A mysterious intruder sets off a scramble among local TV newscasts

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.

Libel suit filed over Gloria Fox’s prison visit

Rep. Gloria Fox

The Boston Herald has been hit with a libel suit for the second time this year. The Boston Globe’s David Abel reports that the plaintiff is Joanna Marinova, who accompanied state Rep. Gloria Fox, D-Boston, to the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater last year.

The Herald published a front-page story on May 28 by Jessica Van Sack claiming Fox had snuck Marinova in to see her boyfriend, a convicted murderer named Darrell Jones, and that Marinova had been “previously bagged for engaging in ‘sexual acts’ with the killer con.” The Herald cited “two prison sources,” both anonymous.

Marinova sued the Herald and WHDH-TV (Channel 7), which also ran the story, saying through her lawyer, David Rich, that the news organizations “blatantly ignored readily available facts that would have demonstrated the falsity of these assertions.”

According to Abel, the Herald declined to respond and no one at Channel 7 would return his calls.

As with a libel suit recently brought against the Herald by Tom Scholz of the band Boston, it makes sense to wait and see what’s in the Herald’s and Channel 7’s official response. In this case, though, Adam Reilly did some reporting last year for the Boston Phoenix that cast considerable doubt on (1) the Herald’s claim that Fox had falsely portrayed Marinova as her aide and (2) that Marinova and Jones had engaged in illicit sex during a prison visit.

Reilly, now a producer with “Greater Boston” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), noted that Marinova had told the Globe that the so-called sexual contact for which Jones had been punished consisted of Jones touching her knee during a visit. And Reilly pointed to other sources, including Jones’ blog and an official report, that tend to support that version of events.

If the Herald’s and Channel 7’s reporting was wrong, that doesn’t necessarily mean they committed libel. Even though it is Marinova who’s suing, it’s Fox’s involvement that made this a newsworthy story. A judge could rule that because Fox is a public official, Marinova must prove that the Herald and Channel 7 either knew their reporting was wrong or strongly suspected it, yet went ahead anyway — a legal standard known as “reckless disregard for the truth.”

On the other hand, a judge could rule that because Marinova herself is a private person, then she need only prove that the defendants acted negligently.

Looking down the road, I would imagine that Marinova will try to force the defendants to reveal their confidential sources as well.

Needless to say, this will be a very interesting case to watch.