This isn’t the column I set out to write. I had intended to look at hopeful signs amid the gloomy events that had characterized the FOI scene as we entered 2002.
Then, on an otherwise routine Saturday afternoon in January, came news of a major highway accident near the town of Belt, Mont., about 200 miles away from my home base in Missoula.
A dozen or more vehicles, including big rig trucks, had slammed into one another when blowing dust from agricultural fields suddenly cut visibility to zero. It shaped up immediately as the story of the day.
Then came news that two people had been killed. Then, a bit later, came word that they were colleagues – television journalists from KRTV, the Great Falls affiliate of our in-state network of stations and a place I had visited just days before.
Jennifer Hawkins was only 22, a general assignment reporter who had arrived in Great Falls last autumn. Like most first-year reporters, she brought with her a degree (Ball State University), an internship (WISH-TV in Indianapolis) and that great intangible, a bright future. In a market known as a grooming place for young talent, she already had made an impression and recently had anchored her first newscast.
Dave Gerdrum was 48 and a veteran of Great Falls television in both news and production. Although he owned his own small video production company, he also worked as a part-time news photographer at KRTV. In the days before the fatal wreck, Dave had helped me on a major project I was taping in Great Falls. He was skillful and likable, and we made plans to work together again.
The dust storm wasn’t even their story that day. When it began, Dave and Jennifer were on their way home after covering a downhill skiing event about 60 miles from Great Falls. It appears that blind chance alone put them in the wrong spot at the wrong time. Had they been 10 minutes earlier or later, they probably would have escaped the pile-up and been first on the scene for a choice piece of weekend spot news.
I’m not sure which is more unsettling – the fact that these two journalists died in one of the more routine aspects of their job or how close they came to escaping. Either way, I’ve come to think a lot in recent days about the dangers that journalists are exposed to in the normal course of doing their jobs.
It is the nature of reporters and photographers to want to get closer to danger, to be around it without being harmed ourselves. It’s part of the attraction of the business. We want to capture the flames of the forest fire or burning building. We want to convey first-hand the fury of nature, the panic of a disaster, the violence of a riot, the tension of an armed standoff.
We do it to inform our audience, yes, but have any of us not felt a private thrill at experiencing these things? It’s a privilege to have access to those events, to be a witness. So much so that we are willing to fight to retain the privilege if necessary.
In my own modest career, I’ve been “up close and personal” with volcanic ash and burning trees and raging rivers and derailed trains and chemical spills and toxic fumes and falling timber and industrial machinery capable of ripping me asunder.
I’ve slipped and skidded on hillsides and fought for my balance on unsteady rocks with 40 pounds of camera gear on my back and shoulder. I’ve been in high places with precious little between me and oblivion. I’ve hiked alone on mountain trails known for large predators and falling trees. I’ve been a passenger on types of aircraft that positively frighten some people. I’ve driven too fast at night and in foul weather and on roads with bad reputations.
Through it all, I can’t say I’ve ever been truly worried about my safety. I suppose that I’ve taken for granted that I’ll do my job, get my story, get it on the air and live to do it again tomorrow. I’m not sure my family is as sanguine with that belief as I am. I suspect there have been times they have said silent prayers for my safety and shed private tears at my safe homecoming, even before Sept. 11.
Now, two colleagues have been killed while performing a most basic task – returning home. I’m not about to quit my job or my profession. I’ll just try not to take things for granted.
Be careful out there.
Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. He is chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.