BY JEFF MARKS
When I have the chance to interview candidates for journalist positions, I always ask, “What is the role of the journalist in American society?” It grieves me to report that the answers usually run along the lines of, “I am really good at talking to people and getting both sides,” or, “to tell stories.”
It takes all of the control I can muster to try to guide them to my definition of journalist, which is, simply, the pursuit of truth (and justice and the American way, perhaps).
The role of the journalist is to get as close to the truth as we can, with as transparent a process as we can achieve. This means getting on one’s knees to turn over rocks to see the slimy things underneath, investigate them, and report on them while adding perspective.
When we get one of those applicants who can answer this and other questions well, we pull out a five-year contract and hand her or him the pen. We don’t bother to tell him or her that the job of journalists carries with it the danger of violence aimed at them.
The day which I first described as the worst day of my career, and then amended to the worst day of my life, was August 26, 2015.
While conducting a live interview on location, reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward, were shot and killed by an unhappy former reporter who had worked at, and been fired from, WDBJ television in Roanoke two and a half years earlier. (I’ve served at this station as general manager and president for a number of years following news director jobs elsewhere.)
The terrible event caused pain everywhere in our company. The most senior people in our holding company and journalists from sister stations flew in to help. Hundreds of memorial items appeared at our building, and food was catered every day by local friends and people from far away.
Ethics issues abounded. When we could, we talked them through in groups, using Dr. Bob Steele’s questions for ethical decision making (as published by Poynter). At other times, we plowed through with adrenaline and experience.
- Within an hour of shootings, we were assured by the sheriff that the two fatal victims were our employees. We talked about whether to rush that news on the air. The journalists’ consensus was that we should wait until executives of the station had reached both families and their significant others with the news. (The sheriff was asking us to wait until police officers could notify them in person. We did not feel we could stand by for that long, due to our obligation to both the families and the public.) So we held the news for about 40 minutes, until both families had been briefed. Our competitors waited for us.
- How would we cover the story? The news management team decided that, once the danger had passed with the death of the killer, our focus needed to be on the victims and reactions to their deaths. As a result, we were scooped by other news organizations which dug into the story of the killer. Once our colleagues arrived from other stations, they took up the story of the investigation. Did we disserve our public by being slow off the mark? Probably but minimally, as there was a higher ethical requirement to not do further harm to the psyches of our own surviving journalists, and no one that we know of has judged us harshly because of that.
- The shooting was seen and heard during our live news broadcast report at 6:45 a.m. No one at the station could be sure what the popping sound, the screaming reporter and the dropped camera meant for sure, but when no one could reach the cell phones of our two team members, it became awfully clear.
- We were faced with being the subject of the story, very unfamiliar territory. The requests for interviews poured in and the journalists and their tools, from notebooks to satellite trucks, filled our spacious front yard. We asked ourselves what the proper public face should be, and the answer was clear. If, as reporters, we need people at the center of the story to talk with us, we also needed to be available to tell this truth as we saw it. As general manager, I appointed myself to speak to reporters. To hunker down and not cooperate with journalists struck us as hypocritical.
- A lot of praise came my way for the way in which I represented the team, gave out information and expressed the emotions of the moment. On reflection, I realized that the power in what I said was that it represented the truth as I knew it. It was the ethical path, not the public relations path.
- Should our news reports have included repeating the shocking video that was first aired from our reporter and videographer, the posts of the miscreant or the video from his camera that was posted online just before his death? On this subject, there was no facilitated discussion, it just happened. No one wanted to put our people or the audience through the replay, and the news management did not need to consult the staff to know that the postings of a killer did not have much value in our story telling. No one has called or written in to criticize us for that, either.
- I also took what I think was an unusual step, releasing anyone in the company to talk about the incident with reporters if they felt so moved. I trusted team members to speak their truth. A few did, joining me on the lawn as I bounced from one media outlet to another. For Chris Hurst, the anchor who also was Alison’s boyfriend, catharsis started with his willingness to talk to reporters all of August 26th and much of the next day. I had an ethical obligation to support the people of WDBJ7 in any way that would lead to their healing.
- Then there were the hoax theorists. They decided that the families, the journalists, the injured witness, the police and many more people were in on a conspiracy to stage the event as anti-gun propaganda. We said almost nothing in response, because we did not want to attract any more attention to these deniers. Some employees wanted us to respond but the decision that emerged from long discussions was that there was no win for us in doing so. In one case, a senior manager, the one who had identified the bodies for the police, did track down one of the theorists to his place of business and called him out for the pain he was causing. The man cried and promised to retract his online diatribe. It was difficult to control our emotions.
- A big challenge in the weeks after the murders was security. Some employees felt that we should get right back on the horse and produce live reports as we had done before.Others felt that we should cut back and do such news coverage only when accompanied by armed officers. Our obligation as senior people was to listen closely to those views, but not to achieve a middle ground. Our obligation was to do the right thing. On the overarching issue, news management decided that each journalist, reporter or photographer would have the option to call off a live report if he or she felt unsafe; if some level of reassurance was necessary to those doing live reports, we would send out volunteer staff members, including the general manager, to stand with them. That policy would be reviewed month-to-month, again with feedback from the team members.
- We had upgraded building security at our headquarters twice in the past three years.Our police advisor has given us numerous ideas for tightening up further without turning the building into a fortress. Some of those are already in process: more surveillance cameras, more screening of visitors, better outside lighting and so forth. But for some people, no level of security will make them feel safe, and they may have to move on. The specter of a copycat will linger with them for a long time.
- Our ethical values dictate that we make the moves that provide real protection rather than the impression of protection. For example, we discussed whether to put opaque screen material around the high fence that protects the employee parking lot. This would inhibit someone on the outside wanting to take a shot through the fence, but if would also make it impossible for someone in the lot to see a lurker just outside.
An irony is that we have never had a threat of a violent incident at our headquarters. But we also never before had journalists in the field gunned down.
We have tried to minimize the second-guessing and the blame. There is survivor guilt among some of our people and there is some inclination to ask “what if?” What if we had not hired the shooter; what if we had fired him sooner; what if…
The truth is that we cannot predict what anyone will do two and a half years after termination. That is our truth for looking backward. For looking to the present, our truth is in our profound loss and the wonderful support of our community and our industry. For the future, our truth is being the best, probing, journalists we can be.