'Live' Murders in Virginia Show Need for Greater Training of Journalists Before They Go 'On-Air'

Joe Little of ABC Channel 10 News in San Diego had it right.

He saw no need for media analysis when it came to Vester Flanagan, aka Bryce Williams, who murdered two people and injured a third on air as his camera rolled. He quickly sent the footage to social media, including Facebook and Twitter.

Little called the newsman "a whack job."

One generally should not speak ill of the dead (Williams fatally shot himself as authorities closed in), yet Little is a veteran broadcaster with high ethical standards, really the cream of the crop when it comes to journalists.

There is a lot one can say about the stress that comes with a broadcasting career. The raw competition that is part of the business can be a psychological burden. It might seem self-serving to suggest such incidents as the shootings in Virginia this week might have been prevented if there was more required training -- in ethics and fair play, more mandatory reflective practice, greater deliberation -- to receive a journalism job. Now,there is none, and the message to journalists can be twisted and misconstrued. Easily, broadcasters can mistake their own career interests with protecting the public interest.

In this type of improved (utopian?) environment, maybe Alison Parker, just 24, and Adam Ward, 27, could still do their jobs in Moneta, Va. Parker's family have voiced their grief, saying. "Our vivacious, ambitious, smart, engaging, hilarious, beautiful, and immensely talented Alison was taken from the world. This is senseless and our family is crushed."

Of course the economy plays a role in the uncertainty many newspeople feel about their jobs. So do regular visions of lunacy in the national and interntional news arena, but this is hardly an excuse for murder. Every parent knows reality is scary. Still, journalists need more support from the public because they are critical to our democratic way of life. Williams was described as an unhappy man, quick to anger and take offense. It is very rare to see news professionals lose their grip on reality as Williams did.

Press freedom is considered a testament to democratic values in this country. Just as guns are easy to get, the only requirement to secure a journalism job is persistence and confidence.
Williams' resume looks a lot like many others pursuing journalism. His problems seemed to be mounting for years and were noticed by a series of news employers who said they felt hamstrung to take action because of HR laws protecting employees.

"Our jobs are difficult enough covering war, crime and terrorism," said Tracie Savage, a veteran broadcast journalist who is starting on an academic job training Los Angeles journalists after earning her master's degree at National University. "You just don't expect the terrorist to be a co-worker."

At the risk of going against the prevailing wisdom of the Internet age, I want to make a few points:

1) Not everyone is a journalist, despite the ease of digital age tools.
2) While bloggers can be journalists, not every blogger is one. The Internet is replete with peril, sometimes absolute garbage, but it also has amazing possibility. Ethics and values are still important. They need to be placed at the top of every young reporter's radar screen.
3) It takes training and strong mental health to become a journalist, particuarly a good and compassionate one. This was always true but now now clarity of mind, maybe even regular therapy that fosters a postitive outlook, is even more critical.
4) Everyone with a camera and microphone is NOT a journalist.

ABC News confirmed it received the document, reporting Williams wrote that his reaction to the racism of the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting in June led to Wednesday's events.
"Why did I do it? I put down a deposit for a gun on 6/19/15. The church shooting in Charleston happened on 6/17/15...," Williams wrote, according to ABC. "What sent me over the top was the church shooting. And my hollow point bullets have the victims' initials on them."

These were obviously the rants of a man who had lost his hold on reality.

In my view the teaching of journalists is among the highest professions one can hold because of the ripples of influence that can contribute to a better society. Yet some kind of standards, even those agreed to by journalists from different media, might help this world incorporate more reporters who understand they are part of a long and bright tradition rather than a short, deranged and dark one.

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