Solid Reporting Under Stress: Three Stations Excel in Active Shooter Situations

Periodically, The Old TV News Coach tackles weaknesses in television news presentation.  The object is not merely to be critical or to sound like the old geezer in a rocking chair in front of The New Southern Hotel in Jackson, Tn.

The idea is to see our industry of broadcast journalism improve and become far better than it is.

Likewise, I take genuine joy in pointing out quality practices that serve the viewer well and reflect credit on the profession.

Active ShooterIn the last week, I have witnessed three first-class efforts in the midst of the two most frightening words of the current day:  active shooter.

This is not to minimize the efforts of competing stations in these cities but I take my hat off to reporters and anchors at KHOU in Houston, WMBB in Panama City FL and WTHR in Indianapolis.

The mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas had many of us uttering what is now an angry cliche:  “Here we go again.”  The loss of eight students and two teachers stirred up the national debate on gun possession, mental illness and overall security measures at American schools.

KHOU was the most accessible Houston-area station for me on Roku.  Shortly after 12 noon last Friday, I saw one of the most impressive pieces of work to sort out truth from fiction and rumors.

https://media.khou.com/embeds/video/8133320/iframe

Tiffany CraigReporter Tiffany Craig, using the equivalent of an electronic chalkboard, set up three columns:  one for verified information, one for false reports and a middle section for possible but unsubstantiated data.

Craig’s work reminded me of the stories of Walter Cronkite explaining complex stories on WTOP in Washington (prior to his joining CBS News) in the early days of television by employing “chalk talks,” using a blackboard and chalk to detail specific facts in understandable fashion.

Several times during the afternoon Craig performed solid work, especially in diffusing wildfire rumors that erupted on social media.  Typically in today’s cyberculture, false information spreads from online users who claim to know people who know people who know people who have so-called specifics that they are sure the media are not reporting.

Craig did not do her work in a lecturing fashion but was almost like watching the best schoolteachers as she turned to her electronic board, illustrated the key points and turned to the camera to talk to viewers in a calm, non-threatening fashion.

The video of Craig’s work we have embedded should be a textbook for every newsroom in America on how to sort truth from baloney for viewers during crisis situations.

Jerry Amy 2

Three days later, my old friend and colleague Jerry Brown and his co-anchor and assistant news director Amy Hoyt demonstrated how small market journalists are just as professional during a crisis.

Before Brown and Hoyt took over, morning and noon anchors Chris Marchand and Kelsey Peck did a first-rate job of guiding viewers through an active shooter at an apartment complex.

Megan MyersWhile Marchand and Peck were at the anchor desk, reporter Megan Myers—who has only been with WMBB a few months—was in the midst of interviewing a neighbor in the area where 49-year-old Kevin Holroyd erupted.  As police were attempting to bring an end to the violence, shots rang out behind Myers and her interviewee.

http://www.mypanhandle.com/news/shots-fired-while-reporter-is-on-air/1192587128

Despite the fact that the sequence went viral on social media, WMBB did a professional job of following the story with marathon coverage while not employing alarming language or sensational tactics.

Jerry Brown was my prime time male anchor when I was news director at WWAY in Wilmington, N.C.  Jerry had the vocal delivery and straightforward approach that viewers need in nervous moments.  When Hurricane Dora was pounding the Atlantic coast for hours, including downtown Wilmington, in September 1984, Jerry and his colleague Stella Shelton were stalwarts all night and into the early hours of the next day.

 

PC School Board Shooting 2010When I received an alert of the Panama City eruption, I would have been surprised if Jerry had been anything but what he was—-the calming voice to a city which eight years earlier watched as an unstable man fired shots at Bay County school board members.  The shooter missed all of his targets but was shot by a security officer multiple times before finishing the job himself.

Jerry’s co-anchor Amy Hoyt was solid at delivering point-by-point retrospectives and summaries of what had transpired for latecomers to the story.

WMBB did not employ a video chalkboard but Hoyt was adept at outlining the day and the unanswered questions in one-two-three sequences.  If you were a viewer in Panama City Monday, Jerry and Amy brought you up to date within a matter of a few minutes.

This blogpost is being written approximately 15 hours after violence exploded at Noblesville West Middle School in Indiana near Indianapolis.  At this hour, a teacher who was shot and who is emerging as a hero of the day, Jason Seaman, is apparently out of danger.  A vigil continues for a 13-year-old girl who was shot, apparently by a classmate who asked to be excused from the class and returned with two revolvers.

I stayed with WTHR for better than three hours Friday afternoon.  In any marathon coverage of a crisis, television news has to draw a fine line between being invasive with parents and, in the case of Noblesville, with students of middle school age.  The wrong reporter can quickly turn off viewers either with insensitive questions or giving the impression of not respecting frayed emotions after an active shooter.

One reporter who impressed me specifically was Steve Jefferson.  He was sent to Noblesville High School, where at least temporary reports were of that school receiving threats.  Emergency personnel made the decision to send the middle school students via a large motorcade of buses to the high school to decompress and reunite with their parents.

Noblesville Parent

Jefferson was especially sensitive with the mother of a 14-year-old for one key reason—-he listened.  Jefferson did not bombard her with questions after every two sentences of her responses.  He allowed her to talk and go through the myriad of emotions she was experiencing.

A key moment in that interview was when the mom expressed what virtually every parent had to be feeling in Noblesville:  “I don’t want to sound insensitive to say that I’m glad my daughter wasn’t hurt…..but I’m glad my daughter wasn’t hurt.”

One of the keys to good interviews in any situation, crisis or feature, is for reporters to be good listeners.  Jefferson listened.  His followup questions connected with what the woman previously said and advanced the story without heightening hysteria.

A couple of low moments during the three crises:  one station made use of the phrase “bring closure.”  In the case of the Holroyd story, one reporter said, “Kevin Holroyd is now dead and this will no doubt bring closure to many people who have been on edge during this long day.”  I wrote in an earlier blogpost (and was backed up by several working producers) that the word “closure” is the most misused other than “went missing” in television news today.  Victims or people who have been in harm’s way from an active shooter often need weeks, months, or even years, if ever, to experience closure to violent moments.  Families of victims who lose their lives do not suddenly find closure if a perpetrator is killed by law enforcement officers or if the shooter takes his (or her) own life.

Three times during the Noblesville coverage, I saw WTHR reporters respond to anchor tosses with “good morning” or “good afternoon.”  When one is covering murder or potential murder, the morning or afternoon is not good.  That becomes an anachronism of habit and often conveys insensitivity.  Producers and news directors—-drop the “good morning” or “good afternoon” response from live field reporters.  Teach the reporters to just go into their narrative, especially at a crime scene.

Still, I was impressed by KHOU, WMBB and WTHR with no intent to minimize the work of their competitors that I did not witness.  In Houston, Panama City and Indianapolis, that trio comprise Allstate stations.  You’re in good hands if you watch them for news.

Carlton Gary: After 41 Years….The End….But No Real Closure

Carlton Gary 4Serial killers were supposed to do their evil in Boston, Los Angeles or Chicago.  Columbus, Ga., was Colonel Chick, Katie the Cow, Miss Patsy, Wednesday night wrestling, Rozell Fabiani, Wells Dairies, Weracoba Park and the Water Wiz.

During a phone conversation with a long-time friend Thursday night, the light bulb went off in my mind.  “Do you realize I was 23 when Carlton Gary started his reign of terror?” I rhetorically asked.

Carlton Gary (a/k/a The Stocking Strangler) was executed by lethal injection Thursday night in Jackson, Ga.  Thus ends one of the longest stays on death row in the history of the Peach State.  Gary’s demise may mean the final chapter of a grievous story.   Yet, for those of us who lived through his months as a domestic terrorist, the story will never depart our minds.

Forty-one years ago, I was in my sophomore year as a Columbus anchor and reporter.  Only three weeks earlier, I moved from WRBL to WTVM.

As a little boy who lived between 1956 and 1961 in the parsonage of Sherwood Methodist Church on 35th Street, the idea of one man striking terror into our city was unthinkable.  People kept their doors unlocked in the daytime.  Men left toolboxes in their yards without fear of theft.  Kids walked or rode bikes to school.

When a police monitor blared out a suspicious call on a Friday afternoon in September 1977, none of us on the Action 9 News team had a clue we were about to experience the first chapter of a real life murder mystery.

Because most of us were editing other stories for the 7 o’clock newscast, Mitzi Oxford—who had just moved into the role as WTVM’s lead weathercaster—went to the scene.

Ferne Jackson, sister-in-law of the former state senator and future Columbus mayor Harry Jackson, was found dead—-strangled to death with a nylon stocking.  Ms. Jackson was 60.  A debate ensued in our newsroom and with other media in town as to whether the word “elderly” should be used as a descriptive adverb for Ms. Jackson.

At the time, we did not have a weekend newscast on WTVM but general manager Lynn Avery was concerned enough that he made a rare appearance onto our set during a commercial break.

Carlton Gary 5Addressing my co-anchor and news director Kathy Pepino, Avery asked:  “Are you going to commission people to be on call in case something else happens?”  Kathy assured him she had things under control.  Avery was oblivious to the fact that he was still talking to us on live television, back turned to the camera, when the break ended.

I checked in Saturday morning. Kathy gave me the okay to go on to Auburn with my buddy John Hamilton.  We saw the Tigers take one on the chin against Southern Mississippi 24-13.  We talked a bit about Ferne Jackson’s murder on the drive back to Columbus.  Mostly, John griped about Auburn coach Doug Barfield’s playcalling.

Eight days later, I was called early on Sunday morning.  The fear was a second woman had been strangled to death.  A production videographer met me near Cross Country Plaza in front of the home of 71-year-old Jean Dimenstein.  Neighbors nervously walked around their yards amidst a plethora of police cars.

Realtor Charlie Morgan’s wife agreed to talk on camera.  She said, “What’s going on in our town?  We’re all scared to death.”  As much as I was glad to have the comment for my story, I questioned Ms. Morgan’s wisdom in offering it.

I talked to a couple of police officers.  They were reluctant to say anything.  One, however, told me Ms. Dimenstein’s murder fit the same pattern as did Ms. Jackson’s.

Eventually, I was sent to four of the crime scenes.  With each passing one, I became more emotionally nauseous.  Every time we heard certain codes on that police monitor, we questioned if this would be another murder.  Five more times, it was.

Over the next several months, I saw the best and worst of journalism in Columbus.  I also saw and heard the best and worst in our community.

The strong suit in Columbus media during those horrific months was relentlessness.  Police Chief Curtis McClung, a man I genuinely respected, was old school when it came to answering reporters’ questions about the murders.  He favored saying nothing.

Ultimately, the leadership of the Columbus Press Club—-which was headed by Ledger-Enquirer reporter David Everett at the time—-forced the hand of Chief McClung.  David Hopkins, a former WRBL reporter with law enforcement experience, was hired as public information officer for the Columbus Police Department.

Prayer vigils for the community and Sunday sermons addressing the rampant fear were on the rise.  As one who was a pastor’s son and understood the devout religious life in Columbus, I convinced Kathy that we needed to do a series of reports on the role of the church in helping the community through the crisis.  One of the first of the citywide services of unity was at nearby Wynnton United Methodist Church.  Little did those in attendance realize one of that church’s own would eventually be a victim.

Carlton Gary 3Religion reporting is one of the most glaring deficits in local television newsrooms across the nation.  In 1978, the first of my 13 Associated Press awards for reporting was for that series on the church as a solace in a time of community crisis.

At times, we were sent on assignments that made us uncomfortable.  My videographer Lee Davis and I were sent to cover the burial service of one of the victims.  While we stayed at a considerable distance from the tent to shoot our footage, we could not escape the wrath of mourners who were aghast at our presence.

One woman, intent on giving me a piece of her mind, railed.  “You news people have no heart, no concern, no compassion for these people,” she said.  “The very idea of you showing up with a camera when this family is grieving.  I want you to know how I feel.”

As we drove away, Lee and I both expressed our misgivings.  “You know, a funeral service and a burial are a private thing,” Lee said.  “Aren’t you supposed to ask for permission to shoot video at something like that?”  I agreed.

“I didn’t like the way that lady chewed us out,” I said, “but I don’t blame her for being upset.  We just showed up.”

When we returned to the newsroom, we made the request not to be sent to any more funeral services or internments unless the victim’s family had given us permission.  I made that a policy several years later when I became a news director, even if every one of my colleagues disagreed with that decision.

At one point after the fourth strangling, I encountered my friend and former WRBL colleague David Eisen at a pizza restaurant.  We discussed having been mutually warned by police to examine the inside of our cars at night before entering them.

“I don’t unlock my door until I check the back seat and the passenger’s side up front,” David told me.

I followed the same procedure.  Concerns had been shared with us by some authorities that this serial killer might try to go after a journalist.  Reason existed to believe that he fit the profile of one who would watch news coverage of his exploits.  If he became angered at the reports, he could take his ire out on a newscaster.

Carlton Gary 1Another debate ensued in the community and within newsrooms after the third murder over use of the label “The Stocking Strangler.”  Many callers were upset at the reference.  One scoured me about it on the phone.

“We don’t need to be compared with The Boston Strangler in Columbus, Georgia,” he said.  “All you’re doing is giving him more spotlight.  Don’t you have anything better to do than that?”  That was one of the nicer calls.

For a while, we compromised on a reference to “The Columbus Strangler,” but national media outlets, especially ABC News, solidified the name “Stocking Strangler” to our unknown villain.

The worst of our community erupted after retired teacher Martha Thurmond’s murder.  To a degree, the people who participated in a semi-witch hunt might have been forgiven because the entire city was desperate for an arrest.

One evening, between our 7 and 11 o’clock newscasts, we fielded approximately 600 calls in the WTVM newsroom.  A rumor spread like wildfire that led to people fingering a young man as the strangler and accusations toward journalists that we were protecting him.  The scuttlebutt followed a predictable pattern.  People knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew the young man was the killer because he once was treated for emotional illness.

One of many calls I took went something like this:  “Y’all all know who did it.  Every last one of y’all know who did it but y’all are just covering up for him because his Daddy was a big name.”  Daddy, in this case, was a recently deceased Columbus television executive.

Many amateur armchair detectives put two and two together.  Their equation added up to an answer of eight but for about a month, a significantly vocal element in Columbus were certain the man’s son was the killer.  No rational or reasoned argument would convince them otherwise.  Even a man in my church insisted we were covering up the strangler’s identity.

Thank goodness social media did not exist 41 years ago.  The new generation of conspiracy theorists have raised the same name again online in recent weeks.

One of our women reporters, whom I considered to be a tough cookie and still do, took a call one night from a most irrational viewer who accused her and our entire news team of creating unnecessary hysteria.  The caller, a woman, called our reporter an unprintable name and engaged in a personal attack.  I never saw my colleague emotionally break down before or after that night but she exploded in tears.

Carlton Gary 2We were all accused of attempting to use the story of the Stocking Strangler to further our personal careers.  One man let me know in no uncertain terms at a school Halloween carnival where I was judging costumes.

“You’re just sensationalizing everything so you can go to New York,” the man, who never introduced himself, said.  “I don’t know how I could live with myself the way you go on and on about these murders every night.”

I offered an edited number of those reactions for a column in 2004 in Electronic Media magazine titled, “The Viewers Don’t Always Get It Right.”

Not only were we not looking to go to New York, more than one of us pondered whether we might consider an alternate career.  The emotional toll was enormous on all but the most emotionless of journalists.  I often entered the newsroom at WTVM at 2:30 in the afternoon dreading the prospect of having to inform viewers of yet another murder.  In that day, no one considered the novel idea of employing mental health counselors to help reporters decompress.  We could have hugely benefited from their therapy in 1978.

On a weekend trip home to Kingsland, Ga., I discussed the prospect of getting out of TV news with my father.  He gave me his usual wise advice.  “If you want to do that, just be sure it’s not because you’re running from it,” he said.  “But you’re going to find it’s not easy in any other job you do, even in the church.”

My father, Rev. F.J. Beverly Jr., knew of which he spoke.  He dealt with at least a couple of troublesome congregations in his years as a pastor.

We had one brief moment of celebration during those eight exasperating months.  On a Saturday morning in February 1978, I was called to a home in the same radius where six of the seven murders occurred.  Ruth Schwob was a prominent resident of Columbus.  In her late seventies, Ms. Schwob did not even stand five feet tall.  Physically, she was as fit as any woman her age.  That fact saved her life.

At approximately 3 a.m., Ms. Schwob heard a noise outside her bedroom.  In the darkness, she sensed a figure approaching.  At the moment the intruder would likely have wrapped a nylon stocking around her throat, she took a desperation swing and popped her invader in the jaw.  That gave her a split second to hit a bedside button that triggered a loud burglar alarm.  Carlton Gary ran.

One sensed the 200,000 residents of Columbus collectively standing as one to applaud Ruth Schwob.  At 2 o’clock that afternoon, Ms. Schwob spoke with me briefly.  She managed a smile and thankfulness that she escaped a fatal attack.

WTVM still did not have a weekend newscast.  Television in markets such as Columbus was still a few years away from live remote units.  Lynn Avery opted to open up three minutes at 7 p.m. for a special report on Ruth Schwob’s survival.  I taped an open and close and narrated video of the police presence and gathering of people around Ms. Schwob’s home, inserting her brief comments.  I have no idea how Lynn arrived at a decision on adjusting commercial content in “Gunsmoke,” which we aired from 7 to 8 p.m.

Our sudden joy was about to turn sour.  The next afternoon, we were startled to learn that yet another victim had been claimed by The Stocking Strangler.  Only two blocks down the street from Ruth Schwob’s home, another woman in her late seventies—Mildred Borom—was found dead.  Police were certain the strangler went to Ms. Borom’s home immediately after he was scared away from Ms. Schwob’s.  The coroner placed time of death at approximately 3:45 a.m. the previous morning.

One visitor we saw frequently in Columbus was Bob Sirkin, the Atlanta correspondent for ABC News.  At one point, he was almost adopted as a member of Action 9 News when he came to town to file reports on the strangler.  One day, Bob showed us his technique of doing standups in his reports.  He recorded his transition on a small cassette recorder, attached an earphone inside his right ear and repeated what he heard himself saying on tape when he reported on camera.  I tried it twice and gave it up.  Saying what I was just saying on a recording created a distracting echo effect for me.  Nonetheless, Bob was a generous guy and once told us, “I can’t imagine what it’s like for you people to be doing this night after night with the whole city up in arms.”

At one point in 1978, I faced an encounter with my general manager which grew testy.  An old friend from college, Nadine Stewart—who later went on to work for NBC News and CNN—called me from Jacksonville.  Calling on behalf of her news director, Nadine asked if it were possible for me to do a story for WJXT on the effect of the stranglings on the city of Columbus.  My new boss Dave Richardson okayed it with the caveat that I not neglect my work for our newscasts.  I used a lot of file tape and soundbites from interviews which I had saved.  I shot one fresh standup closer.  I edited the piece in about an hour one evening after my workday was over.

The story aired on the Saturday night edition of Eyewitness News on WJXT, which Nadine anchored.  A little more than a week later, I was blindsided by Lynn Avery when I came into the building at WTVM for work.

“Do you have any explanation for this?” Lynn asked.

He immediately presented me with an envelope addressed to me on a WJXT mailing label.  “How many more of these am I going to expect to see?  How many more stations are you applying to?  Do you dislike it so much here that you’re trying to get out?” he questioned.

I was utterly stunned.  To be candid, WJXT was a station I grew up watching from the third grade through college.  Had I ever been offered an opportunity to work there, I would have seriously considered it.  I had no offer.  I had sought no job.  I loved WTVM and Columbus because the city was one of my two hometowns.  The envelope contained the tape on which I had done the story on the Stocking Strangler as a favor to Nadine.

“Why don’t we go in Dave’s office and I think you’ll have proof that this was not an audition tape?” I told Lynn with a combination of irritation and trepidation.  Our boss had largely treated me well but he also had a reputation for a quick trigger on employees.  Lynn was also paranoid about the job section in Broadcasting magazine.  For a period, he ripped out the employment pages before he released the publication for station consumption.

Dave Richardson confirmed that he had cleared me to do the story for WJXT and that, to his knowledge, I was not looking for another job.  Lynn left but exited with a mild warning that he never wanted to see another tape with another station’s mailing label addressed to me.

When Janet (Cindy) Cofer became the final victim of The Stocking Strangler in the spring of 1978, we had no way of knowing she was the last.  For months, we continued to work as if we had a perpetual police radio going off in our ears.

Reporters came and went over the next three years at WTVM.  Gradually, our attention drifted to other community issues.  In 1980, my colleague Andy Still and I collaborated on a documentary on political interference in public safety in Columbus.  A fire captain named Jeff Amerson became the central figure in the controversy.  Fire department whistleblower Frankie Fussell dramatically revealed in sworn testimony the demands of a mysterious orthopedic surgeon who ordered that the fire chief and several senior fire supervisors “have got to go.”  Andy and I were nominated for a DuPont-Columbia Award for that 90-minute documentary.

Eventually, I made a difficult decision to leave Columbus in late 1981.  Over the next two years, I made stops in Mississippi, in Spartanburg, S.C. (as assistant news director at WSPA) and Savannah, Ga.

In May 1984, I was in my first week as news director of WWAY in Wilmington, N.C.  My phone rang shortly before noon.

“Are you sitting down?” the voice asked.  I knew immediately the caller was Andy Still, who was now anchor at WSAV in Savannah.

“They’re having a police convention here and I went out to have coffee with (then Columbus police chief) Jim Wetherington,” Andy said.  “He was called to the phone.  When he came back, he said, ‘Looks like I’m going to have to leave early.  That call was about an arrest in Albany.  They think this may be the strangler.’ ”

For once, a name could be attached to the most infamous individual crime wave in Columbus history.  Carlton Gary would be extradited to Columbus.  Two years later, he stood trial and was convicted of the murders of three of the women he was suspected of killing.

I finally left daily television news in 1992 to become a college professor of broadcast journalism.  My parents retired to their native city of Waycross, Ga.

As the years rolled on, the conversation during visits to Columbus or Waycross would periodically revert to Carlton Gary.  At times, adjectives such as “despicable” and “vile” would be among the kinder ones to refer to the convicted Stocking Strangler.

As the years evolved into decades, residents in Columbus who had lived through the nightmare became weary with the legal system.  Appeal after appeal, motion after motion for a new trial, and attempts to challenge evidence from the original trial dragged on five, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 years after his convictions.  Twice over those years, I was asked to be a contributor to local news retrospectives on the stranglings and Gary.

Sure, people with adamant views against capital punishment held to their stand that even the most heinous of murders should not be punished with death.  Yet, when I returned for visits to Columbus to see family, friends or old colleagues, the prevailing view was of frustration that Carlton Gary was still alive.

Today, I supervise a daily newscast produced and anchored by my students at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.  Many times, when the situation is appropriate, I have woven stories for them about the odyssey of The Stocking Strangler.  Usually, those tales are in answer to the question of what was the most difficult story I ever reported.

Many people in the television audience have the misguided perception that journalists thrive on violence and death.  In their minds, a serial killer is fodder for a career to skyrocket and for ratings to soar.  Success at the hands of murder is the perception of some segments of the audience to journalists and television news.

My answer to that is for anyone to try measuring the many, many nights we left WTVM after the 11 o’clock news, arrived at our individual homes or apartments and could not sleep well.  Our worries were the same as the community’s as a whole.  I was a member of a church that had a number of senior-aged women who could easily have been targets.

Thursday night, as I watched the live reports from Jackson on both WTVM and WRBL on my Roku television set, I was struck by a stark notion.  None of the reporters assigned to cover the execution of Carlton Gary were even born when his rampage began.  They know what they have researched or been told about his dark mark on Columbus history.  Yet, they didn’t live it.  Emotionally, they have no idea what those months were like.

Carlton Gary VictimsThe word “closure” is almost becoming a reporting cliche.  I may add it to Twitter’s @TiredTVTerms.  I counted at least twelve times on Columbus stations Thursday night that reporters used sentences to the effect, “The execution of Carlton Gary will finally bring closure for the families and close friends of the victims.”  At one point, I said, “Will it?”  The popular perception today is that a conviction or an execution brings an end to the story.  Contemporary media perpetuates that idea.  With something as despicable as Carlton Gary’s mindless acts, the story may end for those writing the book.  Emotionally, closure never comes for people who lived through the fear and torment.

Two generations have passed since Carlton Gary first struck terror on a Friday afternoon in 1977.  All of the victims would now be more than 100 years old were they still alive.  A number of the seven women’s children have left us.  The grandchildren and great grandchildren no longer have to live with the worry of whether their ancestor’s killer will live or die.  Many of those who were the absolute closest to the victims left this earth without having any closure.

For those of us who lived, worked, reported, and feared those eight horrific months in 1977 and 1978, we can never truly close the door.  No, closure is not an accurate word.  Too many of us still want to ask the one question that will forever stump us about Carlton Gary:  why?  That answer now goes with him to his grave.

Keaton Jones: Well After the Buzz

Keaton Jones 1I saw the first story break about 13-year-old Keaton Jones online December 11.  National mainstream media outlets and local stations scrambled faster than the rush for the latest President Trump tweet to paint the picture of a middle school student as a symbol of bullying.

As I watched the hoopla unfold on all the major networks, I told a couple of my students and a former colleague that the story had a life of about three to four days.  My old friend agreed.  The students asked why.

My response, paraphrasing, went something along these lines:  “It’s another opportunity to chase what we used to call a ‘water cooler story.’  You have the perfect setup:  a kid who has just become a teen in one of the most awkward ages of life, he says he’s being ganged up on by peers and he’s elected to tell his story via social media.”  I went on to explain that television and online journalists are attracted to any story that “goes viral.”  In today’s move-on-to-the-next story culture, and with schools about to adjourn for Christmas break, I had no faith that we would see serious, probing reporting on a critical issue that confronts children and teens daily.

However, I added that something did not feel right about this story.  Had Keaton Jones taken a phone camera and posted what was on his heart as a bullying victim with no assistance, that would be one thing.  In this case, his mother was offscreen acting in the role of a quasi-interviewer and, at times, asking what an attorney would call leading questions in a courtroom.

Yet, virtually every media outlet and online presence in America chased after this video.  Regardless of what journalists say, they collectively made Keaton Jones an instant media star and just as quickly abandoned him.  This was a class example of what Rick Neuheisel describes as “playing the hits,” the practice of cable sports networks zeroing in on stars almost to excess because focus group research indicates such standouts “move the needle.”  Keaton definitely moved the needle.

Bullying 2On my Roku set, I skimmed newscasts from 11 different local stations during the three-day period after Keaton’s video went viral.  Every single one prominently featured a story on his being bullied in either the first or second block of an early or late evening newscast.  Only in two I viewed was a remote effort made to localize the story and probe further the extent of bullying in that station’s market and whether anti-bullying policies are genuinely being enforced.

Instead, as a whole, journalism was more concerned with the instant celebrity symbol of anti-bullying attached to Keaton Jones.  Little consideration was given to the potential emotional aftermath for the teen or whether this entire confession online was his idea.  I had one colleague suggest to me, “He and his mother put him in that position, so the consequences aren’t our responsibility.”  Really?

Producers and editors became far more enthralled with Hollywood celebrities, college and pro athletes and even politicians from Tennessee offering emotional support and showering attention on Keaton.  Even a GoFundMe.com account was established to create a college fund for the youngster.

Only in a matter of days were questions raised about the legitimacy of Keaton’s video, past online posts by his parents that suggested racism, and whether the mother was egging on the entire hoopla as an attempted money grab.  Within five days, Keaton Jones was dropped as a central media figure.  The GoFundMe effort was canned.  Whatever serious focus journalism could have placed on the issue of bullying fizzled quicker than Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water.

Four years ago, my university hosted a Saturday seminar for young teens.  The focus was on an essay contest that provided the eventual winner a trip to Washington, D.C.  A local attorney and city councilman sponsors the event.  An entire session, including a documentary film, stressed the consequences of bullying for victims.  The attorney and I had a private conversation after one of the sessions.  We shared that both of us had been bullied in either junior high or high school.

Bullying 5I remember my own experience as horrendously as if it were yesterday.  In an afternoon junior high physical education class, we were doing the 600-yard run-walk, one of six elements of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness challenge.  I did not come from an athletic family.  I never struggled in the classroom but I was a hopeless mess on a playing field.  I usually finished in the final four or five in any running test in the class of 36 guys.  On a particular afternoon, I reached the 400-yard mark—huffing as usual—when I was cornered by two in the class who had already finished.  One was a noted bully.  The other stunned me because I always had a reasonable relationship with him.  He was a full head taller than I was.  The bully-by-reputation was a half-head taller.  The bigger guy grabbed me behind the back.  The other one had his fist clenched.  The one I thought was a friend said, “Look up.”  Certainly that must have been one of the courageous acts of his life to hold someone six inches smaller for another boy to cold cock in the chin.  Call it an act of God or whatever you wish but I did not obey his command to look up.  As I braced myself to be smacked in the teeth, two things happened.  Coach Joe Mercer, who was near the 600-yard finish line, miraculously spotted what was about to happen.  He sped toward my attackers and said something to the effect, “What’s going on here?”  At the same time, a white dog who was in a yard across the street from the junior high athletic field, came running to investigate (and I was privately hoping he would take a bite out of the bully).

Coach Mercer pursued his question.  The two guys, who had all of the grace of pro wrestling villains, suggested, “We were just kidding around.”  Oh yeah?  They both knew they were lying.  I was such an emotional wreck at the close call that I erupted in tears, a no-no in front of a peer group of 13-year-old and 14-year-old boys.  So what?  I could not hold back.  The coach, who was not born the day before, immediately accompanied me inside and asked me to go with him to the principal’s office.  I was questioned about what happened.  Naturally, the experience left me in a quandary.  To unload the entire story would brand me as a tattletale, which was emotional suicide.  To not speak would potentially allow the behavior to continue, either against me or someone else (the bully had popped a friend in the jaw in the locker room three weeks earlier).

What shocked me was the principal’s overall approach.  I was quizzed thoroughly about anything I might have done to provoke the attack.  At one point in frustration, I said to the principal, “Do you actually think I would be responsible for being ganged up on two-on-one?”  He acknowledged such, but said, “We have to be thorough to get to the bottom of these things.”  I have some emotional sympathy with recent victims of sexual assaults who feel they are put on trial when reporting their attacks.  That is exactly what I felt in the principal’s office.

Rather than reassure me that the two guys who were ready to take a chunk out of my face would be disciplined (I never knew if they were), the principal left me even more confused.  He presented me with a final thought that I needed to build myself physically so I could defend myself against a bully.  As I later learned, that was the general consensus among fathers of athletes or accused bullies of the day:  if a kid is bullied, it’s mostly his fault because he isn’t skilled enough to fight back.

Scarred for life?  That probably is a stretch.  However, I went through an entire summer looking over my shoulder every time I walked alone or rode my bicycle, concerned if I would encounter one or both of the bullies.  Even as an older adult, I had periodic pockets where the memory of that May afternoon would flash through my mind.  The pain never eased, nor did the disgust of the lack of decisiveness on the part of the principal.

Bullying 1I go into that kind of detail about my own experience because 50 years ago, this was not an issue journalism ever explored.  Episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” or “Leave It to Beaver” touched on bullying more than television news.  Even then, bullying was depicted as a routine rite of passage of a young male’s life.

In 2002, I was in the class of Faculty Fellows from what was then called the Radio-Television News Directors Association.  The group of 24 fellows were past TV news professionals who returned to newsrooms across the nation for a full month as an educational refresher for our students.  We were all provided a DVD with a collection of first-class stories from markets across America that all posed ethical questions.  That became a great teaching tool for me.

One of the best pieces of investigative journalism in the entire set was from a station in Baltimore.  A reporter and videographer stationed themselves in a van with a hidden camera and captured multiple random and calculated acts of bullying on an elementary school playground.  The physical attacks included kicks to the head of one helpless child.  In several instances, teachers or playground monitors had their backs turned to the melees.  None of them came to the aid of a child suffering from incessant brutality.  When shown to a school district administrator, his first response was, “On the surface, this makes us look bad.”

Since that time, most states—including Tennessee where I teach broadcast journalism—have enacted anti-bullying laws for school districts or have directed school boards to develop specific anti-bullying policies.  However, much of the action has now moved online.  Despite Hawaii becoming one of the last states in the country to enact anti-bullying legislation, KGMB reported that cyberbullying affects one out of every two teens in the Hawaiian islands.

Bullying 3

The National Crime Prevention Council reports similar totals nationwide:

  • Over half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, and about the same number have engaged in cyberbullying.
  • Well over half of those who have been victims of cyberbullying do not tell their parents.
  • Girls are “somewhat” more likely than boys to be involved in cyberbullying.

My key question:  when was the last time television news departments seriously explored the issue of bullying with in-depth reporting?  If you are one of those who is constantly under the gun to “generate content,” as is the popular contemporary term, I am handing you a freebie.  Here are several pertinent questions I suggest should be explored by reporters in every city in America:

—-What are the specific anti-bullying policies for each school district?

—-What are the enforcement procedures for discipline?  Who administers punishment and what are the specific penalties?  What happens on first offense, second offense and beyond?

—-What kind of anti-bullying education programs are conducted within your local school district and at what age?  If it occurs at the middle school level, what kind of followup education is offered at the high school level?

—–What type of mental health counseling or referrals are available for victims of any type of bullying?  Going further, what kind of mental health counseling is directed for those who commit acts of bullying?  Those who are serial bullies may well need therapy as much or more as the victims, because no well-adjusted human being engages in this kind of mental as well as physical intimidation to another.

—–At what point does law enforcement step in to intervene with those who commit repeated acts of bullying, or engage in cyberbullying?

—–What do local psychologists or psychology professors suggest are the reasons people become bullies?  To what degree do we still have male parents who take a passive view of bullying by suggesting victims are at fault for not building themselves physically to defend themselves?  What do psychologists say are potential answers from a mental health perspective?

—–How safe are smaller children on a crowded school playground during recess periods?  How adequately are they supervised?

—–To what degree does emotional scarring carry over for bullying victims into adult life?  How much long-term or short-term depression or anxiety results?

—–How can bullying extend into adult life in a workplace situation?

—–What are the numbers in each state for suicide attempts or actual suicides that occur from acts of bullying?

We have to move past this obsession in journalism that just because something or an individual “goes viral” online is a reason for everyone to chase that post or person with top-of-the-broadcast furor.  When the subject is a juvenile, exceeding caution should be exhibited to thoroughly investigate the circumstances.

In the case of Keaton Jones, British journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson offers some salient perspective.  “The fact that the mother uploaded the video should have perhaps raised some flags,” she wrote two days after the Keaton Jones story broke.  “But more so, reporting that she had made racist comments on an Instagram account, which has since been proved fake, should have been checked. It was also reported that Keaton made an apology on behalf of his mother – except that Instagram account was fake too.”

This should serve as an insBullying 6tructional lesson in the fallacies of rushing to publish social media events.  Keaton Jones was made a poster boy for anti-bullying in one day.  Four days later, he was dropped faster than Brad Keselowski drives around Daytona International Speedway.  Media all over the nation and the world share in the responsibility, as badly as we hate to admit mistakes.

In the process, we missed a huge opportunity to explore one of the most emotionally-threatening issues for children and adolescents in the entire nation.  Bullying exists in every single city, large and small, in America.  Reporters need to be asking serious questions in their local communities about how to combat bullies without finding a social media star to serve as the catalyst.