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.  

It's been worse:  reporting in the rain from a cliff near the George Washington Bridge after two slip and fall fatalities, 1986.

It's been worse:  reporting in the rain from a cliff near the George Washington Bridge after two slip and fall fatalities, 1986.

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.  










His fellow GOP contenders did not need to undermine the billionaire; he did the job himself.  And there's only one person who can fix it

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

I always enjoyed covering Donald Trump.  On a summer day in 1988, when his celebrity was still largely a New York City phenomenon, I was invited down to the East River with a handful of TV journalists to tour his latest acquisition: a $38 million yacht, including a movie theater, a barber chair in the master bedroom, and as the Los Angeles Times wrote, “enough shoe storage space to hold Imelda Marcos' footwear.”

Donald Trump and his then-wife, Ivana, aboard their new yacht, 1988.  Courtesy  AP via CBS News . 

Donald Trump and his then-wife, Ivana, aboard their new yacht, 1988.  Courtesy AP via CBS News

“LIfe is not easy for Donald Trump,” he told me at the time.  “Donald Trump fights and kicks and screams at everything he gets.”

I didn’t notice Trump’s odd choice of prepositions until I screened the videotape back in the newsroom.  “Donald Trump fights and kicks and screams AT everything he gets”?  I played the tape back to make sure I had heard it right.  I had. 

I wondered if it was a Freudian slip.  And after watching The Donald self-immolate at the first GOP presidential debate, I’m convinced that it was.

Donald Trump has been handed the lead in the early polls for the Republican nomination, and he is fighting, kicking and screaming at it.  Having gotten the attention of a significant slice of the electorate, he seems to want to push them away. 

From a public relations and communications standpoint, he is breaking multiple rules of engagement.  Of course, that disregard for convention is precisely at the core of Trump’s appeal in a subset of voters.  He is an escape valve for their frustration, and that’s understandable.  

But it will not serve his message in the long run.  Or even the short run.  Republican voters who watched the debate for Fox News, many of them Trump supporters, were overwhelmingly turned off by his bombastics. 

“He just crashed and burned,” one member of the focus group told pollster Frank Luntz. “He was mean, he was angry, he had no specifics.”  

“He just let me down,” said another Trump supporter.  “I just expected him to rise to the occasion and look presidential.  He didn’t.” 

If Trump were open to some constructive criticism – which would be completely out of his character – here are three tips I’d give him:

Donald Trump's famous pout on display at the first Republican presidential debate.  Courtesy  Reuters via The Daily Beast .

Donald Trump's famous pout on display at the first Republican presidential debate.  Courtesy Reuters via The Daily Beast.

·      Lose the scowl.  It’s off-putting and drives people away from what you want to tell them.  There are ways to look serious without looking thuggish.

·      Don’t shoot the messenger.  The personal branding power of Twitter and Facebook notwithstanding, journalists are and will remain the principal conduit for your message.  Taking on Fox’s Megyn Kelly for doing her job is a no-win game.    

·      Never talk about problems without actions.  Trump bragged about not preparing for the debate, and it showed.  He sounded off about the problems the country is facing, but he did not effectively offset them with proposed solutions.  Even his supporters noticed.  “I liked him when I came in here because he wasn’t the politician,” one focus group member told Luntz.  “But he skirted around questions better than a lifelong politician ever had.”

We live in a confessional culture, and it is not too late, especially for someone as high profile as Donald Trump, to admit his mistakes in a prominent media venue and turn over a new leaf.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

In the meantime, if you’re looking only for consistency over a long period of time, Donald Trump is your man.  He claims to have “evolved” on some political issues, and perhaps he has.  But at bottom, he is largely unchanged from the brazen ringmaster I first covered all those years ago.



by Steve Dunlop

In media and presentation training, the standard advice is to keep it simple.  We emphasize the importance of maintaining a conversational tone, use of first and second person pronouns, and keeping industry-insider jargon to a minimum.   

But every so often, the occasion calls for us to reach back for a little something extra.   We need to do more than "engage" our audience - or measure our success primarily by the number of heads we see nodding in agreement. 

Speeches by our political leaders ought to be guided by these better angels.  Increasingly, they aren't.  As we celebrate America's birthday today, it's worth reflecting on how civic oratory, as an art form, has largely disappeared from the public arena. 

Frederick Douglass, former slave turned abolitionist and master orator, circa 1874. 

Frederick Douglass, former slave turned abolitionist and master orator, circa 1874. 

Editor and columnist Rich Lowry, author of a recent book that re-examines the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, drew attention to this deficit in a column on Frederick Douglass,  the most influential African American leader of the 19th century.   A runaway slave who traded his bread to white boys in exchange for reading lessons, Douglass became a leading abolitionist.  In the process, he produced some of the most finely-crafted speeches of his time. 

On July 4, 1852, Douglass was asked to speak to his fellow citizens in Rochester, New York, as part of their Independence Day celebrations.  His soaring but searing words are persuasive - not because they link to a focus-grouped least common denominator, but because they do the opposite: they summon our higher instincts, and call on us to think. 

Read the words of Douglass, remember our American heritage, and reflect on how far the art of public oratory has fallen in 163 years.



How “Fear of Missing Out” can set up the media to be fooled - and it's easier than you think

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop  

In our last post, we discussed how mainstream media are becoming part of the problem in distinguishing fact from fiction – passing on erroneous, unchecked online information without verifying it first. 

But there’s another way in which the media hang their credibility out to dry - and they have no one to blame but themselves.  The fourth estate, unfortunately, has a little understood softness in the underbelly that I like to refer to as FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. 

Long before the Internet, groups of journalists working the same story could demonstrate a pack mentality.  We pile on a simple, entertaining story that grabs our attention.  And because we all see our competitors going after it, the effect multiplies.  We don’t want to be stuck in the desert without it.  Lulled by the same set of questionable facts, we drop our collective guard.

FOMO thus leaves us all vulnerable to a well-timed, professional hoax.  I know. 

"Charlie Taylor" at the famous lottery hoax party, 1990.  Image from WNYW/New York.

"Charlie Taylor" at the famous lottery hoax party, 1990.  Image from WNYW/New York.

When I was a TV news anchor, the Associated Press and several New York stations – including mine (WNYW Channel 5) – reported on a suburban woman who identified herself as 30-year old Charlie Taylor, who claimed to have hit the $35 million jackpot in the New York State Lottery.  At that time, it was the largest such payout to date.

We knew our competitors were reporting the story.  And why shouldn't they?  Taylor had what looked like a photocopy of the winning ticket.   She booked a suite at the Park Central Hotel.  She poured champagne for her friends, handed out $10 bills to passers-by, and produced a “pool video” of the revelers at her celebratory bash, which we played back on air.  The following morning, the New York Times, the New York Post, and Newsday all joined us with their own versions of the story. 

Steve Dunlop (left) and co-anchor Rosanna Scotto interviewing "Charlie Taylor" via phone, perhaps not quite making sense of her claim.  Image from WNYW/New York. 

Steve Dunlop (left) and co-anchor Rosanna Scotto interviewing "Charlie Taylor" via phone, perhaps not quite making sense of her claim.  Image from WNYW/New York. 

But every single one of us was lied to.  “We were had,” said the Post’s editor, Jerry Nachman. 

All of us had shared a basic assumption – that the lottery story was true.  And once we saw the photocopy of the ticket, that’s not an unreasonable position. 

“It would not be possible to live in a community if the general expectation is that people deceive without reason,” writes Christopher H. Sterling in the Encyclopedia of Journalism (Sage Publications, 2009).  “Deception is successful because people assume that others are generally truthful.” 

Of course, people have a variety of motivations to lie – especially to reporters, and even if only for sport.  But even FOMO can't explain how so many of us fell victim to the same lie, all at once.  How did that happen?

We later learned the lottery hoax was orchestrated by a professional: Alan Abel, a self-styled media prankster who had a track record of pulling similar stunts dating back to the Tonight Show of the 1950’s.  

In retrospect, it's easy to see how Abel laid his lottery media trap:

A copy of the so-called winning ticket. 

A copy of the so-called winning ticket. 

·      Fake the evidence.   For starters, you create a copy of the “winning ticket” with a copying machine.  You doctor the numbers to match the announced winners, then wrinkle and fold the copy as though a number of people have examined it for authenticity.  You explain that the original is Iocked in a safe.  Makes perfect sense.

·      Pick a weekend.  Pull the hoax on a slow Sunday evening.  Not only would there be little else happening news-wise, but newsrooms be operating with a barebones staff.  State lottery offices would be closed, and even journalists who were inclined to verify the ticket would be unable to reach the right people. 

·      Hire your friends.  At the Park Central, Abel enlisted seven friends to play the partygoers.  He brought in an actress to play “Charlie Taylor,” made sure she was attractive, and told her to tell the media she was single.  (So she’s rich, pretty – and available?)

·      Get it on the wires.  Abel’s coup-de-grace was planting the story with the Associated Press first.  Even though we all supposedly know not to trust something just because it runs “on the wires,” it nevertheless gains third party credibility inside newsrooms, and thus, the benefit of the doubt.  

There was one moment when Abel’s stunt came close to being exposed.  It was in how he prepped Charlie Taylor for the inevitable question of how she picked the winning combination.  

“I dreamed that Malcolm Forbes and Donald Trump were circling me on magic carpets, spewing out the numbers to me,” she said. 

That answer brings to mind another acronym: YGBFKM.  It should have been a warning sign.  But because of FOMO, no reporter had the presence of mind to remember an admonition we’ve heard countless times over the years: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” 

A footnote to journalists, and everyone else for that matter: at age 85, Alan Abel is still in business.  “Alan continues to poke fun at the media's complicity, its fallibility and a reporter's all-too-often blind rush to scoop a salacious story,” his web site states.  

Could Alan Abel do it again today?  YGBFKM.  Of course he could - especially since a new generation of reporters might never have heard of him. 

But as one visit to attests, the difference now is it doesn’t take a mischievous professional to fool millions of people at once.  


New research details major media's role in helping unverified rumors go viral

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

“Nuclear Bomb Found After 57 Years,” read the subject line in my inbox.   A longtime friend had forwarded what appeared to be a news story from Savannah, Georgia, announcing that a pair of scuba-diving Canadian tourists had stumbled on a Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb, lost by the Air Force in a mid-air crash in 1958. 

The story was false.  (We all surely would have heard, if it were true.)  Yes, the crash had occurred, 57 years ago - and the bomb was indeed lost.  But the so-called discovery was a hoax – a mere urban legend.  I messaged my friend. 

“Hard to believe that someone would bother to make up such a story,” she responded.  “Just for fun?  No one profits from misinformation.  There’s no political pitch either.  So, why?”

Of course, there have always been those who profit from misinformation.  Supermarket tabloids, miracle diets, and any given issue of The Onion come to mind. 

What’s different today is that respected news organizations are becoming a part of the problem. 

And it’s not just because of stretched budgets and staff cutbacks.  Major outlets can actually play a role in circulating false stories online – and that has implications for media consumers, advertisers, professional communicators, and society at large.

The current issue of The Quill, a magazine published by the Society of Professional Journalists, takes a deeper dive into recent research by Craig Silverman, a fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. 

“Rumors and claims that 15 years ago may have found their way into a newsroom and been reported out are instead going public,” Silverman says.  “They circulate and gain credibility before anyone begins to apply a level of verification.”

Silverman assembled a database to collect and analyze examples of rumors and unverified claims being reported by news websites.

Case in point: a 2014 post on a site covering the comic book industry.  It said that one of the Batmobiles used in the filming of Batman vs. Superman had gone missing, and might have been stolen.  The original post cited “scuttlebutt” from anonymous sources in Detroit.

Police quickly confirmed the Batmobile never went missing, and was never stolen.  But in a matter of hours, that single web post had set off a cascade of other articles – including one on the site of CBS’s Detroit affiliate, which only served to give the erroneous story additional credibility. 

“With the rumor proven false, some sites updated their post,” Silverman said.  “But many — including CBS Detroit — did not.”  And misinformation, if repeated long enough and often enough, becomes reality to too many people. 

So what should major media outlets do?  If they care about their credibility, their reputation, and the truth, should they simply steer clear of online rumors? 

On the contrary, Silverman argues.  As the political philosopher Edmund Burke once said, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.

“Quality journalists and news organizations do not make enough of an effort to knock down false claims,” Silverman says.  “Today that means knocking down the fake stuff and being more effective at handling information that resides in the gray space between true and false.”

I don’t know about you – but for me, that starts at my inbox. 

Here’s another inbound email:  


Sorry - wrong again.  Tom Hanks’s father never sang with The Diamonds, a 1950’s doo-wop group.  He died in 1992.  The rumor, unfortunately, lives on. 

So, as my friend asked, why?  Why do we feel compelled to pile on a questionable story?  More on that in my next post. 


Steve Dunlop, a former correspondent for CBS and Fox News, is president of Dunlop Media, Inc., a media and presentation coaching and training firm.