I hate to say it, but when I heard about the shooting of Alison Parker and Adam Ward at WDBJ, I wasn’t surprised. Many times, when I was going live with a photographer in the field, the thought of being shot crossed my mind. It was even something I shared with some photographers. However, I never thought it’d be planned by a former employee of the station I worked at. I think like most TV reporters and photographers who agree with me on these thoughts, assume a shooter would most likely be,
- someone in a bad neighborhood where a violent crime just occurred (where we spend more of our days), or
- one of those people who blame “the media” for everything and want a target to take it out on
My reporter and photographer friends understand why this job isn’t as glamorous as some may think. Instead, it’s more dangerous. We are the ones knocking on strangers doors. Many of these strangers don’t want to see us or talk us… and many of them have violent, criminal histories. Long after a crime scene is clear and police have gone, we have to stick around for a live shot. (People in charge, please rethink these pointless live shots after today. They weren’t safe then and they aren’t safe now. Neither are those “door knocks” you love to send us out on.) Then, you have the crazies who just want to be on TV or make the news and what better target, than us being out there actually doing it?!
In Oakland, California eight years ago, a newspaper reporter was killed by a person he was doing an investigative story on. In Oakland today, many TV crews have security guards because they are violently attacked for their camera, editing, and lighting equipment. Last year in Waco, Texas, a meteorologist was shot going into work at his TV station. I’ve been yelled at, threatened, pushed and shoved. I know others who have had microphones and cameras ripped out of their hands. The list goes on. I know every single one of my colleagues has experienced something similar and probably worse.
Reporters and photographers do a thankless job, covering terrible stories, are overworked and underpaid. At many stations, they receive no respect and their safety is overlooked because the TV business is cutthroat. I’ve worked with many reporters and photographers who have witnessed shootings and other violent crimes feet away from them. Remember, these people aren’t the ones sitting in the air conditioning with hair and makeup on hand, and a teleprompter to read from in a secure building. These are people who stand in hurricanes for 12 hours straight, confront alleged killers after they bond out of jail, and spend their days in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country just to tell people what’s going on.
Let me explain a few things for you not in the business:
- For those of you say, “it’s what you signed up for” – yes it is. To a point. When I got into this business, I never thought I would knock on a sex offenders door, in a dangerous neighborhood, 7-months pregnant, by myself. This is one example of a situation I didn’t feel safe in. There were many others and I know many other reporters and photographers have similar stories to tell too. So why do we do it? Reporters and photographers are in a very competitive business. It’s not easy to get a job. The business is heartless and the competition between local stations is so intense, you feel pressure from managers to do what it takes to beat the other station. If not, the day your contract isn’t renewed for one reason or another, your boss will get 500 applications for your job – and that’s not an exaggeration. Keep in mind, reporters and photographers are at the bottom of the food chain – coming into work and taking orders by someone who doesn’t have to do these things and probably never has done these things. We don’t choose these stories or situations. It starts as part of the job and gets carried away because of the nature of the business.
- The relationship between a reporter and photographer is like none other. We spend all day, everyday together. We are more friends than co-workers for this reason. For Alison Parker and Adam Ward, it’s an even closer relationship because they worked the morning shift together. Most stations have only a couple reporters working the morning shift, so there isn’t a lot of rotation when it comes to putting the crews together.
- Stop blaming “the media.” Who are you talking about anyway when you blame “the media?” People like Alison and Adam? Random people who tweet news? The general managers of a TV station who honestly care more about what the sales team is doing that the news team? I hate the “it’s the media’s fault” mentality for this reason.
- We all know each other. I think the life of an average TV reporter and photographer is four TV stations. Like I said, it’s a competitive business and you have to work your way up. From New York, to Beaumont, to Fort Myers, then Miami – I’ve met a lot of awesome reporters and photographers. We all stay in touch and if we don’t know someone directly, we know someone who knows someone. (For example, I know a former reporter who worked with the gunman in the shooting of Alison and Adam.) My entire newsfeed is full of the news of this Virginia TV news crew shooting because half of my friends on social media are in the business. We are a close bunch.
With that said, next time you see a reporter or photographer in the field remember their jobs are the furtherest thing from glamorous.
(Note the picture for this post – a police officer with his bullet proof vest in hand… all of us, just doing our job)
After originally posting this, I ran across an article on Poynter and wanted to share the end of it, because I think it’s important for anyone in the business to see:
The job of journalism involves risk and danger. You are in the public eye, and you don’t always know how the public will react.
Let’s not allow this incident to stop journalists from going out into the public and hearing what people have to say to us. Not much news happens in the newsroom.
Newsrooms should take this time to assess how much risk they expose their journalists to every day. I am especially concerned about the large number of one-man-band journalists who wade into crowds and confront people who would rather not talk. A journalist with a camera is a target. A journalist with a camera working alone is an easy target.
Train, train, train. The number of newsrooms that train journalists how to be safe is a small number indeed.
Bosses should get out there and see what they are asking of their employees. It is easy to ask people to confront danger when you have no idea what you are asking of them. Get out there and see what it’s like and you will make more informed decisions.
Is it time to rethink whether every live shot should be on a delay. There was no reason, none at all, to think that this morning’s live shot would turn into a double murder. And it didn’t have to air live. We have had the technology to delay live shots for decades. It is time to use it — not just when you are covering a hostage standoff or a car chase. Whole YouTube channels now show collections of reporters being insulted, assaulted and kissed while trying to do their jobs live on the air. Profanity and nudity is quite common, and we shrug it off with a “who knew that would happen” look.
It’s time, past time, to do that.