Mike and Aaron….and a Newsroom with Broken Hearts

No one anywhere at any time in the next few days or even weeks can say something to ease the pain being felt in a newsroom in Greenville, S.C.  WYFF is a place with which I have at least a token familiarity.

WYFF News 4 LogoMemorial Day is like most holiday observances.  In a TV newsroom, assignment editors scramble to develop a working menu of stories.  While retail stores are usually thriving with people, government offices are closed, schools are out and public servants are taking the final day of the weekend off with their families.

The typical roster includes retail sales compared to year-ago Memorial Day weekend totals, patriotic events, gas prices and holiday weekend travel, holiday festivals, crime or major holiday accidents, and weather-related stories (usually with increasing heat as June approaches or when heavy rains put a damper on Memorial Day cookouts).

The weather was a significant part of news coverage on this Memorial Day.  Subtropical storm Alberto came inland in the Panama City area Monday and began its ascent toward Alabama.  Gulf Coast stations, Dothan, Birmingham, Montgomery and Huntsville were all monitoring the progress closely.  The Carolinas, likewise, were hit with pelting rains that went all the way up the Mid-Atlantic coast and created flooding in Virginia and Maryland.

No one in any newsroom anticipates a holiday will leave a staff heartbroken.  Monday, at WYFF, tragedy struck.

Mike McCormick 2Mike McCormick was an 11-year veteran at the Upstate South Carolina station.  He started his career at WYFF as a reporter in the station’s Spartanburg bureau.  In recent years, he became a weekend anchor.  I never met Mike but I occasionally exchanged conversation with him on Twitter when interesting weekend stories developed.

Aaron SmeltzerAaron Smeltzer was a talented videographer who joined the WYFF staff earlier this year.  As happens when anyone signs on at a new television station, a few weeks are needed to become part of the culture.  From all reports, Aaron had done just that.

Both men were 36.  They were in the prime of their careers.  McCormick, in particular, was a well-known face and voice to viewers in Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville.

Monday morning, their assignment was to report on the impact of heavy rains in the lower portion of Western North Carolina.  They stopped to interview the fire chief of the small village of Tryon, NC.  As is routine, they packed up their gear and were headed either back to the station or to another interview.

One of the offshoots of continuous showers is softening of the soil around even the oldest trees.  I had personal experience with that approximately 10 years ago.  A huge oak tree suddenly collapsed and crashed in my front yard during torrential rains.  Thankfully, the tree fell away from my home.

No more than ten minutes after they left Tryon, a nightmare occurred at mid-morning.  Aaron and Mike were traveling when a huge tree, softened at the roots by the constant downpours, fell and struck their SUV.  They likely never saw it coming and had no time to react.  Both men, with so much ahead of them, were killed.

I have no idea what the instant reaction was like in the WYFF newsroom.  I wasn’t there.  Yet, I know firsthand what the emotions are like when one has to report on the tragic death of a personal friend.  I can surmise tears flowed from even the most stalwart men and women on the WYFF team.  Mike and Aaron were two of their own.  They were not supposed to be the lead story of the evening news on Channel 4 Monday night.

Michael CarolI had no doubt the voices and the emotions would be heavy from WYFF veteran anchors Michael Cogdill and Carol Goldsmith Monday night.  I have known Michael for 33 years.  He was a rookie reporter with WECT in Wilmington, NC, when I was news director at the opposition at WWAY.  I badly wanted to hire him away.  At that time, managements in Wilmington did not smile on “stealing” on-air journalists.  Michael’s wife-to-be Jill Kremer interned with us at WWAY.

Carol is the epitome of professionalism.  She has connected so well with women in the Piedmont area of South Carolina because she is a mom.  When I served my fellowship at WYFF, she told me some interesting stories about her early days as a reporter while covering the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.

I observed how Carol was always ready to answer the bell regardless of the story.   I well remember a Fourth of July that was your typical “slow” news day.  In the final hour before news time at 5, not one but two major breaking stories developed.  A fire erupted in an apartment complex that left more than 20 people without a place to stay.  Almost simultaneously, a Greyhound bus accident on I-85 near Anderson SC forced first responders to set up a triage on the interstate as traffic was backed up for miles.

That day, the WYFF news team was a machine.  No sign of panic evolved. Tim WallerNo worries surfaced in having to rearrange what appeared to be a routine holiday lineup.  Carol and 5:30 anchor Tim Waller, who was subbing for Michael on the holiday, were cool and reassuring to viewers in the midst of what could have been two tragedies.

The difference Monday:  Mike and Aaron were part of the family.  Imagine attending a family reunion one day and receiving word the next morning that two of your relatives are gone.  Mike and Aaron were in that newsroom early Monday morning.  They will never return.

Someone has to do the obituary.  Someone has to decide what to say about two colleagues, who to offer tributes and how to treat the kind of story that is not taught in college textbooks.

Michael and Carol had to tell their viewers that a regular guest in their homes would no longer be dropping in during the early evening or pre-bedtime hours.  They had to give people a frame of reference about another member of the WYFF family they never saw but who was integral to every story he shot and edited.

Earlier in the day, I posted on our local West Tennessee Today Facebook news page a sentence that reflects how I would fell if I were back calling the shots in a newsroom.  “When tragedy strikes a TV newsroom,” I wrote, “the news has to go on but hearts are breaking.”

In TV news, you take a lot of brickbats from viewers who hate the media and feel no one in a newsroom has a heart.  Trust me, hearts are more than heavy in Greenville and will be for a while.

Michael and Carol and the reporting staff will have to go on detailing routine stories.  Meteorologist John Cessarich will be keeping viewers updated on the aftermath of a storm called Alberto and the local weather.  People are already gearing up for the hopeful fortunes of Clemson and South Carolina in football this fall.

Yet, for days, weeks, even months, things will happen that will bring back the memory of two men in their mid-thirties who were brothers in a special family.  New people will be hired to fill their slots on the roster—but they can never take the places of Mike and Aaron.

Memorial Day 2018 will be remembered for years by the men and women who work for WYFF.  In TV news, you cannot put up a sign that reads Pardon Us While We Grieve.  The news will continue on Tuesday and beyond on Channel 4.

In an era when some who act out of misguided emotion attempt to minimize the sincerity of those who offer thoughts and prayers, the outpouring the WYFF family is feeling today is from people who genuinely are offering prayers for the two men’s families and the staff.  A news team is in many people’s homes more than some in their real families.

My father was a minister and his gift was knowing the right things to say to families who were in the midst of grieving, especially in times of sudden tragedies.  I remember many times in eulogies he turned to Psalm 147:3, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

Aaron MikeThat healing will not come tomorrow, this week, or probably next.  For those of you who live in the Greenville area and regularly watch WYFF, remember that a lot of people you see on Channel 4 in the days ahead are hurting inside.  They may not know you personally.  However, you know them.  Offer a prayer for them.  Be a family to them at a time when they need it most.

God bless and comfort the WYFF news team, the entire station staff and the families of Mike McCormick and Aaron Smeltzer.

WYFF 11 p.m. newscast Monday, May 28     

http://www.wyff4.com/article/wyff-news-4-remembers-anchor-photojournalist-who-were-tragically-killed-in-crash/20946162

 

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.

A Story in Courage and Perseverance: Dave Jordan Returns to Work at WITN

Only two weeks earlier on Tuesday, August 22, Dave’s boss suddenly died.  She was not only his boss, she was his wife.  Stephanie Shoop, at the tender age of 46, was news director of WITN where Dave Jordan is the prime time co-anchor.  One day, she was wife, mother of two, and a respected leader of a television newsroom.  The next day, with no warning, Stephanie slipped away.

 

Dave’s co-anchor Lynnette Taylor told viewers of the loss in an emotional moment at the end of the August 22 early evening newscast.

In a previous blogpost, I wrote of how sadness can pervade a newsroom in a fashion that critics of journalism can never believe. It happens in moments when the unthinkable happens. The constant buzz that is usually the hallmark of a television news operation suddenly becomes as quiet as a public library.  What brings on the uncommon calm typically is in that rare instance when someone whose face and personality are as familiar as a member of one’s family is suddenly gone.  The stark reality strikes that the someone in question will never return.

My father was a minister for 65 of his 87 years.  Often, he told me that the most difficult times were when he had to reach out to a family who just experienced a sudden and unexpected loss.  

Stephanie Ann Shoop was a native Pennsylvanian.  In 1995, she married a man named David Giordano who grew up in the small Pennsylvania town of Sheffield.  Dave made his way to Eastern North Carolina 20 years ago after a brief stop in a small West Virginia market.  In 1998, Stephanie joined WITN as a newscast producer—a job that is frequently rewarding because the producer shapes a half-hour of news much as a sculptor does a bust.  Three years later, she became news director; in reality, her promotion made Stephanie her husband’s professional superior.

Husband-wife pairs can be an emotional boon or a periodic headache for management.  Some corporations have specific policies against spouses working for the same television station, or at least in the same department with the same boss.

In the mid-1980’s in Wilmington, N.C., I had two couples who worked for me at WWAY.  They could not have been more pleasant or more professional.  One husband was my chief photographer.  His wife was in production.  The other couple were my 11 o’clock anchors.  Richard and Jill Rogers were an immediate hit when I hired them away from WSAV in Savannah, Ga.  Richard also did the 6:00 news.  They were equally gracious off the air.  Jill did not stay in news over the long haul.  Richard is still active as the lead anchor at WRDW in Augusta, Ga.

On the other hand, I had another spouse combo in another city which I will not name.  They were not difficult people.  Yet, I often came away with a stomach ache in dealing with them.  They never grasped that their performance evaluations were as individuals, not as a couple.  One of the twosome was a reasonably good journalist.  The other spouse should have either been on PM Magazine or in an allied field.  I will leave my comments at that.  Regardless, had I cause to call the weaker performer of the two in for a conference, I knew the other would be appearing at my office door shortly after.  At least a half-dozen times, I had to issue the reminder, “I can’t talk to you about this at all.  You are two individuals on the corporate payroll.  I like you both personally, but I cannot discuss anything about a conversation with an employee with another employee even if you are married.”

ShoopsFrom all accounts, that was never a problem with the Jordans.  In her obituary, this was one description of Stephanie:  “She treated each and every employee and co-worker like her own and made them family.”

To stay in a city such as Washington, N.C., for nearly 20 years, one has to love it.  Dave and Stephanie apparently made a real home there.  Here’s what you may not realize:  Washington is part of Greenville-Washington-New Bern, one of those challenging animals of television known as the hyphenated market.  Each city’s viewers are typically jealous of their own local news and are not crazy about seeing many stories about the other two cities on their station’s newscast.  Here is something else you may not know:  the estimated population of Washington, N.C., as of 2016, was 9,801.  That may be the smallest city in America to have its own television station.  

What may not be an understatement is to say Washington may be the Mayberry of television cities.  In a town of fewer than 10,000 people, everybody tends to know everybody—or at least that is the way it seems.  If I lived there, I would probably see people who would light up if they saw their anchorman in a local restaurant.  “There’s Dave,” I’m sure they would say.  When you are in a viewer’s living room or den every night, you become a member of the family, especially in a small town.

Stephanie was not a household name in the community except to her close friends.  News directors, unless you are like this old guy was when I held that job and did commentaries three nights a week, are typically unseen and unfamiliar to the general public.  Yet, she found her fulfillment as the guiding hand of WITN News.  Over the years, she no doubt saw dozens of young journalists come and go.  At 46, her news staff was likely like an extension of her own two children.  Sometimes, a news director has to make unpopular decisions.  At times, you have to hand out discipline.  On occasion, you have to let people go—-truly never a pleasant decision even if the person being axed was not one who would be missed.  When you are in a leadership position for 16 years, you no doubt will have some people who decide they don’t like you.  However, my perception is those were few and far between in Stephanie Shoop’s world.

Even if you have occasional dysfunction—and every newsroom does at some point—a TV news operation becomes a family.  The morning of August 22, the head of the family at WITN News was snatched away in the twinkling of an eye.

I found a couple of tributes on Stephanie’s Facebook page that are worth sharing.  Here is one from a retired colleague, Steve Crabtree:

Prayers from here that our Heavenly Father wraps family, friends, news staff and other co-workers in His warm embrace giving each His comfort, peace and understanding. Stephanie was the consummate news professional and a gracious, compassionate, passionate and empathetic human being. She was dedicated to excellence in all she did and loved her family as well as her TV family with all of her heart. I respected few news directors in the U.S. more than her and feel blessed God allowed our paths to cross. My heart goes out to each of you! With love, Steve Crabtree; WVLT-TV VP/News, Retired; Knoxville TN

This one from Bill DiNicola tugged at me because I had the same emotions about a couple of the people for whom I have worked over the years:

It’s really hard to find the words… and fight back the tears long enough to write this. She was an amazing news director — but an even better mom, we all knew her as both. I am where I am now and more importantly I am who I am because of Stephanie Shoop — She was my News Mom, she was our News mom – she raised us right, she took in kids often for their first job, and turned us into well-rounded compassionate hardworking journalists, and she did it with love. You were the best possible example of a leader I could have hoped for. You let me get on the anchor desk when I weighed 500 lbs — who does that!?!? Like everyone in the WITN family, we were not ready for this. But because you were in our lives we will find the strength together. Dave, David and Grace — we’re here for you.

I can think of no finer tribute than for Stephanie to be called one’s News Mom.  That says to me—and should to many others—that she was much more than a news director.  One is not handed a label as Bill presented to Stephanie without being one who truly cares about people.

Shoop JordanWithout question, I hope Bill’s words were among many to help sustain Dave and the Jordans’ two children David and Grace.  A family, whether in television news or in any aspect of life, is a rallying center in times of sadness and deep tragedy.

Labor Day morning, I scanned TV Spy and saw that Dave Jordan—a man I have never met—was returning to work Tuesday.  He told reporter Stephanie Siegel:  “I’ve gone back to the station to visit as part of the healing process.”

In the same e-mail, here is how he reflected on his wife of 22 years:

“Stephanie was simply the most amazing person I have ever known and is deeply missed. Stephanie was also a very strong and determined person, and we are all drawing our strength from that. We all plan to do our best to pickup and carry on, as we know she would be telling us to do just that.”

Emotions are not one size fits all.  A sudden loss can send some people into an extended tailspin that requires a longer period of adjustment and grief before returning into the workplace.  Another family I knew lost their son on a Sunday afternoon in a skiing accident at a lake in South Georgia.  The next Sunday, three days after the teen’s funeral, the family was back at the lake.  “If we didn’t do this now, it would take us a lot longer to get on with life,” Bewick Murray, the father, said.  Everyone is emotionally different.

When I read that Dave was returning to the air Tuesday night, I had to log on to WITN.com.  I was not watching out of a viewer’s curiosity but as a member of the broadcast journalism fraternity.  I have not experienced the specific type of loss as has Dave Jordan, his children and the WITN family; yet, on the same day as Stephanie’s death, I received a call informing me of the death of my last living uncle, only six days after the passing of my oldest uncle.

Lynnette and DaveDave did his job with the same professionalism as he has for more than two decades in Eastern North Carolina.  At a designated moment in the six o’clock newscast, co-anchor Lynnette Taylor turned to Dave to share what was on his heart.  Here is an excerpt:

 

“I’m not going to pretend this is easy.  But I’ve reached a new reality in my life and it’s going to be that way for me and for our two children.

Family, friends, all of the viewers that have reached out with comments and cards….it’s amazing at a time like this how comments can lift you up.  I am grateful to all of you who have reached out to us. I want you to know that I’ll continue to need those because it’s going to be a journey.”
Dignity in a time of deep difficulty—that was the personification of Dave Jordan Tuesday night.
No doubt, many of those comments of encouragement and condolences have come from people Dave has never met.  I will add one of my own:  Dave, I’ve done the job you do and the job Stephanie did.  You don’t know me…..but if you need me, The Old TV News Coach is here.  May God continue to bless and comfort you and your family.

Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too: We Have to Stamp Out Stigma (Part 4 of 4)

Ken Barlow is a meteorologist in Minneapolis-St. Paul on KSTP.  I have never met him.  Though he doesn’t know it, he is a hero to me.

Five years ago, Amy Carlson Gustafson detailed the day when Ken was emceeing activities concurrent to a walk for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  Here is just a snippet of what Gustafson wrote in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press:

“He knew the time was right to share his own battle with mental illness. He believed these folks — many holding ‘End Stigma’ signs — could understand what the popular KSTP-TV meteorologist was going through.

“When I was standing up there, I was thinking, these people came here to end the stigma of mental illness, and I’m up here living one — I’m afraid of this stigma,” Barlow said during an interview in a Minneapolis coffee shop near KSTP. “I thought as I was on that stage two weeks ago, I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m not going to be ashamed. Two million people have this in the country, and millions of others deal with depression and other forms of mental illness. I’m not alone.”

Ken Barlow was 50 at the time.  Five years earlier, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  He would be the first to tell you that depression, which is not one size fits all, does not necessarily mean one is bipolar.  In fact, a small percentage of those who have depression have the dramatic mood swings that are classified as bipolar.

Ken is a hero to me because he has a large, captive audience in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  For him to reveal his struggles with depression in front of 4,000 people at that walk took a major step of faith and courage.

I shared in a previous installment of this series how I don’t feel my similar public revelation is significantly courageous because my father, who battled depression for his final 42 years, paved the way for me.  He began speaking out about his emotional illness in the 1990’s at a time when the stigma still loomed larger than today.

This blog series is not intended in any way to suggest that everyone who goes into journalism, especially the highly-intense world of television news, will experience depression or a related mental illness.

Despite its challenges and mentally-draining demands, a huge majority of those in a TV newsroom will never contract depression.  

What this series is designed to do is to open the eyes of corporate and local managements who often are too obsessed with the bottom line that emotional illness can and probably already has struck in your newsroom and you may not even know it.

Telling my own story in Part 3 is a call to any journalist who has experienced the lows of depression that it’s okay.  You don’t have to be afraid of it.  You don’t have to avoid seeking help for an illness that requires treatment in the same manner as dealing with the flu or pneumonia.  You don’t have to be reluctant to take medication to help you become whole again, even if you are on the meds for an extended period.   You are also not alone.  If you have a supervisor who even dares suggest you are not mentally tough if you have depression, then that person is speaking out of utter ignorance.  You have people who are speaking up in order to break down the remaining stigmas attached to depression.  I and the Ken Barlows of the world have your back.

Let’s examine a few things about the work and demands of journalists that make people who pursue that career vulnerable to emotional illness:

Constant Exposure to Death and Destruction

Reporters who are on a regular crime beat are going to face scene after scene of bad things happening to good and bad people.  At times, this can be gruesome.  Repeated exposure to the ugly side of life cannot help but affect one’s emotions unless one is inhuman.  Forty years ago, covering four of the seven murders of a serial killer in Columbus, Ga., had its effect on me.  After a few weeks of what became an eight-month saga, one began to shudder every time a police monitor would sound.  If a reporter does not have a personal diversion or hobby, constant witnessing and detailing murders, weather-related tragedies, or physical abuse can make one vulnerable to depression.

Time and Deadline Demands

We felt these in the 1970’s when local news was, at most, one hour in the early evening and 30 minutes in a huge number of cities.  Scrambling to deliver reports live, having to change and adapt lineups at the eleventh hour or even during newscasts, battling one’s competition for story breaks, and now having to do two and three hours of afternoon and early evening news in markets that realistically do not generate that much original news (and in many instances with no extra personnel to handle news expansions) is not how much of the rest of the world functions.  We either know that or soon realize it when we enter the profession.  Speed and deadlines are part of the job.  Yet, often the end result is a difficulty in winding down at the end of the day (or evening) because of the whirlwind on which one constantly is.  I visited with a journalist recently from a station that doubled its news time but only added one producer to handle the load.  Over lunch, I noticed the person’s hand literally shaking.  Nerves had built to that point because of stress and overwork.  None of these represent a path to strong emotional health.

Newsroom Conflicts

Conflicts are not unique to newsrooms.  One will find them in any profession.  However, because of the deadline pressures and—at times—ego battles over story assignments, story placement, or personalities, those conflicts can erupt into stress-inducing disputes that are rarely healthy.  Sometimes, they become loud and public. Trust me, I’ve seen many of them over the years.  When I was a news director, I periodically had to mediate them or break them up.  Regardless of your line of work, conflict environments often create apprehension or anxiety about going to your office.   Ongoing and unresolved conflicts are definite toll-takers.

Erratic Sleep Patterns

Again, this is one of these intangibles that go with the territory.  Sleep deprivation is one catalyst for depression.  For many news anchors and news personnel who work the late shift, namely the traditional 10 or 11 o’clock broadcasts, a challenge is to wind down after the news.  When I anchored at 11, I rarely could drop off to sleep before 1 a.m.  Too much cranks in the mind for too long during the day and night to immediately relax.  If anchors—male or female—have children, an early wakeup may offer the only opportunity to have any meaningful time with their families.  That often means abbreviated sleep.

Add to that the irregular sleep schedules for people who work the morning shifts.  When local television found a profit center before sunrise and gradually eased early morning news back to 4 a.m. starts, that meant producers and editors for the early morning began entering for their shifts as the late news team departed.  That means unnatural, erratic sleep hours that often are inconsistent.  

As Dr. Joanne Stephenson says, “Lack of sleep, inconsistent sleep, or unconventional sleeping schedules can play havoc with your emotional health.”

Inconsiderate or Abusive Bosses

Sure, they’re everywhere in any profession.  This is not to besmirch many good news directors who are fair and considerate with their staffs.  However, take a poll and you will know doubt find the most significant cause of turnover on news staffs is the cantankerous boss who appears to have a doctoral degree from the University of Unpleasantness.  If one has such a boss, the wear and tear on your emotions can mount.

The Superman Complex

If you will recall in Part 3, that’s what I was described as having when I tried to make up the deficit of personnel I had in Jackson by doing the work of the people I did not have, in addition to my own job.  Another type of Superman Complex is addiction to the newsroom.  At least one or two in every shop, especially single people, seem to be perpetually in the building.  Often, that is at the expense of any degree of personal life.  They become so consumed by work that they have no diversions.  Keep that up long enough and even a young, energetic reporter can be worn down.

Insecurity

I well remember my former co-anchor Kathy Pepino telling me, “This is the most insecure business you can be in, but most people are in it because they love it.”  Yet, insecurity is increasingly surfacing with media chain consolidations.  Look at the number of general managers already being replaced by the Nexstar-Media General merger.  Never have I seen as many news practitioners, including many competent veterans who have invested in communities, accept buyouts or take retirements as in the past 18 months.  In many instances, these have nothing to do with the abilities of the journalists.  Their parent companies simply want to pay less money.  When one is in the midst of an “am I going to be next?” environment, enter insecurity.  If that hangs on for an extended period, you are a candidate for a mood swing.

Relationship or Marriage Stresses

At the 1984 RTNDA convention in San Antonio, I attended a session on television news stresses on marriages.  The late Dr. Joyce Brothers was a member of the panel.  So was a veteran news director who had become a general manager.  His marriage ultimately broke up because of his intense focus as a news manager.  In the audience were a few wives of active news directors.  One of them stood and poured out her heart to Dr. Brothers about her husband:  “What do I do when I’ve been home all day, the kids have been acting up, we have a plumbing problem and one of the kids has come down with bronchitis?  He comes home, I want to have his attention and he wants me to tell it all to him in a minute and a half.”  The room roared, in no small part because some of the news directors in that seminar suddenly saw themselves in the woman’s description.

A special person is necessary to be a journalist’s spouse.  Not only is the reporter, anchor, producer or videographer on call 24/7 for breaking news stories, the requests to emcee events or participate in charity activities or judge competitions mount—all in the name of community service and promoting the station’s brand.  When too many of those demands pile up, spouses or significant others can feel alone or abandoned.  Cracks in the ointment of a relationship are personal.  One’s emotional health can be in serious jeopardy.

Alcohol or Drugs

In a previous part of this series, I detailed what appeared to be frequent ill effects from alcohol excesses affecting a few members of my staff.  As it is, alcohol is a depressant.  Yet, I worked with people whose after hours passion was to hit a bar.  A few turned to drugs.  A combination of the two can be lethal.  We have sadly seen a string of on-air journalists show up on TV Spy or TV Newser, as well as their local newspapers, arrested on DUI charges.  In addition to career jeopardy and personal embarrassment, habitual drug or alcohol abuse can lead to self-induced depression.

Professional Danger and Risks

We are indeed living in an age where broadcast journalists are more at risk than in previous decades.  The murder on live morning television of Alison Parker and Adam Ward of WDBJ in Roanoke, Va., was a wake up call for the entire profession.  Yet, I am not certain that we still don’t have some corporate managements operating with the idea “that can’t happen here.”  Meteorologist Patrick Crawford was shot on the parking lot of KCEN in Waco-Temple.  San Diego sportscaster Kyle Kraska was shot several times outside his home.  All of these were in 2015.

You cannot stop doing your job.  However, every journalist who goes out on a live shot has to be far more aware of his or her surroundings.  With some, that can lead to at least mild anxiety.  The relationship between anxiety and depression is closer than that of third cousins.

The laundry list could go on.  These are ten of the most significant elements that can be a trigger for depression for journalists.  Realistically, if one experiences up to four of these on a consistent basis, he or she could be a candidate for emotional struggles.

Twenty-six years ago when I had my first bout with depression, the only time this was discussed within a television newsroom was when a reporter was assigned a multi-part series (remember those?) on the subject.  People on news staffs who had the symptoms suffered in silence.  Gabriel Arana quoted a 16-year-old study that estimated up to 20 percent of journalists suffer from some form of depression during their careers.

Fortunately, the industry is doing a better job of responding to the problem.  A majority of employers in television news are now providing insurance coverage that includes visits for psychological counseling.  That was not true when I was still in the profession.  Since this blog series first appeared, I have been contacted by two journalists who told me their companies do not offer such coverage.

During the Orlando nightclub massacre last summer, at least two stations (and possibly others) brought in mental health counselors who were available for reporters and videographers who faced trauma or difficulty decompressing.  I have been told since then that stations in larger metropolitan markets exercise the same practice.  That is not necessarily true in the bottom 100 markets.

More news directors today are recognizing the need to provide reasonable down time for staff members when catastrophic coverage is required.  You can be a marathon man or woman but you have to realize a diminishing return mentally and emotionally once you go past 12 hours.  A fresh team is far more valuable than an exhausted one.

So what do I suggest are additional resources the industry should consider to help deal with potential emotional struggles that can lead to depression or related illnesses?   Consider these:

Keeping a certified psychologist on retainer

When a potential catastrophic event such as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake or mass violence breaks out, have an agreement where a counselor can come to the station to help the staff debrief and decompress.  In some instances, psychology faculty members from local universities could be utilized for little cost.  Some actually may offer themselves for community service that could be highly valuable support at tenure time.

Saturday seminars with a psychologist

Once and possibly twice a year, schedule a 60-to-120 minute session for the staff with a psychologist for a session of group therapy.  Sure, you’ll have your naysayers who scoff at it but they’ve probably been vaccinated with lemon juice.  No pressure and none of the kind of story analysis as employed when the news consultant comes for a visit.  I will wager a newsroom will function better mentally and emotionally with an opportunity to open up about tough days on the job with a counselor.  The staff will likely have a better road map to better cope with day-to-day challenges.

Making certain insurance coverage includes mental health visits

My university and many others offer five free visits to Pathways for counseling.  Some television stations offer similar plans but not all.  If employees know they can go in privacy for help, valuable preventive maintenance can be performed.  

Requiring managers, including news directors, to have training for mental health issues

If the research is true and 20 percent of journalists suffer from depression, the likelihood is that at least a few staff members will experience it.  At the very least, they could experience some form of post-traumatic stress disorder if they have to cover violent crimes or catastrophic events.  Sensitivity was once considered a sign of weakness in the rough-and-tumble mental toughness world of television news.  In today’s culture, insensitivity or a callous attitude toward depression is a black mark on anyone in management in any profession.

In developing this blog series, the idea was not to suggest I have all the answers.  Far from it.  All I can do is reflect my own experience with an emotional illness that usually requires medication, counseling and patience in order to recover.  One does not need a PhD to determine that the highly-charged, multiple deadline-driven, stress-induced culture of television news makes its practitioners at least vulnerable for depression at some point.

My personal mission is twofold:  to be a catalyst to stamp out the stigma of depression and to help save lives.  The only way we can achieve those is to have an open dialogue.  Ken Barlow was willing to speak up and tell his story.  I can guarantee that because he is a popular public figure, his impact in being transparent has resulted in more people than he knows seeking help.  

I may no longer be a daily practitioner of journalism in a television station.  Regardless, I still care deeply about the profession and its journalists.  As a broadcast educator who has experienced the lows of depression both in and out of the industry, I am sending young people into the field.  I still encounter younger producers and reporters in person and online who seek career advice.  I tell them all to try to enjoy the journey, despite its pitfalls and struggles.

I close with a personal note to any journalist, either broadcast, print or digital.  You are in a rewarding and honorable but stressful profession.  Those stresses, if not managed well, can lead to symptoms of emotional illness or depression.  I hope you never face it.  However, if you are diagnosed, immediately seek help.  If you are prescribed medication, take it and take it all until your doctor says you can cycle off.  Remember, some people have to take medication for the rest of their lives to combat heart ailments.  What’s the difference?  Your heart and your emotions have a reasonably strong connection.  Finally, be patient with yourself.  Recovering from depression is no quick fix.  Listen to your counselor and follow his or her direction.  God gave us psychologists and psychiatrists as well as medical doctors because all are necessary to treat the whole person.  Don’t run from depression because you fear stigma from people who do not understand the illness.  Stigma usually results from ignorance.  You only have one you.

As I tell every group I address:  you can’t get well if you don’t get help.

Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too (Part 3: My Own Story)

Ten years ago, sharing this story would have been difficult.  Today, opening up about my personal bouts with depression over the past 26 years is essential. We don’t have a data base of exact…

Source: Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too (Part 3: My Own Story)

Active or Retired: We All Feel the Pain of Roanoke

AllIn my years as an active daily broadcast journalist, I was physically threatened three times.  One of those threats came from a man who made infamous history this summer—-Louisiana theater shooter Rusty Houser, who erupted at me via phone after he called a bizarre news conference in Columbus, Ga., 36 years ago.

In the ’70s, deranged or disturbed people were not randomly shooting innocent victims.  Yet, one learns early in a journalism career that the celebrity factor that accompanies appearing regularly on local television does carry with it a degree of vulnerability to danger.

A friend and colleague, Dave Stanton, was left with a crippling injury in the summer of 1977 when an out-of-control protester drove a car through a crowd marching about agricultural concerns in President Carter’s hometown of Plains, Ga.  Dave and CBS correspondent Betsy Aaron were the most seriously hurt.  Had the car swerved a few feet to the right, either or both of them could have been killed.

The moment I was alerted via email Wednesday of the senseless and brutal killing of reporter Allison Parker and videographer Adam Ward by former WDBJ employee Vester Flanagan, I realized several things:

—-In an earlier era, I probably encountered at least four and possibly a half-dozen situations of newsroom employee dismissals that led to inflamed emotions.  Had we been living in a period where random acts of violence had been more prevalent, we could have seen a similar incident.

—-All of us, whether active or retired in the journalism profession, share in the pain of the newsroom of WDBJ.   We didn’t work with Allison or Adam, but we have all worked with people like them who were young, vibrant, energetic and hard-working.  They had such promise for a huge future.  Had any of us seen colleagues like Allison or Adam suddenly snuffed out by a despicable act, our emotions would be overflowing with grief.

—-My former general manager Bob Lee is a retired GM of WDBJ.  No doubt he is feeling a sense of concern as if he were still the man at the helm.

However, the most vivid emotion I had Wednesday morning was of a news team who knew, worked with and loved these young victims.  The people left behind faced the near-insurmountable task of having to “go on with the show” while their hearts were breaking.

If you are not in television news—-and most people are not—-picture yourself having to be the one who delivers the news of a loved one’s death to a friend or a fellow family member.  Imagine working as part of an office staff in any profession and suddenly learning that a co-worker has been abruptly cut down in the prime of life.  In Jackson, Tn., where I live, a local bank staff faced that tragedy last spring when a gunman entered their building and shot and killed a former girlfriend who worked there.

If violent tragedy happens in a bank, a church, or an investment trading business—-and we have seen those occurrences in all of these locations in recent years, the victims and the staffs become the news.

What happened at WDBJ, the victims and the staff are not just the news.  Emotions of grief are no different to broadcasters or journalists than with anyone else in any walk of life.  I have no doubt that the WDBJ news staff had moments Wednesday and today in which they wished they could put up an on-air sign at news time that reads CLOSED IN THE MEMORY OF OUR FRIENDS ALLISON AND ADAM.

You don’t have that luxury in TV news.  Those grief-stricken people had to tell the most difficult story of their careers, the story of how their colleagues are no longer there to cover their next story, to participate in community public service events, or to see how far their careers would take them.

I have watched online today the courageous faces of WDBJ journalists fighting back tears, some successfully and some not.  I saw the outstretched hands of three anchors clinging to each other for support.  When anchor Kim McBroom said, “We’re going to try to get through this,” any of us who have ever worked in a newsroom were sending out collective hands of support.

As we have learned from social media posts, Allison and Adam also had personal relationships with people within the newsroom that will never have a chance to see a future or perhaps even a long life together.

I remarked today to a lifelong friend and former colleague Phil Scoggins of WRBL in Columbus a phrase that has become a cliche:  “We’re living in a different day.”  I added, “There but for the grace of God, it could have been any of us at any time.”

As a believer and a man of faith, I have prayed for the families and closest friends of Allison and Adam and their many co-workers who will have to press on despite cups running over with grief and having to deal with the inexplicable.  A large fraternity and sorority of fellow journalists they don’t even know are doing the same.

At some point in the future, circumstances will be right for people to once again laugh and relax in the WDBJ newsroom.  Right now, they don’t know when or what will trigger a return to normal.

Normal is something that will happen on the outside.  Inwardly, for a circle of colleagues who only try to tell stories about what happens in their Virginia community, normal will never be the same.

Depression: Yes, It Happens in the Newsroom Part I

In the summer of 2014, Robin Williams took his own life.  In the days that followed, we learned that a contributing factor was depression.

That set off the usual mad dash of journalists across the nation scrambling to find every local psychologist or psychiatrist to bring perspective on emotional illness.

That helped.  For three, possibly four weeks, we had a whirlwind of national and local conversation on the subject many still want to keep in the closet.  When that ended, television news put the topic back in the storage cabinet for a while.

Full disclosure:  I have had a serious bout with clinical depression not once but three times.  The first time happened in 1991 when I was a television news director—-not in a megamarket but in Jackson, Tn.  The second time was in 2010 while supervising a daily student cable newscast as professor of broadcast journalism at Union University.  In each instance, I needed at least six months before I resumed feeling like me.  Bout three was in 2014, a few months after the death of my father.  I spent 100 days in my hometown of Waycross, Ga., in 2013 looking after both of my parents during his ordeal.

I don’t make my experience the icebreaker of conversations with people I have never previously met.  Likewise, I do not run from an open dialogue about an illness suffered by nearly a tenth of Americans.  Those of us who have encountered depression not only can but must talk about it in an effort to help others who have it and don’t understand it.

When one is in a higher-profile profession such as television news, your on-air face and personality are what viewers see.  Their stereotyped vision of a communicator who visits in their home virtually every night filters out the reality that television newscasters are real people, too.  Journalists have bills to pay, experience challenges at home, lose loved ones and are exposed firsthand to the same types of negative news viewers often detest.

Psychological studies tell us younger people are increasingly vulnerable to depression, particularly in high-demand, high-stress professions.  Here are a few other key facts:

—-Women are more likely to have depression than men.

—-Vulnerability to depression increases with age, according to WebMD.com.

—-Mayo Clinic tells us one in five will experience some form of the disorder by the time they are 25.

Small-to-medium market news departments are populated heavily by men and women in the 22-28 age bracket.  Most of them are full of idealistic career goals, competitive fuel and boundless energy.

Still, look at the numbers: one in five young adults are likely to have experienced some form of depression by the age of 25.  Television news is a profession that can play right into the vulnerabilities.

In the mid-1980s, I flew back from the Radio-Television News Directors Association with a colleague from a much larger neighboring market.  He attended one of the same seminars as did I on stresses the newsroom brings to one’s personal life.  That session included a whirlwind, throw-on-the-dartboard exchange about depression.  Thirty years ago, the subject of emotional illness was largely compartmentalized.

“That was an interesting session,” my colleague said, “but in my newsroom or in television news in general, there’s just no room for someone with depression or any kind of emotional illness.”

I said, “Would it interest you that my father has battled depression off and on for 14 years—and he’s a minister?  I submit to you that the demands of administering a church, satisfying the sometimes fickle nature of a congregation and being on call around-the-clock in times of illness, death, or church members’ crises is every bit as stressful as running a TV newsroom.”

My friend admitted he had never pondered that contrast but I am fairly certain he didn’t buy into it.  I wonder what he thinks today.

My colleague at Union University, Dr. Joanne Stephenson, offers a weekly “Dr. Joanne” segment on our daily cable newscast “Jackson 24/7” produced by journalism students.  Dr. Joanne was a huge catalyst for my recovery from depression five years ago.  She says the newsroom can be a breeding ground for depression even in well-adjusted people.

“You have all the ingredients:  multiple deadlines, uneven schedules, frequently on call, competitive pressures, lack of sleep, difficult bosses, and repeated exposure to tragedy,” Dr. Joanne says.  “Even the best of us would struggle to maintain a balance in our lives to avoid tipping the scales toward depression.”

I am typically not a fan of The Huffington Post, but that online service offered a solid five-part series in May, “A Mental Health Epidemic in the Newsroom.”

Dr. Elana Newman of the University of Tulsa discussed journalistic stresses in the opening segment of that series.  “Almost all journalists are exposed to traumatic-stress experiences,” Dr. Newman said.  She included reporters who are among the first on the scene for automobile accidents, shootings, train derailments or other occurrences that potentially lead to critical injuries or death.

Here is another revealing irony by Gabriel Arana, who authored The HuffPost story:  “Journalists are notoriously reluctant to divulge information about themselves.”  Arana quoted from three different research studies that indicated:

—-85 percent of journalists encounter some form of work-related trauma

—-Up to 20 percent of journalists experience depression

—-Instances of nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia and anxiety occur frequently enough in journalists to take a toll.

Both of my bouts with clinical depression were largely triggered by exhaustion.  Read the textbooks about a typical Type A personality and fill in the blank with my name.  I inherited an intense work drive gene from my father.  I have a tendency to go at a pace that, candidly, is unrealistic for one individual.

In each instance, I saw the warning signs of a breakdown but was mired in that mistaken belief that I could “work myself” out of it.  I could not—-and paid the price.

I will detail more about the first bout in a later vignette.  In 2010, depression came on from a monster amount of overwork in supervising a five-a-week student newscast that can only replicate, not duplicate, the actual TV newsroom.  I failed to remind myself that I have students only for four hours a week, not 40.  Typically, they are carrying academic loads that include four other courses, all of which have a variety of demands.  Exhaustion set in and so did depression.

At the end of a noon broadcast in March 2010, Dr. Joanne waited until the students all left, looked me in the eye and said, “This……..is an intervention.”  I knew that had to happen.  I just did not know when.  Thankfully, Dr. Joanne was in the studio for an interview segment that day and pulled the trigger.  I asked how she knew I was in depression.  “I could see it in your eyes,” she said.  “You’ve been headed down this path for more than a month.”

I am an example of what happens when a journalism supervisor or administrator does what an old colleague at WRBL in Columbus, Ga., H.K. Johnston, once observed:  “Burnin’ the candle at both ends and runnin’ outta wick.”

Yet, the rank-and-file, those young, fresh out of college or three-to-six-year veteran reporters, producers and videographers are the ones on the firing line every day.  They are the ones who receive the 3 a.m. calls to cover an overnight fire or shooting.  They are the ones regularly exposed to crime or other tragedy.  They are the ones who have to find their niche in a competitive environment of egos and career-climbers.  They are the ones who encounter bosses who are sometimes under such stress to deliver ratings and performance that they neglect to get to know or understand their employees as people.

Managements of every television station in America ought to be paying attention.  The scenario I outlined in the previous paragraph and those earlier research statistics suggest the odds are at least one to three people in their newsrooms could be dealing with at least short-term depression or trauma disorders.

Before I left daily television news in the 1990s, not one station I worked for offered a specifically designated reference for counseling from a psychologist or a psychiatrist.  Some stations provided insurance that covered emotional illness; some didn’t.

Arana detailed the story of John McCusker, a New Orleans photojournalist who lost his home in Hurricane Katrina but continued to cover the destruction day after day.  The grind and exposure to the disaster took its toll.  McCusker was diagnosed with a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder.  As in many cases with journalists and the vast non-news public, he was reluctant to admit he was ill.

“I didn’t feel I could show weakness because there were so many brave people showing strength around me,” McCusker told Arana in the HuffPost. “There is an element of not wanting to be vulnerable, wanting to project strength.”

One of my own observations about the television news industry is its parallel to my perceptions of those in college and pro football.  So much emphasis is perpetuated on being mentally tough that admitting to depression or any form of emotional illness is unfortunately regarded as a sign of weakness.

“There’s this notion you’ve got to be tough,” McCusker told Arana. “You’re a human being — don’t forget that. No one’s expecting you to be anything more or less than that.”

Dr. Joanne frequently debunks the weakness theory or the fear factor of admitting a need for help because of a still-existing stigma attached to depression.

“You wouldn’t try to do your own surgery on a broken leg.  You wouldn’t try to deal with an abscessed tooth yourself,” she says.  “We’ve got to get over this ridiculous notion that depression or any other emotional illness is any different than a physical illness.  Depression is often caused by things related to physical illness.”

One of the issues is a failure of broadcast managements, as well as some in other fields, to recognize the emotional toll television news takes on even the strongest staff members.

Only two of the stations for which I worked over the years offered a membership at a YMCA (in the era before fitness centers began to emerge on every corner).  At least in those instances, opportunities were available for physical exercise that is a strong antidote to stress.

Never was a local psychologist contracted for an in-house seminar to aid staffs on other countermeasures to reduce tension and stress that lead to depression.  Such a move may actually save companies money in employee illnesses and absences.

In my succeeding vignettes, I will share more of my own journey with depression during my years as a broadcast journalist and a journalism professor.  I will also approach depression from the perspective of young broadcasters, from mistakes managements make in recognizing warning signs of and possible interventions for emotional illness, and proposals to the entire industry on how to deal with a real illness that affects more people in television than anyone cares to admit.

Robin Williams died from the extreme ravages of emotional depression.  We talked about mental illness for a short while because he was Robin Williams.

We should not need the death of an international celebrity to have an intelligent, sensitive and open dialogue about emotional illness—-including its potential impact on television newsrooms.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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