Risks for Reporters

By Katherine Kerr, APR

A homicide scene is the safest place to be. At least that’s what I told my mother.

Surely a “fluff” live shot of a story on tourism would seem to be a low-risk endeavor for a TV reporter and a videographer. The brutal, premeditated murders of WDBJ-TV journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward in Roanoke, Va. today prove that assumption wrong.

In general, being a reporter isn’t all that risky. Frankly, there’s a lot of time where it’s hurry up and wait. Or, you’re sitting through boring meetings or trials, writing weather stories or waiting for something to break.

The biggest risk for most journalists is that  you get yelled at by someone who thinks you were unfair or misquoted him. Or pissing off an editor for busting a deadline, a story not working out the way you thought it would, or the worst  –  making a mistake.

In 11 years as a daily newspaper reporter, I never truly felt in danger. I covered night police in Houston, which terrified my mother. She was certain I was in danger when I went to homicide scenes, fires, wrecks and natural and human disasters.

I admit I didn’t tell my mother everything:  the most dangerous place to be was at a homicide scene when grieving relatives showed up.

I was once nearly run over when a car full of family members jumped a curb and roared across the front yard where I was waiting for a statement from investigators. Thankfully a veteran police reporter from another media outlet pulled me out of the way. The family members drove the car almost up the front steps where a young man lay dead.

Another time, an anguished father took his anger and hurt out on me because I was there to report on a game of Russian Roulette gone wrong and the death of his teenage son. He started yelling and pushing me until a medical examiner and TV photographer intervened.

I was mostly telling the truth to my mother about homicide scenes because generally there are lots of armed police officers securing the scene and talking to witnesses. Usually the perpetrator is long gone or in custody.

That said, reporters often do follow police officers and firefighters toward danger when others are running away. They do it to get the story to inform their readers and viewers of the latest tragedy in their community.

The closest I came to a serious problem was during a SWAT standoff when I wandered inside the unsecured perimeter and ended up between the rifle muzzle of a SWAT officer and the house where a man had holed up. After he yelled at me to get out, I found the command station at the other end of the block and sat out the standoff.

Another time an irritated and inebriated Houston Rockets fan threatened to punch me when I tried to get a quote from him about how exciting it was for the Rockets to be in the championship series. He didn’t appreciate me interrupting him watching the game. I found another fan in the bar to interview and got my color story in by deadline.

One night while covering a four-alarm warehouse fire, I fell into a two-foot deep pothole that had filled with water. While I was in no danger of drowning, my ego, elbows and knees took a bruising. Other times, while covering weather disasters, I drove through snow, ice, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes to get the news at the same time officials were warning people to stay off the roads.

I visited people in prison and jails. The only problem I had there was when a sales rep wanted to demonstrate the effectiveness of a cleaner and began spraying it in the warden’s office. Several hours later I had a serious asthma attack and ended up in the emergency room. I received letters from people in prison but never was threatened by them. In fact, one woman thanked me for the fair coverage of her trial.

I admit I was a bit unnerved when I covered two Ku Klux Klan rallies in a remote field in Brazoria County at night. (The guys in white robes knew I was a reporter.) As long as my editor knew where I was, I figured I was safe.

I covered government meetings where people who clearly had mental health issues showed up for the public comment sessions. If things got a little too weird (the guy who told a council member that he dreamed of holding her head) or rowdy (the guy who was agitated because the CIA had removed all his organs and no one in Harris County would help him), law enforcement officers were nearby.

I covered the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, two airliner crashes and the kidnapping and slaying of a UT student and then the arrest of narcosatanicos in Mexico City. In every instance, I got there after those horrible incidents occurred, so I was in not danger.

That’s not to say that reporting isn’t without risks. I’ve known reporters who have been assaulted or injured covering rallies/protests/mobs. Some have been exposed to dangerous chemicals covering refinery fires or chemical truck rollovers. But those were few and far between.

Certainly those journalists who cover war zones and work in countries where crime and corruption are rampant are at significantly greater risk. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 1,141 journalists have been killed since 1992, including 39 this year. That doesn’t count the two today.

Though I’m no longer in the news business, I share the shock and grief at the senseless slaughter of two young people at the beginning of their careers.

This terrible double homicide highlights three critical social issues facing our country:

  • The failure of our society to diagnose, treat and help people with mental health problems
  • The proliferation of guns in our country
  • Workplace violence

Sadly, perhaps a media introspective on this tragedy involving three of their own may serve to bring these issues to the forefront. Maybe then, serious discussions and change can occur.

Photo courtesy of WDBJ-TV VIA AP.

One thought on “Risks for Reporters

  1. i was sadden to see this on the news. When will we take changing gun laws, serious. How many more people need to die at the hands of folks who are mentally ill?

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