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On-Air Murders Highlight How TV News Crews Are Exposed at Every Angle

Studios are safer than ever, while reporters are left out in the open

WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward were killed during a live interview. Photo via Alison Parker's Facebook profile

Alison Parker and Adam Ward had the most seemingly simple and stress-free of assignments: a live interview with a local Chamber of Commerce representative. No crowds, no police, just a conversation about growing the local economy, with a pretty sunrise in the background.

I've worked in newsrooms where Kevlar vests were available—ready to be handed out to reporters and photographers who might be headed into dangerous assignments. But this? Who could have expected this assignment would leave the two journalists shot dead and their interviewee hospitalized, all at the hands of a former colleague?

Over the past 20 years that I worked as a local TV reporter—most notably in the years after 9/11—the lobbies of television stations have become hardened with secure doors, bulletproof glass at reception and complicated procedures for building access.

The fear, of course, was that a television station broadcasting live could become an attractive target for a terrorist or other armed assailant, so such security upgrades made sense. 

But while the studio, and the anchors, have been surrounded by layers of security, the reporters in the field remain unprotected—and arguably, they are more vulnerable than ever.

We promote liveshots heavily ahead of newscasts, and often have reporters in the same live location from newscast to newscast. It's easy to determine where a reporter—and his or her live camera—are located, often for hours at a time.

The liveshot is an exercise in vulnerability. I asked journalists on Twitter today about their perspectives on what it's like to report live on location, and many were quick to share their stories of feeling exposed.

As CNN anchor Robyn Curnow pointed out, there's rarely anyone watching your back. "Cameraman looking into lens, reporter focused on camera. Easy targets."

"You are so exposed, so vulnerable," said MSNBC's Robert Demetrious.

Washington, D.C., reporter Garrett Haake said being live—especially late at night or early in the morning—is "an incredibly vulnerable feeling. When you're live on TV, you can't see behind you. Photog with an eye in the viewfinder can't see anything but you. That trust is everything."

At night—and before dawn—add in lights that shine directly on the reporter and a brightly colored live truck with a mast acting as a lure. It all screams, here we are, come and see us.

Wendy Chioji, a longtime Orlando reporter and anchor admitted, "I was often half-expecting it to happen to me."

But it's only in obviously troublesome situations that we usually take our own safety into account. Rolling up on an active crime scene, I can recall many conversations with photographers about where we'll be, what we'll do, and what will happen if things suddenly seem more dangerous.

At the rowdy sports bar, I've often scoped out the pool table location—just to put some distance between me and the drunks for fear of having my liveshot interrupted.

But what makes this morning's tragedy so unsettling is that the most experienced TV news folks can't quite imagine how they would have done anything differently from what Alison and Adam did. Who would have thought, "Let's consider our personal safety here for a moment"?

There's been no shortage of uncomfortable, invasive or dangerous moments during live TV news broadcasts in recent years. Some passers-by feel it's completely OK to sneak up on a reporter or yell obscenities into a live microphone.

As we all think about today's shootings, go back and watch this Instagram video that shows a man creeping up on a reporter for KTLA:

 

I thought that guy was gonna tackle you @jennifergouldtv @ktla5news

A video posted by Eric Richards (@richardsnewstv) on

Several similar situations have proven much more dangerous.

Just last month, a TV photographer was pistol-whipped while reporting live in San Francisco, and the assailants made off with the crew's gear. The same month, a Seattle reporter had to dive for cover when gunshots erupted near her liveshot. 

It's time for the TV news industry to address the fact that not every liveshot is quite as important as our news managers and consultants would have us believe.

It's harder for strangers (or, sadly, people we may have considered colleagues or friends) to track us down when we shoot a look-live and air it later. That way, once our location is made public, we're not there anymore.

Mark Joyella is a veteran TV journalist and an editor for TVNewser on the Adweek Blog Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @standupkid.

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