Wednesday, August 26, 2015

I cried in front of my staff today

Photo: CNN

I didn't know Alison Parker or Adam Ward.
I've never worked at WDBJ. In fact, I spent the first three years of my TV news career trying to catch up with WDBJ!

The internet doesn't need to hear from me.
But I need this blank screen tonight.

I need its space.
I need its grace.

I was in Roanoke when 9/11 happened. I didn't cry until 9/14. I was 20 years old. I immediately went into "breaking news" mode. I digested facts and video as accounts of tragedy came into a newsroom of Beta tape decks and big fat desktop computers. Churn, churn, churn. I remember thinking I should be feeling something, but I don't. I just keep churning. Update the ticker. Do a cut-in when NBC gives us a local availability. Book satellite time for our crew in DC. Cue the reporters. Write the scripts, sort the scripts. Count the show out and close with a shot of the red, white and blue Roanoke star on top of Mill Mountain.

I was a baby then.
I didn't even know what a terrorist was or where exactly Afghanistan was on a map.
The day before that, I had been working on an animation about shark attacks.
I didn't feel anything for three days. Until my pastor prayed during my 6:00 p.m. newscast. I cried then.

I've worked in Roanoke, Norfolk, Pittsburgh, DC... I've covered plane crashes and school shootings and child abuse cases and horrible things being done to animals. I've been around the news sun quite a few times. I've been shaken a few times but not like today.

Today, I cried in front of my staff. At the head of a conference room table.

This morning, I found out about the shooting on my way to work. I hoped it was just a dramatic Facebook video. Maybe they are okay. Maybe it was just shots fired in the area, and they ducked and they are okay. I got to work and found out WDBJ didn't go on the air for the CBS This Morning cut-in at 7:25 and I knew then - it was going to be bad.

I was sitting in my office across from one of my fresh-faced-first-job-journalists just back from the Poynter Institute. She is newly inspired and I'm unpacking all she learned. The alert crosses my phone: Alison Parker and Adam Ward are dead.

It stopped me.
I fired off a quick e-mail to my staff: We will not be using the video. I didn't even think. I just hit send. It was like a reflex.

Then I went into the conference room for the morning editorial meeting. I bet TV newsrooms across the country had awkward morning meetings like ours this morning. We debated: Do we cover this from city council or preview that? Should we follow up on this bus story? I was trying to hard to listen and weigh in on story assignments but I couldn't hear any words. My Assistant News Director sounded like the Charlie Brown teacher. Time had stopped. I couldn't hear words.

I fired off a couple of e-mails to trusted mentors about the ethics of showing the video. Was my knee-jerk reaction the right decision?

I tuned back into the meeting. It had started with "Man, this is crazy." "So sad." "Did you see his fiancee' was the morning producer and she was in the booth and saw the whole thing?" "Any updates on if they caught the guy?"

Then the time came to talk about the video. Are we going to show it? I think Brene' Brown was whispering in my ear or something. I was trying to be so strong, y'all. But I sat there at the head of the table and shed a tear. I was just honest. Vulnerable. I told my staff: I can't hear anything. I can't focus. This is so terrible. I need your help to weigh the ethics of this video.

There were conference calls and logistics planning e-mails and updates to the story through the day.

In the middle of all of this, I found out my Granny Nora had a heart attack and for about an hour, I didn't know what was going on with her and if this crazy day was going to end at the airport, catching an emergency flight to California.

My morning anchor stood in my door as I got off the phone with my mom. I was almost in ugly-cry mode at this point. He told me to breathe. He was right. Air is good. (Granny is doing okay now, by the way.)

As I have gotten older, the churning has gotten harder. I think some of it has to do with the insane amount of information that comes at us faster than we can even comprehend. I think it's also because I'm not 20 anymore. I've lived more. I've loved. I've lost. These are not just stories we are telling. They're realities. It's not just a line on a rundown. The responsibility of what we do weighs heavily on me.

And I lead with my heart. To a fault!
I suck at hiding my true feelings. I knew I needed to pull it together, so I had to get out of the newsroom for a little bit.

I came back and we went on with more meetings and coverage and planning. But my heart was heavy through the day.

To my fellow journalists: Breathe. Cry if you must. But we have realities to tell. Do right by Alison and Adam. We have to go on.

I bet this is how teachers felt the day of the Sandy Hook shooting. Numb. Empty.
But we have to go on. We have realities to tell.

Do right by all of the victims' stories we tell. It's easy to feel this one, I'll admit. I've been the young producer who was dating a photog in Roanoke. There are 24-year-old fresh-faced up-and-coming reporters who work for me. I'll see them in the morning meeting tomorrow. Sitting right back in that seat where I cried today.

It's not always easy to feel the hurt and the loss when we don't identify with it. The crime victim. The plane crash victim. The people who are not shot on live TV. We need to serve all of them, too.

Forgive me for my tears. They don't mean I am weak. I promise. I am stronger than I look!
So are all of you.
We have realities to tell.


Unknown said...

It's ok to cry.
It's ok to hurt.
It's ok to express your feelings. Sometimes, they may come when you don't want them present, but by expressing yourself means your staff knows that the boss hurts too.
You may be expressing things your staff can't yet.
I've been reading the blog for some time now. You're as strong a lady as there is even though we've never met.
Mike... AND your staff...have a keeper.
By the way, I too work in the media (radio) with a disability.
Be You.

Garry Boone
Houston Texas

Unknown said...

Wow, bless you Dana. <3

Unknown said...

I loved reading your post. It helped validate my own anguished response to this tragedy. I have worked in a small market for several years, and often feel disconnected from our industry. Especially since previously I had been in some competitive markets working with some amazing journalists--including covering Congress for CBN News (sound familiar?). But as I read your post, and others like it, I felt connected again. Not only did I better appreciate my own grief, I remembered what it was like to be a part of the TV News World, instead of apart from it. Thank you, and God Bless! :Dave

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