Opinion

opinion | R.D. Sahl

Va. shootings show the vulnerability of on-air journalism

Alison Parker (left) and Adam Ward were fatally shot by a gunman during an on-air interview in Virginia.
WDBJ7 via EPA
Alison Parker (left) and Adam Ward were fatally shot by a gunman during an on-air interview in Virginia.

The killer’s video is chilling. He frames his shot, pauses to adjust the angle, and fires. The video also shows something else. Television reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward never seem to notice the man with the gun — even though he’s just feet away from them. He shoots the them dead in an on-air attack.

Live shots are part of a television reporter’s daily routine. A busy reporter can do a dozen or more every week. Usually, the reporter-photog team is on deadline — reporting, shooting, writing, and editing the story before doing the live shot. It’s a job that requires skill, speed, and concentration.

Reporters know something viewers don’t: When you’re live, you’re vulnerable. Your focus is on the camera lens, interviewees, and instructions from the control room. The shooting video clearly shows Alison Parker’s attention fixed on her interview. She’s probably wearing an earpiece for cues from the director and producer. She apparently never sees or hears her killer until he shoots. Adam Ward is effectively blind and deaf to what’s happening around him. He’s watching the live shot through a camera viewfinder. And he’s probably wearing a headset to make sure the audio is good.

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Live shots are usually done in public spaces — in this case, a shopping mall in the Blue Ridge Mountains for WDBJ7 in Roanoke, Va. There are always people around during a live shot — people you don’t know. You’re aware and wary, but you can’t vet them. You have a job to do and a deadline to meet.

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You try to carve out a space where you have a background that relates to the story. If necessary, you ask bystanders to give you a little room. Most of the time, it’s not a problem. Sometimes it is. Every reporter can tell stories about nitwits who shout or step into the shot. We’ve all been heckled or flipped off. I once had a guy take a swing at me during a live shot from Downtown Crossing (I ducked). You learn to be watchful, mindful that you may not be on friendly turf.

Sometimes you’ll have a field producer or tech who can keep an eye on the people around you. Most of the time you don’t. It’s you and your photog. And in the brave new world of backpack journalism, it’s often one person doing it all.

These killings should prompt discussions in every newsroom about safety on the job. What to do? Hire guards for live shots? Sometimes, stations do that — especially for crowded events like New Year’s Eve celebrations and championship games. But they’re unlikely to do that for simple live shots from City Hall. How about sending an extra staffer to watch the crowd? Good idea, but a field producer probably would not have prevented the tragedy in Virginia. And how do you assure the safety of a reporter who does the story and the live shot alone?

Television crews are back on the street even as they grieve the deaths of Parker and Ward. Every field crew is taking a closer look at the people around them. How sad that two promising young journalists had to die to remind us that no live shot should ever be routine.

R.D. Sahl, who worked in television news for more than 40 years, is an associate professor at Boston University’s College of Communication.