Thursday, August 27, 2015


Today, I was originally planning to do a ten-year retrospective on Hurricane Katrina. The disaster. The missed opportunities to get the right information to the right people at the right time to make the right decisions to save their lives. It's altogether proper that I do that one day. And, I will in the not-too-distant future.

But, I can't do that today. No. What I saw in Virginia yesterday morning moved me to tears. That's when a former disgruntled employee of WDBJ-TV out of Roanoke cold-bloodedly approached reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward as they interviewed Vicki Gardner, executive director of the local chamber of commerce.
The interview as it started
A simple story that any PIO would be happy to have the morning show of a local affiliate cover. A story very much similar to the dozens I have done over the years where the reporter and I would meet way before dawn, chat each other up, conduct the interview and exchange business cards before parting to tackle the rest of the day's work.

Not only did the assailant approach the reporters, waiting until they were engaged in the interview, he took the time to record his actions on either a cell phone or some other small camera as he approached. He even adjusted the shot to ensure that it would capture the mayhem that was about to ensue.

There are those who would say that if the reporter and photojournalist were armed, they may have had a chance to fight back. But, if you look at the video, you will clearly see that these two professionals were doing exactly what they needed to do to ensure the report was conducted well with compelling images, intelligent questions and that the live feed back to the station was uninterrupted. In other words, they were fully immersed in their work. The subject of their interview was fully engaged in the discussion. There was no way that anyone could have seen him coming and reacted in time.

After shooting his victims, the piece of filth got into his car and drove off, making good his escape - if even for just a few hours - until his luck ran out and the Virginia State Police caught up with him. While on the run, he added insult to injury by posting the video of his premeditated murder on his Twitter and Facebook accounts for all to see. Autoplay features on these social media platforms ensured that anyone who was forwarded the video couldn't miss it. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Linkedin were quick to suspend his account.

I was shaken. These were two kids. A young lady of 24 years and a young man of 27. They were both in love with their significant others - Ward engaged to one of the station's producers and Parker was dating one of the station's anchors. Both had strong ties to their families. They worked together nearly every morning for more than a year. 

While I have had my occasional run ins with reporters who have asked aggressive questions or who may have been less than patient with me, I have come to see all of them in my market as professionals. In many cases, colleagues. In more than a few cases, friends. I could barely imagine this fate befalling any of them here in our market, but yesterday's events have called into sharp focus what could potentially be waiting for them as they do their jobs.

I reached out to one of the morning reporters I have worked with on several occasions in my current and former jobs. She is a young reporter from the prestigious journalism school at the University of Missouri, and she is often times assigned to work as a 'one man band' - handling camera, uplink, producer and reporter duties by herself from the field. In other words, she does by herself what used to take three people.

I expressed my concern for her and for her colleagues as they often find themselves in bad parts of town at lonely times of the day. She thanked me for my concern and let me know that for sure, reporter security was the top item on the agenda for the station. I imagine that just about every single newsroom across the country must have had a similar conversation.

As an emergency PIO, we often spend a great deal of time remembering the firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency medical responders who gave their lives in faithful execution of their duties. It is right that we do this. However, we often forget that many journalists have been killed in ensuring that our First Amendment right to a free press shall not be abridged. Whether as a combat correspondent in a war zone, shot by members of an organized crime syndicate - or simply murdered because someone had problems with a station's hiring and firing practices, we need to take the time to learn about those brave men and women who gave their last full measure of devotion to ensure we are a well-informed public.

And, even if you have issues with the reporters in your market, go out of your way to take the time to thank them for the work they do. 

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

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