The murder of two young TV journalists while they were on the air live has unsettled many newsrooms and classrooms. Reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward were shot to death by a former reporter at their station in Roanoke, Virginia. He had been fired two years earlier and who held a grudge against both of them.
It was a case of workplace violence, which is not uncommon, only this time the workplace was a very public place. The crime played out on television and went viral on social media, just the way the killer planned it.
What does this incident teach us about the risk of going live? Can anything done to make these assignments safer?
TV crews are by definition vulnerable when going live. Reporters are trained to ignore what’s going on behind the camera and to focus on the lens. Photographers are often glued to the viewfinder. And TV cameras, as well all know, are magnets for show-offs and worse. Journalists have been spit at, cursed and harassed by people who just want to get on television and social media. They’ve been attacked by people angry about news coverage and by thieves who’ve stolen their camera gear.
When sent to a potentially risky location, TV crews are well aware of the danger they face. If things start going south, they get out. Some stations now provide security guards for specific types of assignments. But that’s far from the norm. And the live shot that got Ward and Parker killed wouldn’t have merited protection anyway. No one could have predicted that a morning news feature story would end in violence.
Local TV stations aren’t likely to stop doing live shots, although some did scale back for a day in light of what happened in Virginia. And many news managers took the opportunity to remind their staff that nothing is more important than their safety. But a “be careful out there” memo won’t change anything over the long term.
So what are the lessons to be learned? Here are a few.
Producers should carefully consider what stories they ask to be covered live. Too many live shots offer nothing but “production value” and use up resources better spent on reporting. As the blog Survive Your Job in Television News points out,
Live shots are meant to cover breaking information. It is the fastest means to get viewers the facts. If every newsroom reiterated this definition tonight, that move alone would prevent a lot of live shot photo bombing…and would make it a lot harder to predict where live shots will happen. Therefore, making it harder for people with less than good intentions to find your live shot locations.
Journalists should be extremely aware of the potential for danger on even the most mundane assignment. Choose locations for safety. Let the desk know if you don’t feel safe.
Stations should limit or eliminate the practice of sending journalists out alone to go live. If a two-person crew is vulnerable, imagine how much riskier it is for a solo journalist.
What happened in Virginia was horrific and terrifying. It has shaken everyone in TV news. Let’s not forget it. In honor of two journalists who died, let’s talk about it. And let’s do that in context. The victims were targeted by someone who knew them, not someone who hated the media in general. But those people are out there. Let’s do all we can to be vigilant while still doing our jobs.