SPJVPA16: Case study in tragedy: WDBJ

By Alyssa Sims

“Don’t listen to what we have to say here and be afraid,” Kelly Zuber, news director of WDBJ in Roanoke, told a mix of veteran journalists and journalism students attending the VPA/SPJ joint conference on Saturday (April 9).

Zuber spoke at a panel about the impact that the shooting of WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward had on the journalism community. Parker, 24, and Ward, 27, were killed while doing a story last August by a disgruntled former station employee.

The panel, which was moderated by broadcast journalist Nicole Livas, included Ryan Parkhurst, an assistant professor of journalism at James Madison University, and Brad Jenkins, general manager of the school newspaper, The Breeze. They reminisced about Parker’s time at the university and her budding love of the industry.

“With Alison, it was all love. She was a phenomenal and amazing person,” Parkhurst said.

Parker and Ward were killed while broadcasting live, and the gunman later posted his first-person video of the murders on social media. Several hours later, he fatally shot himself during a car chase with police.

While WDBJ staff members were grieving the loss of two colleagues, they also had to cover the story.

When covering a tragedy in their own newsroom, journalists must wrestle with tough ethical issues, the panelists said. Perhaps the most difficult decision was whether to give the shooter’s name.

Under typical circumstances, reporting a killer’s name seems like a no-brainer. But the decision isn’t so easy when the story involves your own station, Zuber said.

“Being victims and being a newsroom doesn’t mix well,” she said.

Reporting on the killer didn’t sit well with some people at WDBJ, but Zuber said it established connections with other organizations that had been involved with the shooter. She said these connections helped police in their investigation.

Parkhurst said journalists must develop strategies for covering mass killings in ways that do not turn the shooters into “cult heroes.” This is a danger whenever there is a mass shooting.

“Covering it the way that we are is in some ways spurring on a future shooter,” Parkhurst said. “Our first instinct is to go cover, cover, cover” – which may be exactly what the killer wants.

Besides spurring conversations over ethics, the murders of Parker and Ward have prompted discussions about reporter safety. Zuber said that under WDBJ policy, reporters have full discretion to call off a live shot if they feel unsafe.

Safety concerns may increase as the industry hires more multimedia journalists who work alone in reporting stories and shooting video. Such journalists may be even more vulnerable, the panelists said.

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Brad Jenkins, Ryan Parkhurst and Kelly Zuber
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