Years ago a journalist friend of mine told me about a time he reported on a murder. The crime had happened a long way from his newspaper’s office, and the neighborhood he went to seemed rough. No one wanted to talk to him. He didn’t feel safe.
So he drove the 30 or so miles back to the office, where he met with his night editor. His editor turned out to be a tough, old-school editor, which is to say a good editor.
The editor told him: “Get back out there and get the story.”
So my friend drove the 30 miles back to the neighborhood and went to the house where he was certain people knew something. When they let him in, he pleaded with a room full of suspicious people: “Listen, my editor says I’ve got to have something. Can anybody talk to me?”
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Someone did. That reporter has become one of the finest writers I know. I told him once I’d want him to write my obituary. I’d trust him to capture my essence, which I guess in this business is high praise.
This story returned to me after the on-air killing of the TV news team in Virginia. A former co-worker shot reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward early Wednesday morning as Parker interviewed a public official at a resort and retail development. That official, Vicki Gardner, was also shot but survived.
I thought about the risks news people sometimes take. I’ve knocked on my share of doors in neighborhoods where no one knew me and have approached plenty of strangers for quotes.
I worry more about loose dogs than the person behind the door. But you never know what that person has going on, either.
There are other journalists who by nature of their jobs wind up in situations that carry real and present danger. Readers of The Fayetteville Observer know we send reporters and photographers with the troops into war zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
You may know about Chris Hondros, a brilliant photographer who was raised and worked here and later became internationally known for his images of war, famine and strife worldwide. He was killed in the Libyan conflict in 2011.
But what happened with Parker and Ward is different. They were slain while Parker did a routine, light story.
She and Ward had no reason to be fearful or on high alert. People who wonder how the gunman could have crept up on them should realize TV reporters learn to tune out background distractions and focus on reporting.
They never saw it coming. This was confirmed by the survivor.
They were not in a war zone. Yet, random or mass shootings are a part of the American landscape; in some sense we are like people in conflict-torn countries who know that a bombing or mass killing is possible any time or place.
As some have pointed out, more Americans have died in domestic gun violence since 1968 than all our wars combined (1.5 million vs. 1.4 million).
Wednesday’s incident was not about the danger journalists face, but the ever-present danger to all of us. It’s a way of life we’ve come to accept in a nation of 300 million guns.
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Myron B. Pitts is a columnist at the Fayetteville Observer.