OPINION – Being a journalist is often a thankless job. Most thank you cards tend to come from business owners who are grateful for some ink. When I told my high school tutor I wanted to be a journalist, her only warning was not to be one that traveled overseas. In her mind, that spelled trouble for my well-being.
The deaths of Alison Parker and Adam Ward are devastating. I cannot get WDBJ General Manager Jeff Marks’ comments to CNN out of my head. “You know, you send people into war zones, you send people into dangerous situations and into riots, and you worry that they are going to get hurt,” Marks told CNN. “You send somebody out to do a story on tourism and — how can you expect something like this to happen?”
It should have been a cut and dry story. Never to return to the newsroom on such an assignment is unthinkable. To be killed by one of your own is even more outrageous. The WDBJ news reporter and cameraman were fatally shot on-air allegedly by former colleague Vester Flanagan (nee Bryce Williams) on the morning of Aug. 26. Vicki Gardner of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce was also critically injured in the shooting, though she is now considered to be in stable condition. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 61 journalists (with confirmed motives) were killed in 2014 and prior to Parker and Ward, 39 were killed in 2015.
Journalists get a bad rap. Nowadays you’re either deemed a part of the liberal agenda or a demonized tea-party member in disguise. Forget about the truth you’re trying to tell. Lately it seems as if readers wants to read your piece and decipher which “side you’re on.” Are you a friend or a foe? If you’re in a small market, you’re an amateur. If you’re in a medium-sized market, you’re just here to cut your teeth and move on. God forbid you’re in a large market like Good Morning America or The New York Times because then it’s all about: who’s the president of the network or publisher of this newspaper and what agenda are they pushing?
The mean annual wage for a reporter and correspondent is a little over $45,000, so most of us don’t get into it for the big bucks. Your average local reporter usually does it because they have a passion for chasing a story, investigating, getting to the truth of matters and access to information the average citizen isn’t privy to.
I have been in love with news since childhood. I’d sit before the television and watch news broadcasts as eagerly as my friends did Saturday morning cartoons. My father was a die-hard USA Today reader, and I would sit at the table with him and hold a broadsheet in my hands with awe.
There was something about being the person who told others what was happening in the world that I respected. It was something I bestowed prestige upon, held in high regard, worshiped.
People trusting you to recite their stories to the masses was something I felt honored to do. Telling someone else’s story is a privilege.
The media gets flack. Tons of it. Someone is always pissed off at you for something. It’s not an easy job. Everyone has their own version of the truth and when a reporter tries to tell it in the most honest way possible, someone, inevitably, gets mad at you. College never prepared me for newsroom politics or readers who feel like they have the right to contact you to tell you what a terrible human being you are.
It is an unsexy job, often with unsexy pay that comes with unsexy hours and a ton of pressure. I worked for a group of local newspapers that often covered cute school news and long, boring town budget meetings. But there were also occasional stories that journalists live for: covering the execution of serial killer Michael Ross, Millennials making a living as prostitutes, embedding with marines during their pre-deployment training, living in Thailand for six weeks, covering misused school department funds and meeting and interviewing the likes of former NBA star Grant Hill, comedian/activist Dick Gregory and more.
Once I interviewed and covered the producers of the documentary “Loose Change,” a film that challenged the government’s version of events surrounding the September 11 terrorist attacks. One reader told me I was unpatriotic and deserved to have my head cut off. When an independent audit highlighted the misuse of grant funds in a local school district, I covered the story from the start in a series of articles. It was hard to even go out and get a sandwich for lunch. People were coming up to me to tell me how awful I was for writing the series and a couple members of a local professional club I was in felt the need to pull me aside and let me know how disappointed they were in me. For doing my job? OK. It comes with the territory.
What happened yesterday to Parker and Ward is so unnerving from a news aspect because reporters, for the most part, shake threats off. Hell, my former Managing Editor G. Michael Dobbs, used to pull us into his office to laugh about the latest crazy letter he’d received. I cannot count the number of times I’ve walked to my car alone in the dark after covering an event, agreed to meet strangers at their house for an interview or someone left me a voicemail ranting about something they sent me not making it into the paper. I was JUST laughing with my friend Dana the other day about a creepy woman who told me it was her destiny to meet me after she and a random Taxi driver were conversing about an event I helped coordinate.
Nutty people come with the job. They think they know you after they read your byline a couple times and see your godawful headshot floating around. So what do you do? Reporters can’t afford bodyguards. Most of us can barely afford our rent. In a world of copycats, how do we step out next week without the lingering thoughts of the terrible fate of Parker and Ward taking a piece of our peace? Though they were killed by a former colleague, their deaths are a serious reminder of how potentially dangerous the job can be.
We live to out scoop our competitors. We want to be the first on the scene or the last to get the details our peers didn’t have the time to stick around to collect. We suck up news and information like a vacuum. We make friends with city clerks and administrative assistants because they are often the force that stands between us and our interview subjects. We have a love/hate relationship with PR people. We’ve mastered scarfing down our lunch in front of a computer or while driving and our non-editorial coworkers and significant others know to never f–k with us when we’re on deadline.
Whether you’re on radio, television, print or digital – being a member of the media means you are part of a special club. Sure, throughout the years there have been some of us to make a mockery of the field à la Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair or Janet Cooke. But what field doesn’t have its black sheep?
In the next upcoming weeks I am sure there will be many details revealed about the man who murdered Parker and Ward. As it unravels, let us not get caught up in the sensationalism of it all and forget that two individuals were shot down and robbed of their lives.
These days my digital media startup, Lioness, keeps me pretty busy at my home computer. I love working in my living room and yet still look forward to the day that me and my team can all be in the same office. Yesterday, in the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Parker and Ward, I was feeling nostalgic for the newsroom – the sound of fingers typing, reporters gossiping and advertising account managers on the phones talking way too loud. I felt like I wanted to be “home” with my family. Because that’s what we do in the wake of a disaster, right? We call our loved ones and hurry to be near them.
I know even as I write this there are incoming college freshman anticipating their journalism classes. They’ll learn all about ledes, inverted pyramids and interviewing techniques in an industry that continues to rapidly evolve as new communication platforms emerge. But one thing that should never change is the pursuit of the story, of the truth. Someone has to always be out there looking for it. Even when it’s amazing. Even when it’s dreadful. Even when it makes absolutely no sense and the ugliness of its pursuit is captured live on television and snuffed out by some irrational individual looking to tell his own horrific narrative. There should still be one of us out there in the darkness holding up a lone lamp.
Photo courtesy of eonline