Next week my wife Barbara, Alison's boyfriend Chris Hurst, and I will head back to James Madison University for the School of Media Arts and Design (SMAD) banquet. SMAD was where Alison cut her journalistic teeth, learning from some of the finest professors in the country. One of the first things we did after Alison was killed was set up a scholarship in her name for a worthy student in the SMAD program who exemplifies the qualities she showed as an overachiever in school and in life. We initially hoped donations would make it to $25,000 so it could be matched by a generous alumnus. We were astonished when that goal was reached within a week and now stands at more than $210,000. It's still growing. It means that each year in perpetuity a rising junior and senior will get a substantial scholarship. Her legacy at JMU and the SMAD program is cemented.
The day after the banquet is SMAD Day, where students meet with alumni in their desired field. Alison was a panelist immediately after she graduated. The three of us will participate in a discussion for students on our dealings with the media throughout our ordeal after Alison's murder. Ours is a unique situation because, with very few exceptions, the media has been gracious and sensitive. Alison was one of the tribe, and because of that, I believe they treat us with a deference that few others receive. From my perspective, our relationship with the media is so unlike what students might experience in the real world that I'm not sure I could add much to the conversation beyond that observation.
So what do I tell these aspiring journalists? I will tell them my favorite Alison journalism story. It's one that makes me smile, burst with pride, and appreciate how she approached life. It shows how she treated people and how others felt about her then and to this day. But first the lead up...
Alison got a job before she got her diploma in December 2012. She was hired at WCTI 12 in New Bern, North Carolina initially to work with another reporter in their Greenville bureau. Within a week, the news director discovered she was something special and asked her if she'd like to run the Jacksonville, North Carolina bureau on her own. She jumped at the chance. She covered hard news and in that area it generally revolved around these kinds of stories:
"Marine Comes Home To Hero's Welcome", or
"Marine Shakes Baby To Death", or
"Big Meth Lab Bust".
One story she broke went international about a 12-foot alligator that snatched an 80-pound dog from a creek in a park in the middle of town. Her stories there were unlike the mostly fluff pieces she did as the morning reporter for WDBJ.
Alison was a fierce competitor who always wanted to break the story and the majority of the time she did. As she did throughout her short life, Alison developed relationships and trust. There was no better example than the mutual trust she gained with the court clerks, judges and law enforcement in Jacksonville, Onslow County and the state police attached to the area. While they all had to share appropriate information to the local media, Alison was clearly a favorite. Once while visiting her, she took Barbara and me by to see the old Onslow County sheriff who sang her praises and invited us to join his wife and him "for suppuh". I thought it quite unusual, but it said how fond of her he was.
One day she got "scooped" even after she got a call from one of her police contacts telling her they were working on a "very active" investigation. They were asking the media to keep it quiet because of it's "sensitive nature." Alison did what we taught her and was reinforced at JMU. Given the nature of the case, she was ethical and she complied. Her competition did not, and broke the story. Initially, there were some in her news department that criticized her for not reporting it. I remember her telling me how stinging that was for her, but she was OK with the decision, knew she had done the right thing and stood up for herself in her staff meetings. Ultimately, prematurely breaking that story backfired on the other station and Alison was later hailed by upper management at hers. The respect she already had was multiplied by her correct course of action.
The immediate benefit came in the form of getting more tips. When law enforcement had information to feed the press, they would send out a release to all media outlets at the same time. Alison would get it an hour or two before anyone else. It was a small gesture that recognized her integrity.
...and that leads to my favorite Alison news story. Alison was tipped off that there was going to be a major meth lab bust in the county. State as well as local police were involved and the lead investigator assured Alison they would be working long through the night at the crime scene. She requested the only live truck the station had for the entire area so she could lead the 10 o'clock news with a live report. Alison and crew were ready to go. Then around 9:45 the lead investigator calls out to his team, "OK, guys, that's it. Let's wrap it up".
Alison panicked. Her story is tanking before her eyes. She went to the lead investigator and asked if they can please just stick around for a few more minutes for her live shot.
"Sure Alison, we've got you covered," he said. He then proceeded to have the lights on the squad cars turned on and flashing. Normally they stayed off for something like this. He then positioned other members of his team to stand in the background, with clipboards, appearing to be intensely writing notes. The scene was dramatic and made for a great backdrop for Alison's report. She nailed it.
Could one argue that it was a staged event? Perhaps, but the reality is it was a benign recreation, the kind of small-town harmless courtesy that belonged in Mayberry, or in this case, Jacksonville, North Carolina. Would officers in a major metropolitan market have done this for Alison? Maybe not, but given the trust she gave and garnered, I'd like to think so. These guys did it for her because she was held in high esteem and they knew her ethics to be beyond reproach. I smile and I cry every time I recount this story. She made me proud.
Andy Parker is an advocate for common-sense gun legislation. His daughter, Alison Parker, was a television reporter and anchor in Roanoke, Virginia and was murdered during a live broadcast in August 2015.