The fatal shooting of two TV journalists during a live broadcast Wednesday outside Roanoke, Virginia, has increased concerns at local television stations across the country.
While expectations for change are not exactly high, experts say it’s imperative that stations implement crisis training, increase awareness and push for safer social media practices to protect reporters and photographers in the field.
“Personally, I’m very leery of posting my location on social media,” president of CMP Group and former NYPD detective Tom Ruskin told TheWrap.
Television journalists are often encouraged to promote their work and live shot locations on social media in an effort to boost viewership. But Ruskin warns those Twitter, Facebook and Instagram posts could lead to trouble.
“There are plenty of promotional opportunities when doing taped pieces but when you go live, you should never give out your exact location,” he said.
According to police officials in Virginia, Vester Flanagan, a disgruntled former WDBJ employee who went by the on-air name of Bryce Williams, gunned down reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward while they were broadcasting live. As the tragedy unfolded, viewers heard several shots and saw Parker scream and run. Ward captured an image of the suspect holding a gun as he fell to the ground.
Parker, 24, and Ward, 27, were killed. A third victim, who was being interviewed by Parker, was shot in the back. She underwent surgery and is in recovery. Flanagan died later of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, authorities said.
Sébastien Vuagnat, a Los Angeles-based correspondent for international news network France 24 and French network M6, said he was horrified when he saw news reports about Parker and Ward’s deaths.
“I was shocked. They were just doing their job and apparently it was in a quiet neighborhood on a regular news story, exactly the things I’m doing every day in California with my camera, out on the streets interviewing people,” he told TheWrap.
Vuagnat works as a one-man band, an industry term used to describe reporters who shoot their own stories, and admits he sometimes ventures into sketchy areas, like Skid Row in L.A. and the Tenderloin in San Francisco. But he makes sure to watch his back.
“I’m always looking and watching everywhere,” he said. “I’m aware that the danger can come, but not like that, not that huge, not that awful.”
The Virginia incident has caused so many jitters in the broadcast journalism community, that New York police said Wednesday they were providing extra security for television reporters because of concerns about copycat attacks.
Ruskin believes copycat crimes are a legitimate concern. “It’s more than possible, it’s likely,” he said.
Veteran journalism trainer, reporter and writer Deborah Potter told TheWrap television stations must do more to increase safety for field crews.
“Every TV station should be talking to their staff today about safety,” said Potter, who is executive director of the think tank NewsLab. “It would also be wise and prudent for stations to do away with one-man band live shots,” she explained.
Potter also recommends that local stations stop doing live shots just for “production value,” and only do them when there’s a legitimate reason go live. She noted reporters are often sent to do live shots outside courthouses, hours after everyone has left, just to show that they’re on the scene.
“If we could dispense of that it would give reporters more time to actually do their work. But research suggests viewers respond to live TV, so it probably won’t change anytime soon,” Potter lamented.
While some large market stations hire armed security guards to protect news crews in crime-ridden areas, Wednesday’s deadly ambush happened during an interview about local tourism at Smith Mountain Lake, a reservoir with majestic views.
“As tragic as this is – and it is very tragic – I don’t know that this requires a retooling of news gathering,” Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association told TheWrap. “This was a case of workplace violence, not an assault by thugs looking to steal valuable equipment.”
In recent months, several news crews in the San Francisco Bay Area have been hit by armed robbers looking to steal expensive camera equipment. Just last month two Bay Area crews, from two different TV stations were robbed by a man in a ski mask as they prepared to report live on a homicide. One camera operator was even pistol-whipped.
SAG-AFTRA, which represents reporters and anchors in larger markets, including San Francisco, offers an educational program for its members called Safety4Media.
In a statement Wednesday, the union said, “SAG-AFTRA joins the broadcast and journalism community in mourning the loss of WDBJ7 reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward,” adding, “We continue to be actively engaged and committed to discussions with our members’ employers on the issues of workplace safety.”
While no one expects TV stations to do away with “live shots” altogether, Cavender says field crews must remain vigilant.
“To the extent that it’s possible, reporters should pick a well-lit area, though that might be hard to do sometimes, especially for crews going live at night or in the early morning hours,” he explained.
According to Cavender, it’s also important that reporters and photographers be aware of their surroundings, and notify producers back at the station if something doesn’t feel right.
“The old adage of ‘If you see something, say something,’ couldn’t be truer in this case.”