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Lessons for media educators from the Virginia on-air shootings

Coverage of slain TV journalists from the station where they worked. WDBJ7

As a professor specializing in broadcast communication, I have tried to find lessons to teach aspiring journalists following the shooting of two TV journalists this week.

When I first heard about the shootings in Virginia of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, I immediately thought back to a conversation I had with a former student just two days earlier. She is about the same age as Alison was and will shortly start a job at her second station since graduating. She’s doubling her salary and cannot wait for the new opportunity.

In the span of a few days, I have gone from feeling happy for her to now being more aware of her safety and the issues she will face. It has gotten me thinking about what I, as an educator, should be teaching my students and how, if at all, I can prepare them for what they may face when they enter the “real world” as a media professional.

The obvious lesson is being aware of your surroundings. Trust your instincts; if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Don’t be afraid to voice your concerns.

Speaking up

On the day of the shooting, we had three news crews on campus wanting to talk to faculty and students about the shootings. I took the opportunity to talk to a reporter and a multimedia journalist about their thoughts and reactions to see if I could glean insight that I could share with my students.

The predominant theme, as you might imagine immediately after such an incident, was safety. The reporter talked about the need for greater understanding by management in the newsroom about the potential dangers reporters face in the field.

He noted that management is quick to send reporters out to cover stories and to do live shots in all types of locations with little thought for their safety. It is not that management is indifferent, but just that safety is less of a consideration than getting a good shot for the evening news.

More precautions in the field? ume-y/flickr, CC BY

Reporters have always known that you never quite know who’s going to show up when you go live. Go on YouTube and you can find lots of videos of people waving in the background during a reporter’s live shot. For the most part, it’s seen as an annoying part of the job, but as the incident in Virginia shows, it really can be fraught with danger.

Safety needs to be a major factor – something we as educators need to highlight. In our departmental newscast, we send students out on campus to do live shots via Skype. I’ll still send them out, but what I teach about doing a live shot will change.

Dealing with pressure

Typically in doing a live shot, a reporter will have a photographer and an engineer with him or her. But multimedia journalists are by definition on their own, which can increase the risk they face.

The multimedia journalist I spoke to mentioned an incident within the last couple of weeks in which he had to travel to another town to do a live report in an area that was unfamiliar to him.

He stated that he had a bad feeling about the area as soon as he arrived and quickly relayed his concerns to the station and informed them that he would be moving to another area where he felt safer. He didn’t give the station management the option, but instead took responsibility for his own safety.

The former student whom I referenced earlier will be working as a multimedia journalist. I hope she will have the courage to speak up if necessary, and that safety will be a concern when she is sent out on stories.

The irony about the shooting in Virginia is that the live shot did not appear to be in a dangerous area, and there was no way that Alison and Adam could have foreseen what was about to happen. It was just like any other unexpected act of violence, except it happened on live television and the media-savvy shooter took advantage of his knowledge of the station and social media to ensure that his heinous act would have the greatest impact.

As educators, we’re confronted continually with the issue of mental illness. The pressure to succeed and the pressure of grades and exams can exacerbate a diagnosed or undiagnosed problem. We have mechanisms in place to try and help students.

As we train future media professionals, we need to highlight even more the pressures that they will face in a newsroom and how they can cope with them. We’re not professional counselors, but we can talk through scenarios and increase awareness. Maybe we can help steer students to other careers in media where they can use their skills but do not involve the deadline-driven pressure that news necessitates?

Life lessons

In our classes, we’re often quick to tout the positives of social media, but this incident offers a sobering reminder that what is used for good can also be used for evil. This leads to the issue of ethics.

I learned of an educator who, on the day of the shooting, was showing the various videos of the shooting in his classroom to highlight the ethical issues that were at play and to spark a discussion. The decision about whether or not to show the video in class is in itself an ethical issue. In my opinion, you can still have this discussion in a meaningful way without replaying the deaths of the individuals.

Sadly, it often takes tragedy to spark change and to cause us to confront issues. Overall, what I think I will tell my students has as much to do with life as it does with professional practices. Be slow to anger, be patient in suffering and be quick to love. As Alison and Adam seemed to be doing, try and do what you love, and enjoy each day as the gift it is, because tomorrow is never guaranteed.

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