By Steve Beverly, RTDNA Contributor
Nearly 15 years ago, I wrote a guest column for a national broadcast publication under the headline The Viewer Doesn’t Always Get It Right.
On Roku TV, I followed local coverage of Hurricane Irma’s journey from Miami, Tampa, Sarasota, Fort Myers, Ft. Lauderdale and Jacksonville in Florida, as well Albany and Columbus in Georgia.
While simultaneously glued to social media, something occurred that had absolutely nothing to do with Irma. Someone’s misguided use of Twitter was the epitome of the word cruel.
Emileigh Forrester is weekend anchor and reporter at WALB in Albany. She is like hundreds of young men and women in television newsrooms across America. But for a couple of weeks of vacation during the year, her weekends are spent in a place that is far quieter than it is during an average weekday.
She has to fill two half-hours of news on Saturday and Sunday. Emileigh has what is historically known as a “skeleton staff” to help find enough local, regional and national news to deliver those newscasts to viewers who expect it, even if the content is largely softer than the Monday-through-Friday output.
Occasionally on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon after football season ends, I click the NewsOn app to WALB to catch one of Ms. Forrester’s weekend newscasts. I have always found her pleasant, engaging, personable and authoritative in her presentation.
The weekend Irma made her ascent, people who live in the many rural communities surrounding Albany were on pins and needles and depending on the news staff of WALB to provide accurate, frequent and consistent weather and safety information.
Out of nowhere, after Emileigh’s Saturday 11 o’clock newscast, a Twitter user tweeted this intellectual request:
This guy, who claims to be a Marine, and whose Twitter account has since been deleted, exhibited a trait for which no aspiring journalist learns how to take in a college textbook (until I finally write one).
Thankfully, what he did only energized the troops. More than 50 of Emileigh’s friends, viewers and colleagues took to Twitter to fire back. My favorite came from the news web producer at WALB:
The despicable exchange reminded me of what happened shortly after I hired a young woman named Natasha as a reporter in 1991. This was her first job out of college. She had a great education and interviewed well. I was glad to get her.
Admittedly, Natasha struggled in her first few weeks. She had difficulty with speed and with editing skills. I saw huge potential in her, so I decided patience was the appropriate posture.
At the end of the third week, a call came after the 6:00 newscast from a viewer. He called himself Charlie, though I doubt seriously if that was his name. Twenty-six years later, I am paraphrasing this conversation but Charlie said something to the effect of: “How come you can’t do any better than that new girl you have on there?”
In the next five minutes, Charlie proceeded to provide every generic reason why he did not like Natasha. Then came the payoff. Charlie had to throw in the firebomb that he didn’t understand why we had to have so many people who had the color of skin as Natasha.
I paused for a moment to collect my thoughts before I responded. Again, paraphrasing, I said: “That, sir, is something to which you and I could never agree. You have just demonstrated the fallacy and insolence of your entire argument. Since this is the direction you have taken it, this conversation is now over.”
By the way, Natasha blossomed in the next few months and began to break stories that had statewide impact.
Unquestionably, one has to have a thick skin to work in television news because of people like @TBlake762 and Charlie. Next time you look in the dictionary, see if either one isn’t listed as one of the definitions of the word “cruel.”
What people do not realize is that a large fraternity and sorority of broadcast journalists, both active and retired, will not sit back and allow a colleague be unfairly and unreasonably be assailed. In this case, the troops went on the warpath and we had Emileigh’s back.
I retired from being an active news director 25 years ago and went into broadcast journalism education. Having watched her work, I will unequivocally say that I would have been proud to have had Emileigh Forrester as a student or on any of my news staffs when I was in the daily TV news profession.
Emileigh personally took the high road, though as anyone who has ever worked in TV news will tell you, flamethrowers such as @TBlake762 hurt, even if you are thick-skinned.
Most viewers are engaging. If you are an on-air journalist, you attempt to treat them as if they were customers in a store. However, sometimes, they do not get it right.
To Emileigh and any other reporter who has ever taken an unfair swipe at the hands of a coldhearted viewer, hold onto this homespun reminder from humorist Don Hudlow: “There are a lot of naysayers in this world…..and they’ve all been vaccinated with lemon juice.”
Steve Beverly is a former news director and is now professor of broadcast journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tn., where he is news director for the student-produced Jackson 24-7.