TV station in club blaze gets caught up in ethical debate

PROVIDENCE, RI: While the media has mostly focused on the finger-pointing and legal aftermath of the fire that killed 97 concertgoers in West Warwick, RI on February 20, a smaller controversy has caused local TV station WPRI to seek PR counsel.

PROVIDENCE, RI: While the media has mostly focused on the finger-pointing and legal aftermath of the fire that killed 97 concertgoers in West Warwick, RI on February 20, a smaller controversy has caused local TV station WPRI to seek PR counsel.

In a strange twist to the already tragic story, WPRI, which owns the now ubiquitous footage of the Great White concert, hired club co-owner Jeffrey Derderian as a reporter just four days before pyrotechnics turned The Station into an inferno. After the smoke cleared and the facts were reported, new media attention prompted questions as to why WPRI was shooting footage in a club owned by an employee, which raised questions about journalism ethics.

On February 22, Mark Jurkowitz of The Boston Globe wrote, "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."

WPRI hired PR counsel - agency Duffy & Shanley (D&S) - to manage media inquiries and issue statements.

According to SVP and partner Steve Maurano, the D&S team fielded between 50 and 60 media inquiries its first day on the job, the day after the fire.

"For the most part, the media wanted to know about WPRI's role, and why they had a cameraman in the club," Maurano said.

A WPRI statement released by D&S on February 23 said, "Videographer Brian Butler was at the nightclub last Thursday evening to film generic, background bar scene footage for an upcoming special feature on safety in public buildings," and "there was no plan to publicize or promote The Station nightclub in any way."

At press time, WPRI was the only party among those involved in the tragedy who had hired PR representation.

Great White and club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian released statements through their lawyers, Ed McPherson and Jeffrey Pine, respectively.

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