Tampa shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge gets ahead of traditional media in coverage of St. Pete police shooting
For a few hours this morning, one broadcaster was delivering details on the police shooting in St. Petersburg that no other outlet was providing, including news that two officers had been killed, along with the identity of the man suspected of killing them.
But that broadcaster wasn't a journalist. It was Tampa shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, who turned his morning show into a continuous report on the unfolding saga, using information delivered anonymously by law enforcement sources, police scanner broadcasts and fans on the scene to deliver details professional reporters hesitated to divulge.
This seems to another new wrinkle in a world where almost anyone can be a media outlet. Professional journalists may have standards on what they will report or not, but when an emergency breaks out, are they at a disadvantage if non-journalists get involved?
"We've had plenty of police officers tell us we're not affecting the tactical situation," said Brent Hatley, producer for Clem's show. "The police department PR people will not control the information we release."
Even among traditional news outlets, controversy emerged over when some details should be revealed. The names of the officers killed were initially revealed by local cable newschannel Bay News 9, using information provided by the Police Benevolent Association (The St. Petersburg Times reported the names shortly after, crediting the PBA)
But police had not officially released the names and asked both Bay News 9 and a Times reporter not to publish them. The cable channel, which often touts adherence to its crime coverage guidelines in its reports, did not broadcast the names again; anchor Al Ruechel also apologized to viewers saying, "(We) should know better than that."
Terry Dolan, general manager at Bay News 9, said a staffer mistakenly assumed the PBA was authorizing release of the information. “The biggest thing is to make sure this doesn’t come as a surprise to family or fellow officers,” he added. St. Petersburg Times editor Neil Brown said the newspaper had only received an informal request not to report the names, which had already been published and widely broadcast.
“At no time were we told that there was some compelling reason (for example, the next of kin had not been notified),” said Brown. “If a compelling case had been made to us that publishing the names would be harmful or compromising, we would have considered it very seriously, and we have done so at times in the past.”
By 9 .a.m, Clem had reported two police officers were dead, revealing no names. Police would not confirm that officers died until 11 a.m.
Clem also first revealed the identity of the suspect, Hydra Lacy Jr., discussing his extensive criminal record and status as brother to professional boxer Jeff Lacy.
Around 10:30 a.m, WTVT investigative reporter Doug Smith explained why the station was withholding the suspect's name -- "We're just trying to be good citizens," he said -- only to unveil Lacy's name 10 minutes later. News director John Hoffman later said the station had pushed police for “tacit” approval to be the first traditional news outlet reporting his identity.
Disguising the voices of callers he said were law enforcement personnel, Clem provided details seemingly straight from the scene. And a fan used a cellphone to provide audio from the emergency, broadcasting the sound of a volley of gunshots.
TV stations also kept their helicopters from showing too much of the scene during the emergency. Still, Peter Roghaar, news director at CBS station WTSP-Ch. 10 said he had few problems with Clem's early disclosures, provided they were accurate. "Bubba has tremendous law enforcement contacts," he said. "It seemed like he handled it."
Hatley would allow that they made one mistake, reporting a police dog had been killed at the scene when it had not. But Al Tompkins, a former local TV news director and instructor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies (which owns the St. Petersburg Times), noted that people who aren't journalists yet practice journalism may have lessons to offer professional reporters.
"Bubba does what the Internet would call crowdsourcing," he said. "His listeners are both informed and very loyal. A lot of newsrooms would do well to have such sources."