The Aaron Hernandez murder trial took an unexpected turn Thursday when the media suddenly went from reporting the story to being the story, forcing local news outlets to perform the delicate task of covering an alleged indiscretion by one of their own.
Day three of jury deliberations began with two jurors telling a Bristol Superior Court judge, E. Susan Garsh, that on the previous afternoon a WHDH-TV (Channel 7) news truck had followed the bus that transports them from the courthouse to an offsite parking lot.
Garsh admonished the station for what she said could be construed as juror harassment, warned that its actions could have led to a mistrial, and threatened to ban Channel 7 from covering the proceedings.
Ultimately, she barred only the driver, video journalist Robert Cusanelli, from court after he testified and the jurors agreed that there was no communication between them.
As the situation unfolded, local news media had to decide how to handle the development. Overplaying the story could look like a gleeful shot at a rival. Underplaying it could appear to be giving a fellow journalist a pass.
“This is an element of a major story. You have to cover it,” said longtime newscaster R.D. Sahl, a former anchor at WHDH and now a journalism professor at Boston University. “It had the potential to be a big deal if the judge determined the two jurors were harassed.”
WHDH’s main competitors in Boston television — WBZ-TV (Channel 4), WCVB-TV (Channel 5), and WFXT-TV (Channel 25) — either declined to discuss their handling of the story or did not respond to interview requests.
Channel 7 did not respond to a request to discuss how the station covered itself.
None of the four stations led with the story on their 6 p.m. newscasts, but throughout the day, there were some differences in their digital coverage.
Fox 25 made the cameraman episode the lead story on its website for much of the day.
Channel 5 included it in a carousel of top stories on its homepage.
Channel 4, which has a similar rotation of big news items on its website, featured the story on its home page, but in a less prominent position.
Channel 7 made little mention of its run-in with the judge. It posted a brief statement denying wrongdoing and a short wire story that reported two jurors were questioned by the judge early in the day, but did not explain why.
Meanwhile, The Boston Globe placed a story about WHDH at or near the top of its website for much of the day, as did the public radio station WBUR.
“I think we’ve treated it just like any other story — it’s news,” said Sam Fleming, WBUR’s news and programming director.
Jeff Keating, managing editor of “Beat the Press” on WGBH-TV, said Channel 7’s jury tailing would probably be a topic on Friday’s show.
In some ways, the cameraman’s actions fall into a gray area, said Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and a former producer at WBZ.
Cusanelli, who has worked at WHDH for 16 years, testified that he intended only to scout the location where jurors are picked up and dropped off so that Channel 7 would know where to find them and talk to them after the trial.
“The newsgathering process is often not a pretty thing,” Schroeder said. “I don’t think he did anything terribly wrong, except for maybe being a bit overzealous.”
Callum Borchers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.