(WIBW) - A few weeks back, as a reporter and photographer headed out our newsroom doors for a late-breaking drive-by shooting, the latest in a string of violence in a particular neighborhood, I called after them, "Be safe."
They were not empty words. My mind tends to click through the potential risks of any situation. Still, I probably would not use the same words to send off a crew headed to the zoo festival or school carnival.
Maybe I wouldn't - before this past week. Before a reporter and photographer were gunned down on live television doing a report previewing a lake celebration.
Our newsroom, like many smaller markets, is filled with people early in their careers. For them, and for most veteran newsies, too, this past week drove home the reality of risks that come from working in the public eye. What happened in Virginia hit home because it happened to people who were doing what they themselves do every day - not reporting from a war zone overseas, but from a peaceful corner of their community.
I've thought a lot about what I might say in light of what happened. I've written and rewritten this, on my screen and in my head, many times over. Have I ever felt threatened? Many of you know I have a loaded perspective on the answer to that question. I speak often about safety and awareness as a survivor of violent crime (a robbery/abduction at gunpoint while walking home from work in college). I watched the video of what unfolded in Virginia and, in my mind, heard the gun cock at the back of my head and wondered again why the man pointing it at me chose not to pull the trigger, while the man in Virginia chose to fire. I may be hyper-vigilant now, but I am alive, and, because of that, I feel a responsibility to speak and to share.
What happened to Alison and Adam matters to all of us. Do not be mistaken - you cannot stop someone who is determined to find a victim. There was nothing Alison or Adam or Ms. Gardner, who was being interviewed, could have done to stop what happened. They had no reason to suspect they'd be anything but safe in their location and certainly no way to predict Mr. Flanagan would seek them out in such a manner. And that's the point - if it can happen in that situation, it could happen in any situation. No, you cannot stop someone who is determined to find a victim, but you can take steps to lessen the chance that the victim will be you.
Whether you work in television or print - or the local store or warehouse or office - or you're a college student headed home from class or dinner - the lesson applies: be aware. Do you get off work after dark and walk out the door to your car alone? Do you look around first to see if anyone is outside before you actually open the door? Do you know what types of vehicles your coworkers drive versus a car that might be out of place? Are you looking down texting or on your phone chatting with a friend? Are there enough lights in your parking lot to make yourself or potential threats visible?
In television, some of these questions are compounded by the fact that it's probably not that difficult for anyone who watches the news to know when you might be arriving or leaving work. It's also pretty obvious if you're at a public place, when everyone just saw you reporting live. If viewers follow you on social media, they can find you pretty much any time during the work day because part of modern journalism is posting from the news conference or crime scene or special event as it unfolds because people do not want to wait until 5, 6, 10 or 11 or until morning to get their news. Instant access to information also means instant access to the person who's bringing you that information.
The way of the industry today more and more often puts local journalists in the field alone. The reporter is also the photographer and vice versa. You are knocking on doors, scoping a crime scene, handling a crowded event and, sometimes, even doing a live shot all by yourself. No extra pair of eyes to watch your back or shout a warning or call for help, should the need arise. Like all industries, managers are looking to increase efficiencies. Is there safety in numbers, or can we also find it through other precautionary measures? I'm hopeful all newsrooms will have this discussion.
At WIBW-TV, we were forced to confront many of these issues three years ago, when a man visited our station and became upset when we could not assist him with his complaint. He smashed a lamp through what we thought was a secure front entrance, eventually stabbing two coworkers and punching two others as he was subdued. Fortunately, our coworkers survived. WDBJ-TV was not so lucky.
The fear I have felt and continue to feel due to my own personal circumstances is very real. I have received letters and phone calls that I've reported to police - just in case. I tend to scan crowds. I text my husband before and after a run - and bring my phone with me. I've circled the block if a vehicle has followed me just a bit too long. As a station, we've called police more than once about suspicious vehicles. The very hardest thing to do after surviving a traumatic event is to learn to walk alone again. And by that I mean literally walking somewhere alone, but knowing you're surrounded by love and support from a whole lot of people who care.
But here's the thing - I, and all those with whom I work, will not stop covering the community and interacting with the public. I welcome letters and phone calls and emails and tweets because that's how I know what's important to you. I want you to say hello in public because I'm happy to know (for better or worse!) you're watching what we're doing.
We cannot prevent everything, but we cannot close ourselves off. We can believe in the good, but be wary of the bad. We can be aware and we can look out for each other. That's not a television or a journalism thing to do - it's a human thing to do.