Young Virginia journalists mourned throughout the world
The sun is coming up now, just about a minute later than it did yesterday. And about this time yesterday, Alison Parker and Adam Ward were sending a live shot of an interview with Vicki Gardner, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, back to the control room at WDBJ in Roanoke, where Ward’s fiancée was monitoring the feed.
Gardner was talking about tourism and the 50th anniversary of Smith Mountain Lake’s creation. As Parker smiled and Gardner talked, gunshots exploded just off camera. Parker screamed and ran. Ward fell, the last bit of video he shot catching the gunman in the edge of the frame. Viewers saw it live with their morning coffee.
As much of the world knows by now, Vester Lee Flanagan II, who went by the name Bryce Williams when he reported for WDBJ, waited for the on-air interview to begin, then shot and killed his former co-workers. He shot Gardner, too, though she apparently wasn’t intended to be a victim.
As much of the world knows by now, Flanagan filmed the shooting and posted it on Facebook. He sent what’s been reported as a 23-page fax to ABC News, praising mass murders and claiming he was acting in revenge for the killing of nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church and for insults he felt he’d suffered. All kinds of media reported Flanagan’s claim that the accumulation had turned him into a human powder keg. Yesterday, that keg exploded, killing Parker and Ward, wounding Gardner and, eventually, killing Flanagan himself.
The shooting and the chase that ended with Flanagan’s capture and then his death took over the news cycle. People who watched the abomination live – and others who followed the events throughout the day – spread news and rumors and sympathy through social media. They shared – and then argued about the sharing of – the killer’s video. They posted tributes and photos and calls for prayers. In the real world, people came to the station with food and flowers and a desire to somehow comfort the suffering and express their own grief.
Matthew Teague, writing in The Guardian, described it well. “When Flanagan shot through the barrier that separates news and consumers, it ruptured in both directions,” he wrote. “The killings turned regular people into broadcasters, but it also made broadcasters into regular people.”
If they hadn’t before, people realized Parker and Ward were more than journalists, more than television personalities. They were two young people with plans and dreams and families. Ward was engaged to that producer who saw his death as it happened. Parker was in love with an anchor at the station. He appeared on national newscasts beside her father, who pledged to make his daughter’s legacy his drive to keep guns out of the hands of crazy people.
Throughout the day and night and into this morning, Parker and Ward’s colleagues reported the story of a former co-worker killing two co-workers and friends. For people who’ve never been part of a small newsroom – particularly a small newsroom full of young journalists, young people, full of zeal and ambition – it may be difficult to understand the closeness of that kind of group.
So it’s difficult to explain how impressive Parker and Ward’s colleagues have been though all this. They’re clearly suffering and grieving, but they’re also doing their jobs well and professionally. That’s a powerful tribute not only to the people who’ve worked at WDBJ during this tragedy, but also to Parker and Ward and to the careers and the lives they’ll never have.
Tim Thornton is the editor of Roanoke Business.