Last Tuesday news broke that a young man named Dexter Paul Williams had been found dead at a house in Maumelle. According to a police report, the owner of the house, Christopher Barbour, said Williams and TV meteorologist Brett Cummins came over to his home the previous Sunday night for a party. On Monday morning, Williams was found dead in Barbour's tub. Barbour and Cummins were questioned by police who arrived on the scene.
The story was quickly posted on our own Arkansas Blog, along with all the details provided in the police report. Other media outlets also had the story up quickly as news started to travel through Twitter and Facebook.
Cummins was not the central figure of this story. A young man had died. Cummins was in the unfortunate position of being present when Williams's body was discovered and was questioned as part of a routine police investigation. But there's no question that Cummins' involvement elevated the story to a level of newsworthiness it might not have otherwise reached. The real question is whether this situation gets covered at all without Cummins' involvement. Who knows? Local news directors have said they would have run the story anyway.
Kelly McBride is a former journalist who now teaches at the Poynter Institute, a non-profit organization "dedicated to making journalism better," as she once wrote. McBride says in most local television markets around the country, the weather man is like a celebrity.
"You're much more interested in the meteorologist or the school superintendent or the president of the hospital or the politician than you are somebody whose name you don't recognize," she says.
In this case, how prominently Cummins should or should not have been featured in the coverage is up to each news organization, McBride says.
"That's what editors are for. Because at a certain point, someone in your news organization is saying, 'Here's how the audience is going to receive this information and here's what the audience is interested in.' I suspect you'd be covering this event if it was a mail-man that was involved in it. But the fact that it's a recognizable name heightens the interest."
Randy Dixon has been around the news business for years. Until he left KATV Channel 7 back in February, Dixon worked at the station for 31 years and served as news director for the last 10. He says it can be tricky when news organizations have to cover stories involving other media personalities.
"The deaths of Anne Pressly and Paul Eells made international news," Dixon says. "I would often think, 'Are we covering this too much? Do we need to back off? Are we too close to this?' We were very careful to not overplay something because we were too close to it, or underplay something because we were too close to it."
Some might wonder if the attention given to local media personalities is warranted. Dixon says, for better or for worse, on-camera news reporters, and others with "grocery-store recognition" are considered public figures.
Tommy Smith probably gets recognized at the grocery store. He has been the host of the "The Show with No Name" on 103.7 The Buzz since 2004. In May of this year, Smith was arrested and booked on several charges, including failure to stop after a traffic accident, driving while intoxicated, refusal to submit to a chemical test and drinking in public. It was big news and Smith got a lot of attention, but it probably would not have been a story if it happened to John Q. Public. Smith says he initially thought the media coverage was a little much.
"Due to the fact that I've been on the radio around here for 20 years, I knew everybody at every station," Smith says. "When my situation hit, they were at my front door, they were on the phone, they wanted information. I resented that at first, then I got to thinking, 'Hey, they're just doing their job.' And that was it. They got the information they wanted from me and they have truly not been a pest. I was forthcoming. I told them I was going away to Betty Ford for treatment and that I would undergo treatment for the next six months."
Smith says he doesn't know anything about the Cummins story other than, "It's a mess and I feel sorry for him." He says in his situation the media scrutiny actually helped him come clean and get better and no enemies were made in the process.
"When you put yourself in a position like I'm in, when good things happen they're pretty good, but when bad things happen, you've had your chance, you screwed it up," Smith says.