The world watched in horror on Aug. 26 as two WDBJ journalists – reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward – were ambushed and murdered on live TV. Video of the attack on the journalists and Vicki Gardner, the person they were interviewing, quickly spread not only on air, but through social media, particularly by Twitter. It touched the news media in a way that elevated it from just another shooting to something that deeply affected the entire profession. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the WDBJ newsroom, where colleagues, friends and significant others watched and re-watched as their loved ones were shot.
News director Kelly Zuber suddenly became not just a boss and decision maker, but a source of comfort and steadiness for her employees in a time of great need. Zuber was a featured guest at the recent Excellence in Journalism conference in Orlando during a keynote session on Sept. 19. She sat down with CNN “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter to discuss the shooting and how the station responded – and has changed – since that day. Joining the discussion was former TV news director and chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association’s ethics committee Scott Libin, and Twitter’s former manager of journalism and news Mark Luckie.
The session lasted 90 minutes, and what follows is a condensed version of the questions and answers. Full audio of the program available here, courtesy of Rivet Radio and Charlie Meyerson.
Brian Stelter: I want to start, Kelly, with how you’re all doing now. That day it felt like the entire journalism world was united. These were the first journalists to die on assignment in almost a decade (in the U.S.).
Kelly Zuber: We’re doing OK. We’re healing. I call it a dream state. It’s not a nightmare state. I do want to say to all of you, thank you so much for all that you’ve done. We have received so many shows of support from other media organizations. When I say we’re kind of in a dream state, I think we still wake up every morning and ask ourselves, ‘Why us, why them, why did this happen?’ And as we go through our days we are continuing to add live shots to what we do, but it is becoming very difficult to do those live shots.
Brian Stelter: That’s interesting to hear you say. I would have thought the first few days you wouldn’t have done live shots, then you might have come back to normal.
Kelly Zuber: We actually did our first live shot after the shooting (two days later) on Friday. It was at a football game, and it was one of our meteorologists. I told her you don’t have to do this, and she said, “No, I’m ready to go, let’s get out there.” I went with her. We had security there. And being a millennial, her parents were also there. Her dad looked at me and said, “Nothing gets between me and my girl.” Since then, we have been very judicious about how we do them. We often have security there. We notify police in advance that we’re going to be in a particular location. We are healing slowly, gradually, but we’re still not up to top form yet.
Brian Stelter: We know that Alison’s boyfriend, Chris, came back to work this week. Can you tell us how he’s doing, and any update on Melissa, Adam’s fiancé? (Both Chris and Melissa also worked at WDBJ.)
Kelly Zuber: Chris is doing amazingly well. There is a deep sadness there. Adam and Alison were both wonderful bright lights. They were also both from our viewing area. Both of them had loved ones within the station. Melissa, our morning producer, was engaged to Adam. And Alison and Chris were as good as engaged. We had two key players in our newsroom that were devastated by this news. They were already family. Your ears heard it, and your eyes saw it, but your brain did not want to process what you just saw on television, not only for us, but for our viewers.
Brian Stelter: I wanted to ask Scott about what we see in the live broadcast. We all know by now that it appears that the gunman waits until the camera is back on Alison and Vicki before he fires. When you saw that, did you think our own technology, our own tools as journalists, had been used against us?
Scott Libin: Yeah. To me this feels like a case of workplace violence. And much as somebody who comes back to a factory and knows exactly when the guard takes his break or where people hang out to smoke, this killer knew so much about the business that in an unfathomably calculating way, he was able to produce his own crime. And that to me of all the really chilling elements might have been the most troubling.
Brian Stelter: At 8:45 (that morning), general manager Jeff Marks went on the air and announced the news of their passings. What calculations did you all make, if any, at that point about whether to show the video or even still frames from the video?
Kelly Zuber: A lot of people have asked me about that. I hate to tell you – none. Think about the last time you covered a murder, and then you went to a family member or friend and asked them to talk about what happened. And if they agree to talk to you, the first thing they say to you is “I don’t want to talk about what happened, I want to talk about the people.” Well, then imagine victims covering news. We were all victims, and we didn’t want to talk about what happened. We wanted to talk about the people.
Brian Stelter: Mark, let me bring you into the conversation. Personally, I didn’t watch the video until this announcement was made (by general manager Jeff Marks) on air. It popped up on Twitter, as videos tend to do – this is just the video from the WDBJ live broadcast. Was it ethical for these videos to be shared and re-shared in the time between the shooting and the information about the deaths?
Mark Luckie: I don’t think it was ethical, but we also have to question the motives of why people are sharing it. They’re not sharing it necessarily because they want to glorify the violence, they were sharing it because they were in shock. So people wanted to alert people in the same way that as news reporters we want to share the news that’s happening. There is that citizen journalism element inside of social media where people do want to say to their friends, to the people they know, ‘Hey, this is happening, you should be aware of it,’ as much of a tragedy as it is.
Brian Stelter: An image of the suspect is starting to be shared widely by 9:30 and 10 a.m. You all are sharing it, CNN, other national networks are sharing it. Did you all have other information you didn’t share besides the name of the gunman? Did you know that he was being chased and didn’t report that?
Kelly Zuber: We did not know that right away. I was on my cell phone with the spokesman for the state police. She called me and we sort of acknowledged together that this was just going to be weird, that normally they would not release information to us until it was fully vetted. But once again, in this case we were the victims, and they were trying to give us the information as they would do with any victims’ families. We were sort of doing this little dance together, and that actually resulted in some incorrect information later in the day.
Brian Stelter: When did it start to “hit” you? I was in New York, all I’m having to do is cover this story, and I had to go off air and close my door and cry. For me that was within hours. For you was it days later?
Kelly Zuber: I would say it was pretty immediate. All the HR rules go out the window when something like this happens. We hugged each other. We cried together. People came into my office and I don’t think I had a conversation with anyone without holding their hand. Tell me how weird it is that we walked around the newsroom telling each other that we loved each other. I mean, that doesn’t really happen in newsrooms very often. But we said it, and we meant it.
Brian Stelter: Even today, you’re still getting threats to the newsroom? Tell us what that is.
Kelly Zuber: We continue to get threats to our newsroom, and that has thwarted our ability to get back out there and do our jobs. Immediately, I received two emails … one was against an African-American reporter who had just started with us two weeks (prior). It was very racist. The other was against our chief meteorologist who had been there 34 years. We certainly have had a barrage of that.
Audience Question (a news director): Is there advice that you can give to those of us who worry about our people each and every day?
Kelly Zuber: There’s many things I wish we could have changed, but would we have not knowing how the future was going to go? I don’t think so. We did live shots every morning. In the summertime they were often outside. I think we’re starting to adopt a wintertime mode (more inside). One of the other things we’ve stopped doing is promoting where we’re going to be. Would I have done it in advance? No, this never crossed my mind.
Read More: “The Day that Changed WDBJ” – CNN’s Brian Stelter recreates how the WDBJ team reported on the shootings while grieving the loss of their beloved friends.