The heartbreaking news that two journalists were murdered on air will be with us for a while. Alison Parker and Adam Ward were gunned down and a former TV reporter taped it, shared it and then shot himself. I watched in horror as I caught two of the Twitter videos from the shooter's point of view, as it autoplayed in my feed. As a former news director used to say, "You can't unring the bell." It can't be unseen.
I've been watching the Kansas City news tonight (on vacation at my parent's house) and I have seen stories about journalists being killed on the job or stations "ramping" up safety. And though I have certainly felt fear at some of the stories I've covered, I've actually felt uncomfortable in my own workplace, too. I hope this tragedy opens up discussions concerning safety, mental health, and PTSD for journalists (it's a real thing.)
For example, as soon as the news started breaking about the shooting, a former colleague of mine messaged, "I AM FREAKING OUT!!!!! We had a reporter who was fired we joked/worried about coming back to the station and shooting people. We even had discussions about who he'd kill first."
The truth is, I've had those conversations about co-workers before and have at times seriously wondered, "Am I safe?"
I worked with a man who was a little 'off' and eventually got fired for some very off-color comments he taped himself saying at work. However, it took months to get to the point of termination - he had already screamed at one of our reporters and threw heavy television cables at her. He had made countless errors. He got demoted at least once before finally getting let go... and we all anxiously joked, "he's going to come back and get us."
I worked with another man who would have physical reactions when you told him we had to cover something he didn't want to cover. He'd drive erratically, punching the side of the car and squeezing the steering wheel so hard it would make the car shake. We often drove 1.5 or 2 hours for stories back when buying satellite time was not a big expense -- so those drives were unbearable. Plus, he wouldn't let you drive.
I worked with another man who had a drug problem. Because he was in management, it took him about a year to get fired because they let him fail until rehab was the only choice left. He would be high at work while driving around in news vehicles. A reporter had to meet him in the live van for a liveshot and found him completely passed out. He would go home for something in the middle of the day and just not come back. You wouldn't know if he was tired from a bender or just high on pills.
The first time I ever tried to complain about a co-worker, it backfired terribly. Another man downed two 5-hour energy drinks in about 30 seconds. I offered to drive but he refused. He scared me so much that I went to my manager afterwards and told him I was genuinely concerned about my safety and the safety of others. He got reprimanded, eventually hospitalized for other issues, but returned to work and continued to call me a "bitch" nearly everyday because I "ratted" on him. I was so sad because I really liked him but because I was getting ready to get married, I was truly scared and said to myself, 'it's not worth dying for.'
There are probably a dozen more stories, but the truth is, I've felt unsafe at work with some of my co-workers and sometimes more than I have out in the field. I love working in news but every newsroom has at least one bitter, potentially unstable hot-head who's "difficult to work with" -- every. single. newsroom.
Do newsrooms tolerate people who might otherwise be considered unemployable because reporters are supposed to be a little gritty and cynical? Is it because we have been told showing emotion is not objective? We joke to ourselves that you must be a little warped to be working in news, afterall.
I find it odd that when we cover horrific stories, no one asks, "Hey, do you need a break?" We report that police and emergency responders will have counselors on hand but when do reporters get that? I covered a terrible story of a little girl who had been beaten, raped and killed by her stepfather - we interviewed him for days before he became a suspect. We knocked on doors, worked grueling hours, talked to countless people and were shocked as the truth came to light. Two years after the incident, one of my former colleagues started crying on air covering the murder trial. She didn't mean to and even seemed surprised and embarrassed that it was happening. Did she get help? I am not sure because I was no longer working there.
Journalists are told to be tough and we often don't get the same support nearly every single other profession gives its employees.
We don't get taken seriously when we say, "oh that person is so hard to work with" or "I'm uncomfortable being alone with that person" or when we ask, "do you think our front lobby is safe?" Countless times we've heard of people breaking into news stations -- trust me, it's not that hard. A gunman walked into WSOC, WIBW staffers were stabbed in their own building, reporters in San Francisco were attacked and pistol whipped... and the list goes on. I worked at a station where we all asked for a gate or a security guard after our cars got broken into--it wasn't even considered.
Other friends in newsrooms across the country privately messaged me today about how bad security was in their building or recalled horrible co-worker experiences. It made me wonder... can newsroom managers and stations do more across the board?
My first friend's message continued, "These newsrooms need to understand they're asking a shit ton from people and paying crap. It puts them in a place where they have nothing to lose: no money, no job, no family, no prospects of moving on. Then you add a crazy person to this mixture, it becomes volatile. I'm not saying this guy had any right to do what he did. He's a sicko who could very well rot in Hell. But stations need to wake up, too."
I have friends who work at WDBJ and I have friends from Schurz Communications who are enroute to help out that newsroom for the coming days. I know they'll be covering their own grief as they push through the developments that come out of this heartbreaking situation. I hope they can get a break but I also hope more for them. I hope more newsrooms will make some changes because this kind of unmentionable culture has already helped push good journalists out of the industry.
I love where I work and I always want to be working in the news industry in some form or fashion. But I wish we could see noticeable upgrades in security, safety and overall health and wellness within the industry. A journalist's job is tough on its own but I've rarely doubted whether it's worth it. Today, there is doubt.