A Year After Shootings, WDBJ Alum Says Local TV Needs to Toughen Up

Last Aug. 26, Jeffrey Marks, then general manager of WDBJ Roanoke, Va., led his newsroom through unfathomable tragedy when a former employee shot dead two station journalists—Alison Parker and Adam Ward—during a live broadcast. WDBJ will commemorate the anniversary with a moment of on-air silence around 6:15 a.m. on Aug. 26, the time and date they were shot last year. Earlier this month, the station erected a memorial to Parker and Ward in a private ceremony.

The crime was a milestone for the TV news business, as it fueled concerns about safety and resources and tested the medium’s ability to cover a story involving victims that were two of its own. For Marks, the murder also provided a national platform to encourage broadcast journalists to bolster coverage of systemic problems that lead to increased crime—topics like mental health, gun control and poverty. He also called on the industry to cover their communities better by diversifying their staffs.

In an interview with B&C marking the first anniversary of the shooting, Marks, who is now Gray Television’s director of talent development, discusses whether the industry has responded to those challenges and how he personally tries to overcome them. An edited version of his conversation with B&C contributing editor Diana Marszalek follows.

Is being a TV journalist any safer today than it was a year ago?

I want to make it clear to young people that journalism by and large is a safe profession in the U.S. Alison and Adam were killed not because they were journalists but because someone who had been employed in the same work place had a vendetta or a mental problem.

TV stations are taking safety seriously. Nobody can afford to send security guards every time a reporter goes out. But the level of awareness has increased, some stations have reconfigured entryways, they talk to employees to find out if they feel safe. We need to not only employ new guidelines but need employees to be part of them.

What other areas of the industry need improvement? For example, are stations’ workforces becoming more diverse?

Have I seen increases in minority hiring? No. On the other hand, every newsroom I know aggressively pursues people who reflect their community. It’s not just in their moral interests but in their business interests.

But management is another question. We have to ask ourselves what are we doing to encourage top minority employees to stay in the business and grow in the business. My question is: Could we all be doing more?

How can local TV improve its coverage of mental illness?

There is an opportunity for our newsrooms to shine a light on mental health issues. Are there enough places in the community that provide mental health services? Is there enough outreach? The fight in mental health is largely a local one and there are some great things being done. But the programs are not reaching everyone, and TV can help. I am no expert on mental health. But I do want to keep the spotlight on communities that are doing the right things so that, with our help, they can do them better.

And crime reporting?

I think a lot of newsrooms spend a lot of their time putting up mug shots and saying that a crime occurred and someone was arrested. Beyond that we need to report on causes. We need to report that an increase in burglaries is maybe due to heroin or another drug, or that there is a cycle of poverty not being addressed. I think our obligation is to go beyond the police blotter and find out the systemic problems in our community and possible solutions.

That takes longer, and more resources. But I don’t see that we have any choice. I think survival of traditional models of news depends on being the ears and eyes of the community, to make the community as safe as possible, to make the government responsible and to possibly shed a light where none has been shone.

Is there still a hunger among reporters to do that kind of work?

We need to recruit people not because they have journalism school degrees. I want people who have the natural curiosity to be journalists—people who say I wonder why that is the way it is, people who sit at the lunch counter or on the bus just to listen. We need to see more hiring on that basis than on who has an attractive stand-up coming out of their senior year in college. I like them to have the skills but I want them to have the drive to tell the truth.