With poise and grace, colleagues of slain Virginia journalists work through grief
When a gunman killed two Virginia reporters on live television, CBS-affiliate WDBJ-7 became the subject of its own broadcast.
A newsroom thrust into the news today is reeling from loss, and still reporting on a developing story.
CBS-affiliate WDBJ-7 was airing its morning broadcast Wednesday when a gunman, at 6:43am, according to Virginia police, opened fire on two of its employees on live television, during the taping of a story on tourism in Moneta, Va.
Less than an hour later, four colleagues of the victims, including station general manager Jeffrey Marks, were seated at the station’s anchor desk breaking news that reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward had died, and the shooter was still at large.
The news was conveyed to an audience far wider than the 26 counties in Virginia the Roanoke-based station typically serves, as the story caught the attention of national and social media.
“They have not hidden from this,” says Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., in a phone interview. Mr. Tompkins has spent 40 years in the news business, and said he has led trainings at WDBJ-7 for Poynter. He referred to the general manager of the news station, Mr. Marks, as a friend, and called him a “journalist’s journalist.”
Marks “understands even in times of tragedy to report what you can, and he did that today,” Mr. Tompkins says.
“I give him great credit that they have been forthcoming,” he adds, referring in part to Marks' on-air remarks of the alleged gunman, Vester Flanagan II’s employment history at the station, and the process the station went through when it dismissed Mr. Flanagan in 2013 due to outbursts of anger, going so far, Marks said, as getting local law enforcement involved.
WDBJ-7 did “exactly what journalists do,” William Wheatley, former executive vice president of NBC News and a Columbia Journalism School professor, said in a phone interview. “In certain ways, the closest it is to home, the more important it is that you do it.”
The station has live streamed its coverage for most of the day on its website, and has set up a memorial page devoted to the shooting that includes a message board, a photo gallery of Ms. Parker and Mr. Ward's work together, and interviews with the victims' former coaches and high school principals.
Mr. Wheatley said he expects the event likely brought out the best reporting in the Roanoke, Va. newsroom. “These sorts of things cause journalists to want to make sure, in deference to their colleagues, that the story is right,” he said.
Flanagan, who went by the name Bryce Williams during his employment at WDBJ-7, was captured by police Wednesday after engaging law enforcement in a vehicle chase. Officers found him suffering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound after he crashed his car. Flanagan was taken to a nearby hospital where he later died.