Rhode Island mom sics pit bulls on reporter: privacy versus the right to know

A Rhode Island mother of a recovering shooting victim sicced two pit bulls on a reporter who asked for her reaction to the news the shooter was arrested. Did the reporter violate the mother's privacy? Did the mother overreact? 

Screengrab, One Minute News
A TV reporter was chased by dogs, sicced on her by their owner, a Rhode Island woman who felt the reporter was violating her privacy.

While society has learned the lesson “don’t shoot the messenger for bringing bad news,” we are still working on not beating the daylights out of the messenger for prodding us with questions about that news. Such was the case for ABC affiliate reporter Abbey Niezgoda found herself under attack by the angry mom who threw a rock, grabbed a bat and loosed her dogs on the reporter for what she thought was asking a simple question – “How do you feel about that?”

In two separate incidents on Sunday, TV reporters were attacked by friends and family of shooting victims while trying to get a story. In one case, a FOX Sacramento, Calif. reporter and camera operator were beaten by a mob. The female camera operator was allegedly kicked in the face. In other news, a Rhode Island reporter for ABC6 was attacked by the irate mom of a teenage shooting victim.

As a reporter and a mom, I can tell you that if you ask an overwrought parent “How do you feel about that?” the answer might just go beyond words.

“There are no stupid questions,” is something my mom drilled into me my entire life, as did my journalism professors. I think that right about now we might agree that there is one dumb question being asked in perpetuity of victims and their families and it’s “How do you feel about that?”

In reality the answer is not sound-bite-friendly because it’s going to be a mashup of these: furious, frightened, helpless, impotent, terrified, protective, and possibly insane.

While reporters try to understand the volatile nature of the situations they are in with all the shootings involving children, what they fail to understand is that there are no simple or safe questions when it comes to probing the depths of emotional wounds.

According to the WLNE-TV, ABC6 website, on June 4 16-year-old Ny'asia Lawrence was shot in the back by an uninvited guest during a kindergarten graduation ceremony for her little cousin. The teen was treated at Hasbro Children's Hospital.

If you haven’t seen the video of the rock slinging mom of fury I’ll tell you that she and some others were standing outside their home on an urban street when ABC6 Reporter Abbey Niezgoda walked up to them to ask how the mom felt about the arrest of a possible suspect in the case. In most cases asking how a parent feels about an arrest of a suspect is pretty fair game. However, when your interviewee is backing away and getting hostile from the moment you arrive you need to think about the situation and your safety.

ABC6 News Director Bob Rockstroh said of his reporter, “She did everything right. She was on public property. Woman was outside her door.”

All of that is technically correct and straight out of the journalism 101 playbook. However, as a journalist of 25 years who has been given those kinds of assignments to try to pull off I think that there should be a special section added on why you should never ask anyone who is angry, upset or a victim “How do you feel about that?”

When I asked Rockstroh how he felt about that, he said of Mrs. Lawrence, “I wouldn’t classify her as a grieving parent. Her daughter was treated and released. She’s not dead. Also she [mom] gave an interview the day before to another station.”

This is where journalism and parenthood collide for me because if one of my boys were shot in the back – as this woman’s child was - I would be outwardly collected because I am  the mom and I am the tent pole of the family circus and inwardly volcanic.

Make no mistake, to throw a rock and send vicious dogs after someone who is unarmed and not physically threatening you is wrong, criminal and not something I would tell my child was warranted.

It should be pointed out that the footage from the station is heavily edited cutting away and intermittently muting the audio after the reporter tells Lawrence that a young man has turned himself in and asks, “How do you feel about that?”

The mom is backing away from the reporter throughout the encounter. Lawrence says, “Well that’s good” to the news of the arrest.

Then the station kills the audio feed and adds a voiceover so we don’t know what was said between mom and reporter.

The video cuts away and cuts back to Lawrence picking up a stone and the reporter calls to her, “You’re going to throw rocks now?”

In the end Lawrence beans the camera with the rock and shoos her dogs in the news team’s direction. The mom also appears to shout a racial epithet at the reporter who has been bitten on the forearm and is fleeing.

As viewers and reporters, we should not make the mistake of becoming so desensitized to grief, pain and fear we see in others that we dismiss them or fail to recognize them when we see them.

My heart goes out to victims, family and loved ones who have suffered senseless violence. I beg you not to perpetuate the trend of violence by attacking the people of the media. Remember, they are somebody’s baby too.

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