10 steps every newsroom can take before disaster hits

December 3, 2015 01:30

By Jeff Marks, WDBJ-TV

At WDBJ7 in Roanoke, it is still, in many ways, August 26.

As one of our counselors told us, that day will just last and last. It will diminish but never leave.

It was the day a former employee, fired two and a half years ago, crept up on our reporter and photographer during an interview and shot them dead. The interview subject was critically wounded and survived.

We were deluged with food and memorial gifts. The communities we serve were as devastated as we were to lose Alison Parker, a bright and energetic reporter, and Adam Ward, a photojournalist with talent and a broad sense of humor.

For weeks after the deaths, food poured in. Fully catered meals, morning to night, sent or delivered by folks from all over the country.
When people recognize any of us as WDBJ7 employees, it’s what they want to talk about. And while we are gracious and grateful for their concern, these conversations make it difficult to focus on other things.

On the other hand, we have had a few people tell us that if Adam and Alison had been armed, this would not have happened. That’s wrong and it’s hurtful. They were ambushed.

The newsroom wall is still covered with dozens of paper copies of messages from other newsrooms saying “We stand with WDBJ7.”
We were interviewed, written about, covered on “20-20.” There was talk of a docudrama. It has been all so overwhelming.

You will never get away from the images and the sense of loss. Those things will fade, but never completely. And as I write this and watch the live coverage of yet another shooting spree in California, there are far more questions than answers.

When asked to give talks, I focus on our recovery but also on anger, how pervasive it is and how we must do a better job of identifying and helping those in pain from anger.

We have supplied mental health services, extra time off, group meetings, a trauma workshop and more to our employees. Those have helped. 

But a lot of raw emotion remains. Of our 110 people, there are 110 recovery speeds.

What this disaster revealed is that some trust and confidence issues that lay beneath the surface were bursting out in unusual behavior by employees and managers. We have a terrific management team, experienced and caring, but none of us owned the handbook on how to handle workplace shootings. And among all of us, there were measures of anger, guilt, sorrow, depression and most negative emotions you can think of.

While there is no handbook that I know of, we have learned some lessons that can apply in other news organizations.

Before disaster hits:

1. Review building security. Most police departments have an expert who will walk with you through your facility and make suggestions about improvements. Ask your employees if there’s anything that bothers them. 
2. Ask the fire marshal to inspect the premises.
3. Prioritize any changes you want to make. Do at least the first thing on the list soon.
4. Install a defibrillator. 
5. Hold CPR training. Make sure that you get certified.
6. Have an evacuation plan and hold fire drills.
7. With the help of employees, create a disaster plan.  No plan can contemplate every possible occurrence, but it should deal with things like:
  • Areas of responsibility and action steps
  • Emergency services contacts
  • Safety of employees and their families
  • Disruption to work processes
8. Picture an employee in poor health. Decide what steps you would take if she were to die at work. Decide what you would do if she were to die away from work.
  • Whom will you call first?  (Family, clergy, counselors)
  • How will you notify colleagues?
  • What will you do to memorialize the person?
  • If it’s a public death, what will you do to represent your company and coworkers?
 9. As much as possible, keep track of former employees who may feel they have an ax to grind. Make sure that your lawyer and law enforcement know of any concerns.
10. Be honest and straightforward with all stakeholders at all times.
By these measures, we were somewhat ready. We had tightened up building security in several ways. We had the fire marshal in to point out dangers. We had held fire drills. We had trained on CPR and installed a defibrillator.

The irony is that the killings happened on assignment, 30 miles from the studio. 

The question that newsrooms have had to deal with is what level of security to provide to field crews. Our response is that the crews are best able to assess the situations, so if they ask for security, we will provide it. We encourage them to find the safest locations, to call off any live shot that they are not comfortable with, and not to repeat in the same location in later newscasts.

We are taking other steps, but our feeling is that it is prudent not to reveal some of them in this forum.  If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call news director Kelly Zuber or me.
Jeff Marks is General Manager of WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, VA.


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