The shooting deaths of two journalists in Roanoke should remind us that working in TV news isn't the dream job it might seem
Media commentary by Steve Dunlop
The shooting deaths of two young television journalists in Roanoke, Virginia, while doing a live shot - something I did thousands of in my career- wasn’t just a senseless outrage. It was a reminder that the perception that TV field reporters somehow lead a glamorous life is flat out wrong.
Rather than add more words of condolence to the family and colleagues - others knew these young reporters, and can speak about them far more eloquently than I can - I’ll use this space to shed some light on the real day to day life of TV journalists like Alison Parker and Adam Ward. I know. I lived it.
There is nothing glamorous about getting up at 230 in the morning, switching on all-news radio, hitting the 24-hour Dunkin Donuts for a caffeine jolt, and arriving to work at 4.
There is nothing glamorous about what longtime New York morning radio personality Gene Klavan used to call the “Sunday morning headache.” (It comes from finally being able to sleep in on weekends and suffering caffeine withdrawal.)
There is nothing glamorous about riding in the back seat of a live truck, usually a Ford van loaded with so much news gathering and transmission gear that you’re shaken by every rut and pothole in the road. We nicknamed one of our live trucks the “kidney crusher.”
There is nothing glamorous about eating Chinese takeout in a live truck. Or sleeping in one, which happens more often than anyone realizes. Nothing glamorous about a snoring sound man.
There is nothing glamorous about reporting on a hurricane or snowstorm from a live truck. Nothing appealing about wearing a plastic poncho and getting knocked over by a crashing wave. Nothing to envy about standing alongside a snow covered highway, bundled up like Nanook of the North, your facial muscles finding it difficult to form words in the frigid wind, struggling to find new and creative ways to say “it’s snowing out here.”
Nothing glamorous about being asked to do so many live shots from the same snowy location that when you finally get the word to wrap it up, you find your live truck can’t move - because it’s been plowed in.
There is nothing exotic about ending a 14-hour work day, stumbling home, walking the dog, raiding the fridge for leftovers, and flopping into bed at 8 pm.
Still in all, I loved the job. I couldn’t help it.
Over the years, I became intimately familiar with that invisible pull to the story in front of you. You are on a tow rope to your goal. You put on blinders to everything else, and personal safety becomes an afterthought.
So you roll up your pant legs and slosh barefoot through urban water main breaks and street floods. You have bottles thrown at you from atop a housing project in Newark, and rocks hurled at you from the windows of an out of control high school on the Lower East Side.
You have broken glass rain down on you from five floors up while covering the rescue of a firefighter. You even have sod tossed at your head during your live shot as Mets fans tore up the infield after the 1986 World Series.
But as oblivious as you can become to your own well being, you don’t lose your sense of danger to your colleagues. I remember watching my camera crew find a hole in a fence and cross the electrified third rail on Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor line to get a decent shot of a shuttered factory we were reporting on. From the relative safety of the live truck, I yelled at them to come back - that we didn’t need the shot that badly. My sound man smiled, waved at me, and did a jig next to the third rail to make his point.
It’s a common experience among journalists. Only after the fact do you fully embrace that perhaps you could have been badly injured, or worse.
And then there are the petty annoyances, those characters who stand in the background of a live shot and wave. (The camera crews call them “lens lice.”) Only rarely did they become aggressive and make me feel truly uncomfortable on air.
Once or twice over the years, I’ve been surprised to bump into former work colleagues as they were watching me do a live “hit” in the field. I could catch them out of the corner of my eye, and was always glad to see them afterwards.
Given what we know now about the background of the shooter in Virginia, Bryce Williams, I can only imagine the shudder felt by Alison Parker and Adam Ward as they saw their former co-worker approach.
But it didn’t stop them from doing their jobs, even up to the very last second.
In the digital era, local TV news still provides an indispensable public service. The business is more competitive and cost-conscious than ever, and it is in the interest of stations’ marketing departments, even in places like Roanoke, to produce slick promos and turn their local newscasters into celebrities.
But don’t let anyone tell you being a TV field reporter is a glamorous job. The best way to honor the memory of these two fallen journalists is to recognize that it isn't.