For Providence station WPRI-TV (Channel 12), it was a routine story assignment: send a cameraman to a West Warwick, R.I., heavy-metal show for a story on clubgoers’ safety in the aftermath of the Chicago tragedy, in which 21 people died in a nightclub stampede. By dawn, however, nearly 100 people were dead and scores more injured when a fire at this club - The Station, owned by Channel 12 reporter Jeff Derderian and his brother - turned into an inferno.
Now, Derderian, an aggressive reporter who left Boston’s WHDH-TV (Channel 7) for WPRI a week ago, is facing tough questions about his liability in the disaster, the worst of its kind in the state’s history. And WPRI must deal with serious ethical questions: about why the station chose Derderian’s club, if he was there that night as a reporter, and how WPRI covers a disaster linked to its own employee.
Yesterday, Derderian’s attorney issued a statement saying his client “was in the club at the time the fire broke out, and assisted in helping to evacuate the building during the fast-moving fire.” Derderian, the statement said, was “devastated” by the tragedy.
WPRI officials did not return repeated phone calls, instead issuing a statement that the station is “shocked and deeply saddened” but will “provide continuing coverage of this story.”
In an interview with WCVB-TV (Channel 5) early yesterday morning, WPRI news director Gary Brown said: “We sometimes are thrown into a story. That’s what happened here. . . . It’s not easy.”
He told Fox News, “We were shooting a special assignment piece . . . about safety in clubs. This club had no [safety] issues. It was just a place we could get some video of a nightclub interior.”
Bob Steele, ethics director of the Poynter Institute, said WPRI “is in a very challenging position” concerning accountability for the tragedy. If it treats Derderian and the story any differently, Steele said, “it’s a classic case of competing loyalties . . . the failure of journalistic independence, and a confluence of horrible events.”
Derderian, who joined WPRI on Monday after six years at WHDH, was at The Station with WPRI cameraman Brian Butler when the blaze broke out. Butler’s footage - flames racing up a wall, then spreading as panicked clubgoers scrambled - was replayed nationwide.
According to WHDH officials, Derderian took a job with WPRI last week to be closer to his family. It was a professional homecoming as well, because he was once an anchor and reporter at Providence station WLNE-TV (Channel 6).
As yesterday’s tragedy unfolded, most news outlets reported Derderian’s connection to both the club and WPRI’s dramatic footage; the relationship was confirmed by the statement from Derderian’s attorney.
WPRI’s Brown told WCVB it was “a very freak thing” that his cameraman was there when the tragedy occured.
An early morning WPRI newscast - simulcast on CNN - reported that there were several reasons why The Station was chosen for the club-safety story: as a “matter of convenience” for WPRI, and as “a good example” of a venue that met safety codes.
Alex Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, said it was incumbent on WPRI to be clear to viewers about Derderian’s connection to both the station and the nightclub.
“In most cases like this,” he said, “disclosing what the conflict is mitigates what the conflict is.”