Some thoughts on local journalism and what happened in Roanoke

The cold blooded murder of a TV reporter and a photographer hit close to home for everyone who has ever been in the position of the Roanoke news crew. I worked in local news for 14 years before transitioning to network television and then public relations. I never worked in Roanoke, but was actually up for a job there. I think I picked Raleigh instead.

One thing that they never seem to mention in journalism school is that by its very nature, TV journalism is a relatively dangerous job. Police reporters pick up on this fairly quickly, because you end up on the scene of active shooters and your large colorful news van makes a wonderful target. It never occurred to me how much some people hate the media until you get out in public.

If you are covering a major drug bust in a high crime neighborhood you may quickly realize you are the only one without a bullet proof vest or a means to defend yourself. I have had cameramen badly beaten because they were trying to protect their expensive equipment or chased with knives. As on-air talent I’ve had rocks thrown at me or received late night phone calls at home with vague death threats (get an unlisted number stat if you’re on-air). Criminals watch the news too and are often offended by your coverage. I had a mafia hit man throw a Bible at me in court because it was the only weapon he had and he was in handcuffs. We caught it on camera, so it was good video, but if he had been acquitted on multiple accounts of murder I might be next on his hit list. His attorney said he was particularly upset because I indicated he was a bad father because he gave his young children Quaaludes when they were acting up at the shopping mall, never mind all the murders.

These are all things they don’t tell you in journalism school. When you cover a police brutality trial, the police may not be your fans either. Speaking of fans, no one prepares you for becoming a local market celebrity. There are good things and bad things about that, but there’s no course in journalism school on how to handle awkward autograph requests or posing for pictures when you look particularly disheveled at Kmart one weekend morning.

Having worked at stations with news helicopters much of my career, I unfortunately have had several friends killed in helicopter crashes. Early on, not paying attention and being distracted in a hurry, I nearly walked into the spinning tail rotor myself. I’ve also wrecked a couple of news cars trying to drive on ice when the roads were closed or going too fast to get back from a murder scene for the 11pm news. That is sort of expected in some ways, but the idea of being murdered while covering a feature story for the morning show really boggles the mind.

Being a journalist isn’t quite like being a public servant. I have done enough ride-alongs with police officers to really appreciate how dangerous their jobs are and how quickly things can take an unexpected turn. It is said the jobs of firemen and first responders may even be more dangerous. They have my continuing respect always. I have actually heard the most dangerous and unappreciated job in public service may actually be sanitation engineers or garbage men and women, hanging on the back of a truck in traffic, dealing with hazardous waste, a constant risk of injury. Not sure that is true, but we certainly need to appreciate what they do more.

So while TV journalism doesn’t compare to the routine dangers of many “real” public servants, a career in the fifth estate does present its own risks. For women on-air, there’s a very real threat of stalkers. It’s easy for unbalanced viewers to figure out your schedule by watching TV and knowing when you’ll be walking out to that lonely parking lot after the late news. Something else you don’t learn in journalism school.

The Roanoke murders put a special focus on workplace violence, which can occur anywhere, not just in TV newsrooms. But TV newsrooms are not always an environment for great mental health. There’s always pressure about the ratings, your appearance and office politics can be magnified because you are in the public eye. Also, we know that the murderer (I’m deliberately not mentioning him by name here) had mental health issues—and unfortunately, this is a medium to plays into delusions of grandeur and narcissism and general egotism. It does not always attract people with the best self-esteem issues and actually encourages aggression and hard competition–at least in gathering the news.

I guess my general point is for those of us in public relations to better sympathize with what TV journalists are facing and show more appreciation for their often thankless work on our behalf. Our jobs are not easy in public relations. I can assure you their jobs are much more difficult. Questions, comments, or thoughts? I’d love to hear from you.