Friday, August 28, 2015
What hangs with me, some two days after the killings of WDBJ's Alison Parker and Adam Ward, is the sound of her screams. It wasn't the long, horror movie scream, but a series of short screams. It was the sound of being startled and frightened, like when someone jumps out at a girl in a house of horror and shouts: "Boo!" At the time, I took it as a good sign: as long as she was screaming, she was alive. I am used to the sound of gunshots on TV (I edit the network footage, full of the violence of the world, every morning), but those half-dozen or so screams were both familiar and troubling, especially now that I know what they mean. It inhabits my mind.
However, to be honest, I must note that I didn't know any of the characters well. Adam was working in production when I was at WDBJ, running the in-studio camera, getting promoted to the actual Photojournalist job only as I was leaving. Both Alison and their killer were hired after I left. It is a small world we work in, and even smaller in a relatively tiny city like Roanoke, and so we run into each other often on the streets and generally get along amiably. But I don't want to create the illusion that they were some great friends of mine.
If you want a personal connection, there is the fact that I held that very job -- the morning field reporter's photographer -- for a year or so before moving over to do Fox's morning show. I think it was Adam who replaced me. But I have to say, this in no way troubles me. I didn't have to deal with the workplace annoyance that the killer was (rather, I was most amused as friends still there told me stories about it), and the whole thing really seemed in that way distant from me.
But those screams hang on. That poor girl.
It is a shocking and startling event. We watched it more or less live in the newsroom, just before starting our own morning show. Someone came in saying that "something" had happened on the WDBJ live report. Another local journalist quickly posted a recording on his FB page, and we then acquired a copy ourselves. Frankly, I thought it was a drive by -- a few wild shots that scared everyone, and then we'd all move on.
What I didn't know -- and wouldn't know for a while -- was that across town (I work at the local Fox affiliate, they were at the CBS station), the people in the control room were listening to a horrible silence. For those unfamiliar with TV, the reporter has what is known as an IFB -- it's that earplug they wear -- where the director and producer can talk directly to them from the control room. When you're in the field as Alison and Adam were, it's usually plugged into a cell phone that has been dialed into a special phone line back at the station. After something unexpected, the producer would probably get on the IFB saying, "What the hell was that?!" And the reporter would call in with an explanation and maybe an apology. Then they would all move on.
But Wednesday, all the control room heard was silence.
In our newsroom, we were all struggling to find out what happened ourselves. The police are typically difficult and unwilling to commit. At first, they would say there was an "incident," then after an agonizing period, a "shooting," then a "shooting with injuries." And that's when it went from just another story to something truly serious. Now it wasn't some weird, wacky "Thing" that happened, like accidentally falling off the stage or saying an obscene word on air. But how serious?
You send people to the scene, but it's nearly an hour's drive away from the station. The police have nothing further to say -- they are "investigating." Side rumors are flying. But most of all, as a journalist, you are in breaking news mode.
It's like how a doctor disassociates from a patient. You don't spend a lot of time thinking deeply about the subject and what it means; you just gather the information, get the picture, find out what happened and organize it to make an understandable report. The whole scene was on the one hand surreal -- we're more than familiar with the people, the place, and that sort of thing doesn't happen to people you know in places like that -- and on the other very businesslike.
It's only later that the philosophy seeps in.
The other thing that stays me is their youth, or rather the lives interrupted. I remember that time: when you're getting everything in place. You have found what you want to be, and you're on the upslope of that career, nothing but sunshine and the summit of achievement ahead of you. Both had decided to marry, having finally found the partner for that journey. And then ... nothing. It's done. All that potential, all that hope and ambition and joy. The future is no more. It's heartbreaking.
By Monday, we'll have all moved on. After all, in Syria this happens ten times daily. Being a journalist at all in Pakistan, in Russia, in Mexico, in too many places comes with the expectation of personal risk. I don't blame the world for losing interest. But it will stick with us for a while.