It was a story made for local TV news. An unidentified man walked into an unlocked home in Northbridge on Sunday afternoon, sauntered around for 16 minutes while young children were inside, and then left without taking or disturbing anything. Video of him entering and then leaving was captured by a Ring home security camera.
The story also raises some questions about tone and emphasis. The man was a person of color in a community that’s more than 90% white. Did that contribute to the sense of alarm that some of the news reports conveyed?
Alerted to the story by George Chidi, a Northbridge native who now writes a Substack newsletter called the The Atlanta Objective, I watched reports on WBZ-TV (Channel 4), WCVB-TV (Channel 5), WHDH-TV (Channel 7), NBC10/NECN and WFXT-TV (Channel 25). In most of them, you had a sense that danger lurked, and that it is of paramount importance that the police identify the person.
Several, though, raised the possibility that the man had simply walked into the wrong house — and, based on video from around the neighborhood, the extent to which many of the houses looked alike was striking.
Channel 25 gave the story a whopping three minutes. But reporter Wale Aliyu, one of two Black journalists to cover the story (the other was Todd Kazakiewich of Channel 5), made the most of it, offering context that wasn’t available elsewhere. He opened by describing just how weird the story was. “I’ve never left an interview scratching my head the way I was tonight,” he said. The homeowner, Tarah Martell Schweitzer, who came across mainly as frightened in the other reports, offered comments that were more nuanced in Aliyu’s story:
I really am trying to see the good here and that it really was an honest mistake, because it doesn’t make sense to me in any other way. I don’t think somebody would case somebody’s house in the middle of broad daylight on a Sunday with people home. There were two motorcycles and a car in the driveway.
She even joked about asking the intruder to come back and help her and her husband finish assembling the swing set they were putting together.
Chidi told me via Facebook Messenger that he was troubled by the alarmist tone that he detected in the NBC10 coverage and on social media. “I’m sensitive to this because I grew up here. Literally,” he said. “That house is in the back yard of where I grew up.”
To be fair, no one wants to find out that a stranger has been walking around the inside of their home while their kids are inside and they’re out back unaware of what’s going on. And, since home video was available, it’s the sort of fare that’s irresistible for TV news directors.
The trick is to offer the right perspective. It was a strange story, not especially scary, that almost certainly was about a guy who walked into the wrong house by mistake. Indeed, as he is walking up to the door, he is staring intently at his smartphone, probably trying to figure out if he was at the right address.
Neither The Boston Globe nor the Boston Herald published anything about it, though the Globe’s free website, Boston.com, had a brief item. This was a pure made-for-television diversion, more entertainment than news, and that’s the way it should have been played. Kudos to Aliyu and Channel 25 for getting it right.