meaningful story in just a matter of hours.

So with a local news staff of about 70 reporters, why not call in reinforcements? Robert E. Pierre, the weekend editor for local news, said he saw no need. "It wasn't about additional people," he told me, noting that social media searches and an online appeal for witnesses had yielded little. And, he added, "the police didn't have very much," and what little information they disclosed was sketchy. The size of the crowd was in question, he said, and police couldn't say how many were actually brawling.

Pierre also worried about hyping a story that involved race. Although The Post's coverage on and after Sunday did not specify the racial makeup of those involved, many readers assumed they were black and offered racially insensitive online comments. "So ghetto," read one. Another urged ending "all welfare benefits for parents whose little animals cause this type of mayhem."

When The Post finally produced a more substantive story for Monday's paper, Pierre believes it was given too much prominence, even though it included eyewitness descriptions of multiple fights and bedlam as people tried to escape the pandemonium. The Post "overplayed it," said Pierre. "It was a fight on the Metro. Kids get into fights."

The Post should always be sensitive to overplaying stories, especially if race is involved. But the problem here was that readers last weekend couldn't get news they desperately wanted about what police said was a massive brawl on the public transit system used daily by hundreds of thousands of people. The hedge against overplaying the story was to get to the bottom of it, and fast.

The best approach would have been to call additional players off the bench to do what resourceful reporters do: hunt for facts. They might have come from interviewing those hospitalized, from transit workers, from expanding the search through social media or from the cop who has viewed Metro video.

Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli seemed to agree. "Frankly, it was hard to get anything," he said. "But if we had more people, we could have perhaps tracked down more participants."

With the "for and about Washington" strategy so critical to retaining The Post's local readership -- especially readers of the week's largest newspaper -- this was a lost opportunity. My bet is that more reporters, deployed sooner, would have provided readers what they needed last Sunday. What they got instead was, well, not much.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.

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