Journalists vulnerable but the news shows will go on, they say

Even if security at news outlets’ headquarters resembles that of Fort Knox, there is little protection for journalists in the field.

The horrifying on-air killings of a WDBJ reporter and cameraman by an ex-colleague in Moneta, Virginia, reminded NYC journalists of their vulnerability and prompted experts to reflect on the bizarre use of social media by violent, attention-craved individuals.

“Journalists go to work every day to inform audiences of the news in their communities. Today, two journalists lost their lives in a senseless act of violence,” Michael J. Feeney, president of the New York Association of Black Journalists, said in a statement.

The New York Press Club also eulogized reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, noting that “this unthinkable crime reminds us that violence can happen anytime, anywhere.”

“Journalists are open targets,” said Scotti Williston, senior producer in residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Williston said the shootings showed how malign individuals may use social media to telecast their rage and grievances.

Williston noted that the apparent killer, Vester Lee Flanagan II, deliberately shot the duo during a broadcast, and then detailed his reasons on social media because “he wanted his side told. He was a journalist who wanted to make headlines.”

Even if security at news outlets’ headquarters resembles that of Fort Knox, there is little protection for journalists in the field. Many broadcasters — especially those who are young and female — endure pervy communiqu├ęs and are targeted by disturbed stalkers. But in this instance, the journalists were attacked by a former colleague.

The television industry attracts “a number of large and sometimes fragile egos,” that sometimes don’t handle the loss of their on-air identities with grace, said a veteran CBS/2 reporter who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

CBS/2 in NYC has elaborate security protocols in place, he said, including panic buttons and plainclothes security officers at building entrances who refer to books of photos of “workers who left under bad circumstances who are not to be let back into the building.”

But do they worry in the field?

“It’s safety first: We look out for each other,” and can leave situations they deem to be unsafe. “This is just like when a cop gets shot: Every other cop looks over their shoulder in the aftermath, but eventually you go back to your routine,” he said.

From 2006 to 2010, an average of 551 workers a year were slain in workplace homicides, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A 2010 analysis of 405 victims determined that 27% were retail trade workers, 17% were government workers and 15% were leisure and hospitality workers.

“Most terminated employees don’t come back and shoot people,” said W. Barry Nixon, executive director of the National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence, Inc. But termination — especially if it results in economic loss — is often extremely distressing to workers, he continued. Employers should always treat a terminated employee “with the utmost respect,” providing severance, job placement services and support (“I call it “outboarding”) to help the person refocus on new objectives, people and goals, Nixon said. That sort of sensitivity is increasingly rare, because abrupt dismissals are more economical and convenient for employers. “But they breed anger,” Nixon added.

Businesses also need to better vet prospective employees not just on their skill sets, but on their emotional and mental fitness (how do they resolve conflict? How do they handle disappointment?), added R. Paul McCauley, a former police officer and professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “It’s an issue of wholeness — whether you’re talking about a ditch digger or a CEO,” McCauley said. “There are people out there who want attention and they will do violent things to get it.”

Sheila Anne Feeney