WDBJ: A small TV newsroom covers its own tragedy

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Alison Parker and Adam Ward began Wednesday morning with the most routine of assignments for TV journalists in a midsize market. Their station, Roanoke’s WDBJ (Channel 7) assigned them to interview a local business executive at a nearby mountain resort — the sort of story designed to create a few cheerful but forgettable minutes for the morning newscast.

By the time the sun rose, they were dead, killed by a man who had worked in their own newsroom.

The slaying of the two young journalists by a gunman who later killed himself was both shocking and mysterious. Was it a vengeful act of workplace violence or a twisted media-age statement, played out on live TV — and ultimately the Internet — for maximum revulsion? Or maybe both?

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But for a crime that instantly drew international attention, the dynamics were strikingly intimate, the killer and his victims as well as their significant others all linked by their jobs at a small TV station in a small Virginia city.

The killer, Vester Lee Flanagan, 41, worked for WDBJ as a reporter before being fired after an apparently stormy few months in 2013. His brief tenure coincided with Ward, 27, a cameraman hired in 2011, and only barely overlapped with Parker, 24, a former station intern from 2012 who was hired as a reporter last year.

There were more personal connections. Ward’s fiancee, Melissa Ott, worked at the station, as did Parker’s boyfriend, anchorman Chris Hurst. As producer of the morning newscast, Ott was running the show when Parker and Ward drove out to Smith Mountain Lake on Wednesday morning to interview Vicki Gardner, a member of the local Chamber of Commerce.

In a horrific twist, Ott was in the control room watching the interview when Flanagan allegedly approached Parker and Ward and began firing.

The shootings thrust the station into the bizarre position of reporting the deaths of their own colleagues. “It is my sad duty to report . . . that Alison and Adam died just after 6:45 [a.m.] when the shots rang out,” Jeff Marks, the station’s president, told viewers in a morning broadcast.

With smiling photos of Ward and Parker displayed on the screen, he added, “Our hearts are broken.”

It wasn’t until later in the morning that Marks confirmed to viewers that the gunman in the shootings was Flanagan, a man whom Marks had fired two years earlier.

The shootings were a grotesque shock, not merely because American journalists are rarely the targets of such violence, but because there is no precedent for such a thing happening on a live telecast.

Video of the slayings, which was recorded both by Ward’s TV camera and the gunman’s cellphone, quickly made its way to social media on Wednesday. Flanagan posted the cellphone video on his Facebook page before shooting himself to death in Fauquier County as police closed in.

Marks told viewers that the station, a CBS affiliate that promotes itself as “WDBJ7,” would not run the shooting video, which it had aired live, “because frankly we don’t need to see it again, and our staff doesn’t need to see it again.”

People in TV news have long been wary of the potential for mayhem during live TV reports. Reporters have frequently been heckled or even physically harassed by attention-seeking passersby; footage of such encounters — once known within the TV-news industry as “tapes of wrath” — can be found all over YouTube.

But injuries, let alone deaths, have been almost unknown until recently. Earlier this month, two news crews in San Francisco were robbed and one journalist was pistol-whipped as they reported live on a homicide. The threat posed by covering stories such as urban unrest has led some stations to assign security guards to their crews and to scrub station logos from the “live” transmission trucks.

“The problem has been around for a long time, but it does seem recently to have become more dangerous,” said Barbara Cochran, a professor at the University of Missouri’s journalism school and a former Washington bureau chief for CBS News.

Cochran says news stations can take extra precautions, but they can’t do without on-the-spot reporting, “You’re never going to do away with live shots because that’s one of the virtues of TV,” she said. “It takes viewers to the scene of a story.”

Wednesday’s slayings, however, may have been the result of a more common American problem: A workplace grievance turned deadly. Mike Cavender, the executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, a trade group for news executives, says that Flanagan — who went by the name Bryce Williams when he was on the air — was let go from WDBJ in early 2013 and later filed a lawsuit against the station, alleging discrimination. The case was dismissed by a judge in July 2014, after which Flanagan posted a series of increasingly hostile comments about the station on social media.

“TV is a stressful business, but the fact is we’ve seen workplace violence occur in places that are far less stressful than TV,” Cavender said. “Every workplace has to be aware of and deal with” potentially unstable individuals.

Despite the extraordinary nature of Wednesday’s news, WDBJ’s anchors remained composed in delivering it.

Morning anchor Kim Mc-Broom calmly noted that the day was supposed to be Ott’s last on the job, that Ott and her fiance Ward were planning to move to Charlotte. McBroom said she brought in a cake, and Parker, the reporter, had purchased balloons to celebrate the occasion in the newsroom.

“It was just an ordinary day, and we were so happy” for them, McBroom said on the air.

“We’ve lost two friends, two co-workers,” anchor Jean Jadhon added, her voice quavering but not breaking. “Families have lost their daughter, their son, a fiance. . . . We’ve lost two members of our family.”

Hurst, an anchorman at the station, wrote on Facebook that he and Parker had moved in together recently and had planned to marry.

“She was the most radiant woman I ever met,” he wrote. “And for some reason she loved me back.”

As the news spread across the globe, police distributed two still images of a man holding a weapon. They were taken from Ward’s TV camera as he recorded Parker’s last interview.

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