A tragedy hits home
by Mark Brown/Converged Citizen Staff
In Canada’s top converged journalism program here in Windsor, student journalists are taught how to deal with a variety of situations while reporting the news. That includes situations that come up during live hits, or televised live reports. No matter what happens, you try to focus and get through the report before throwing it back to your anchor.
However, none of these discussions dealt with how to handle something like the tragedy on Aug. 26 in Roanoke, Virginia, when a reporter and a videojournalist were murdered while live on air.
It happened during a live hit on Roanoke’s CBS affiliate, WDBJ-TV. Reporter Alison Parker was interviewing the head of the local chamber of commerce on a tourism story while her frequent cameraman Adam Ward recorded it. Gunshots rang out and screams were heard before the picture cut back to the stunned anchor at the station.
Some time later, WDBJ’s general manager revealed on-air that Parker and Ward had died of gunshot wounds and their interview subject was rushed to hospital with serious injuries.
When first hearing the news, I considered what is taught in St. Clair’s program concerning the pitfalls journalists face as far as safety is concerned. Journalists are shouted down by hostile interview subjects, are cursed at, have had their equipment manhandled and have even been assaulted on camera. I could not for the life of me imagine facing a situation like what happened at WDBJ until it actually took place.
Perusing social media for information on the story, I saw people urging others not to give attention to the person who has been determined to be responsible for the televised double murder. As a journalist though, it is my job to cover all angles of the story.
Vester Lee Flanagan was a former producer and reporter at WDBJ and by emerging accounts had a long history of problems. He had multiple angry outbursts directed at colleagues as well as issues regarding the quality of his reporting. He was fired in February 2013 after he refused to get help through the station’s employee assistance program. He later filed suit against WDBJ claiming he was subjected to a hostile work environment and that he was discriminated against because he was gay and African-American. The suit was thrown out. It was Flanagan’s image that was briefly seen in the footage of the shooting. He died later that day of a reported self-inflicted gunshot wound.
No matter what motive Flanagan may have had for the murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward, it does not change the fact that even the most seasoned journalists can find themselves in awkward and even dangerous situations while live on air.
The saddest part of the whole thing is the human toll. Both Parker and Ward found love at their workplace. Parker had just moved in with one of the station’s main anchors while Ward was engaged to the producer of the morning newscast, the same newscast that was on air when the shooting took place. While the entire WDBJ staff and journalists everywhere mourn the two fallen news people, they also wonder about the brazenness of such an act.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the families, loved ones and colleagues of Alison Parker and Adam Ward.