The story for the WDBJ reporter and photographer was the definition of mundane, the kind that plays out every day, in every market: chatting with a Chamber of Commerce exec about the 50th anniversary of a picturesque reservoir. In an instant, though, the mundane turned murderous as reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward were fatally shot by an unhinged former colleague. Gunman Vester Lee Flanagan was so bent on revenge and so practiced in the art of live TV that he waited just a few feet away, weapon in hand, until Ward’s live camera turned back toward Parker. The confusion and fear of the shooting was written on the face of the anchor back at the desk as the show cut back to the studio. And soon millions on social media followed the trail, watching the shooting video (often on auto-play on social feeds) and spreading it to the far corners of the globe, inadvertently fulfilling a troubled man’s dying wish.
The tragedy instantly renewed debates over gun control and the limits of decency for news footage, and exposed a new vulnerability in social media’s instant gratification, namely the possibility—and future threat—of real-time viewing of public murders. But more than anything, it has left a ringing question inside the newsrooms of countless local station managers: After the slayings of the young reporter and photographer near Roanoke last week, is anyone truly safe out in the field? It’s a difficult one to answer. “They’ve all got it in the backs of their minds, what can happen with a live shot,” says David Carroll, veteran anchor at WRCB Chattanooga. “We’re all vulnerable and we’re all exposed.”
Going live has always carried innate risks, but several factors have perhaps made it more dangerous than ever. There’s the increasingly volatile racial climate in the United States, which has challenged stations in St. Louis, Baltimore, New York and a dozen other markets lately. Flanagan, who killed himself while fleeing police hours after the killings, cited the mass shootings at a Charleston church in June as a decisive factor in his actions. The ubiquity of social media allows violent misdeeds to spread rampantly; it also can give stalkers insights into a reporter’s hourly whereabouts. As the commodity traveling at light speed across social platforms, local TV found itself in an uncommonly pure light. The beleaguered corner of media has long served up Internet memes and late-night comedy material—Boom goes the dynamite!—but this time it was the venue for a gut-wrenching act that shocked the world.
In the local trenches, the story hit at a time when shrinking station staffs industrywide are being asked to create more news hours featuring more live shots than ever. That backdrop makes journalists feel especially vulnerable. Lone multimedia reporters hauling expensive gear out into the field long ago earned the rueful nickname of “one-man bands.”
“I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a reporter out there,” said Steve Schwaid, longtime news director and now VP of digital strategy at consulting firm CJ&N. “People are standing around you. Maybe someone has a bat. Maybe someone has a gun. Maybe someone didn’t like what you said.”
A Tough Job Gets Tougher
Reporters have always battled interlopers in their live shots, most of them relatively harmless. But things have gotten more sinister. In July, a San Francisco news crew member was pistol-whipped and its gear stolen at gunpoint as a rival station’s camera rolled. With Baltimore witnessing race riots in late April, Keith Daniels, reporter at WBFF, avoided thrown rocks and bottles, only to be hit with tear gas.
Stations and their parent companies are, at this moment, reviewing security plans. Multiple local news sources B&C spoke with mentioned the possibility of outfitting journalists in bulletproof vests. Some discuss the pros and cons of arming crew members. Stations typically have a no-firearms policy, primarily for liability reasons. But since hiring a security professional to accompany live crews doesn’t fit most budgets (although Bay Area stations have done so following attacks on their crews), some may have to consider changing that policy.
And then there’s the fate of the live shot itself. Stations continue to find local news opportunities in their packed schedules, especially given the savings compared to acquired programming. Yet many have never fully staffed up after the recession layoffs; hiring was essentially flat at 1.1% in 2015, according to a survey from RTDNA/Hofstra. Most are having to do more with less.
Feet on the Street
Stations take great pride in having more boots on the ground than the competition, but the utility of some live shots—a reporter at the hospital several hours after the patient died—has long been questioned and even mocked. Last week’s murders will further address the thinking of going live just for the sake of being live. “There’s no question in my mind that some conversation is going on at corporate today: Do we really need to send so many crews out there? Do we really need to have them be live?” says Schwaid. “When news organizations are afraid to do live shots, that’s bad for journalism. That’s bad for everybody.”
Yet no reasonable person would have seen peril in Parker’s and Ward’s early morning visit to Smith Mountain Lake. “That’s the frustrating thing,” says Mike Cavender, RTDNA executive director. “I don’t know that the station could’ve or would’ve done anything to make this come out differently.”
WDBJ did not send reporters out last Wednesday or Thursday, news director Kelly Zuber said, citing “an abundance of caution” at an Aug. 27 press conference. “A lot of other news organizations across the country are wrestling with” live remotes, she added. “We will evaluate that as we go. And we will also consult with our staff and see what their comfort level is with this. Law enforcement has actually reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, if you are doing a live shot, we’ll be there. We’ll help you.’ So we appreciate that.”