For Jayne Miller, the beat goes on
She “retired” last year after 40 years in front of the WBAL-TV cameras, but award-winning investigative reporter Jayne Miller says she’s continuing her “conversation with people involved in the news” via her weekly radio broadcasts.
Being in front of the mike rather than the TV cameras “isn’t really reporting as much as it is informing through conversation,” said the 69-year-old journalist, who interviews key newsmakers on Saturdays at 11 a.m. on WBAL NewsRadio.
Neither television nor radio were in her original career plans, Miller said in a recent interview with the Beacon. She started out as a reporter in 1976 for a small daily newspaper in State College, Pennsylvania, after she graduated from Penn State with a major in journalism.
Miller soon moved in front of the TV cameras in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, and then, in 1979, to WBAL-TV. She worked a two-year stint at CBS News in Washington in the early 80s but returned to Baltimore for the remainder of her career.
The cameras may now be gone, but Miller indicated that the conversational means over radio of finding out what’s what can be as enlightening as oft-times confrontational newspaper and TV reporting.
“News gathering and reporting require the same skills, regardless if it is for newspapers, radio or TV,” she said.
Among her many accolades while in front of the cameras as WBAL-TV’s chief investigative reporter, Miller received in 2022 the Radio Television Digital News Foundation’s lifetime achievement award. In 2016 she won the Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award, the top prize for broadcast journalism. She was cited for a National Edward R. Murrow Award in 2012. Baltimore Magazine has twice named her as one of the 50 most powerful people in the region.
The power of questions
Miller has said it was curiosity that drove her to journalism, that as an eight-year-old girl, when the fire siren went off in the middle of the night in her small Pennsylvania hometown, she was the first one out the door.
“I tell folks that want to be involved in journalism,” she said, “if you’re not a curious person — if you don’t always wonder, ‘What happened? Why did that happen?’ — then journalism is not the right profession for you.”
Miller told the Beacon that “a sense of fairness” was the other requisite for a 46-year career in journalism.
“It could be innate, or it could be developed over time,” she said. “It was taught to me by my parents.”
That fight for fairness led her in the early 90s to work as Calamity Jayne, investigating consumer’s complaints for WBAL.
Miller believes that nowadays, journalists are catching all sorts of criticism in some social and political circles, even from others in the media, for not being fair or objective. One of the biggest complaints, she said, is that journalists are not presenting both sides of the story.
Many of those complaints aren’t valid, she said, because, in lots of these stories, “One side is false, so there aren’t two sides.”
Journalism, meanwhile, is being threatened, Miller said, by social media, which “can fuel attempts to discredit news reporting,” she said. “We saw this particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic with challenges to information provided by public health authorities.”
She added: “The industry is under financial pressure, as advertisers have focused spending elsewhere, particularly social media. We have seen many local papers pull back or close down, robbing communities of coverage of local issues.”
Of the many breaking stories that she has worked on, perhaps her best known and consequential, was the Kirk Bloodsworth case. Bloodsworth, a 22-year-old waterman on the Eastern Shore, had been convicted twice for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl.
Miller and her team’s investigative reporting in 1988 led to DNA testing that cleared Bloodsworth of the crime. Bloodworth, who spent nine years in prison, went on to work as an advocate for possible innocence among prisoners. His case has been cited as the reason Maryland does not have a death penalty.
Miller told the Baltimore Fishbowl that Bloodsworth called her from prison in 1993 when DNA testing exonerated him.
“He was crying and could barely speak,” she said. “You don’t get a lot of opportunities to do work like that.”
One of Miller’s philosophies, even when she was a fulltime reporter, was — and still is — that journalists should be involved in their communities.
Miller, who owns a home in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood. has said, “I firmly believe that journalists should get involved in civic affairs. I always say there’s more to life than news, weather and sports.”
While talk like that has had Miller mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate, she said that entering politics “is not in my plans at the moment.”
What Jayne Miller is now mostly interested in how to get Baltimore back in shape by, among other things, reducing the decades-long crime rate through addressing “the underlying issues such as poverty lack of opportunity, housing, and more.” She said: “We have major universities, we have a port, we have a wonderful waterfront setting. And we’re struggling. We need to do better. Baltimore needs to capitalize on its assets and its location along the corridor with Washington. Strong regional cooperation would benefit all.”
Miller pointed out one very big stumbling block preventing Baltimore from again becoming one of the nation’s most important and livable cities.
“Baltimore is an independent jurisdiction,” she said. “It is a city on its own with no relationship in terms of services and government with its surrounding counties.”
This so-called independence, said Miller said, has resulted, in no regional housing plans for the city’s crumbling neighborhoods and no greater funding for all sorts of services, from transit to community protection to utilities and other problems.
“The separation between Baltimore and the surrounding counties are a definite barrier to the city’s success,” she said.
She noted that Baltimore and St. Louis are the only two major U.S. cities with such an arrangement.
Miller added: “I’m a very strong proponent of strong regional cooperation and coordination of services.”
Some of that collaboration may be under way with the recent designation of the Baltimore Tech Hub, which means that the city could compete with 31 other U.S. Commerce Department-designated hubs to receive between $40 million and $70 million federal grant funding, which could mean $4.2 billion for jobs and projects in Baltimore by 2030.
Whatever happens, Miller remains dedicated to reporting the news. “The best thing about being a journalist is having a front seat to history,” she told the Baltimore Banner. “And I have had an enormous opportunity to witness history.”