edia comments on unusual coverage during Blom trial

Holly Dolezalek

Reporters and lawyers involved in the Donald Blom case agreed in a conference Friday that the murder trial had an unusual impact on the media coverage.
The panel discussion, held in Murphy Hall, featured reporters from the Star Tribune, Duluth News Tribune, WCCO-TV, KARE-11 TV and lawyers from both the prosecution and defense.
The forum, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, focused on the media coverage of the Blom trial.
Blom, 51, was convicted on Aug. 16 of kidnapping Katie Poirier from a Moose Lake convenience store on May 26, 1999, and subsequently murdering her.
A store video camera caught the abduction on tape, and Blom’s past record of assaulting teenage girls made him a suspect.
When police discovered human remains in a search of Blom’s Moose Lake property, he was arrested and charged with the crime. He confessed to the crime on Sept. 8, 1999, but later recanted his confession.
Larry Oakes, reporter for the Star Tribune, pointed out that the behavior of the defendant was highly unusual for a high-profile murder trial. He referred to Blom’s habit of calling reporters to talk about the case and the public’s subsequent access to his opinions.
“The public knew what he thought, and that was unprecedented,” Oakes said.
Rodney Brodin, Blom’s defense attorney, agreed.
“I’ve never had a case where my client would contact the media on his own,” Brodin said.
The panelists also said the Blom case was unusual in many other ways.
KARE-11 TV reporter Bernie Grace talked about some of the strange developments of the case.
“First, they caught the thing on tape. Then, once a suspect was arrested and it was discovered that he was a repeat offender, people wondered why he was still on the streets,” Grace said.
He also discussed the recanted confession and the removal of Judge Dale Wolf from the case.
Grace also said the handling of the victim’s impact statement was unique because Pam Poirier, the victim’s mother, spoke directly to Blom. Typically, both Grace and Brodin agreed, the judge would have reminded the victim to speak only to him.
The unpredictable nature of the trial also led both to intense competition among journalists and unusual camaraderie.
Caroline Lowe, reporter for WCCO-TV, talked about how she felt the need to cover the evidentiary hearings for fear of missing a development. She said the atmosphere of competition “made us go with stories sooner than we would have otherwise.”
Oakes said the emphasis on posting stories on the Web almost immediately caused him to analyze the story more quickly.
“I’ve never had to focus on filing my stories that early,” Oakes said.
After Judge Pagliacetti issued the gag order, Grace said, there were no scoops to be had. As a result, journalists cooperated in confirming what quotes were available and even socialized during the trial.
Overall, the journalists and lawyers agreed that most of the trial coverage was fair and accurate. There was also discussion about the magnitude of the public’s interest.
“Our Blom stories were getting more (online) hits than any other story, and we realized that the public was more interested than we thought,” Oakes said.
The panel discussion was webcast by the Society of Professional Journalists. To watch the proceedings, go to http://www.mnspj.org.