Why the WDBJ Shootings Touched Me So Personally

I am at home, sitting in front of my computer, weeping.

I had seen a news alert about the shooting deaths of two news people from a Virginia TV station that occurred during a live broadcast.

Like so many others, I turned to the web, and more specifically, Twitter, to get the latest.

And then I watched a 12-minute video of the news team at WBDJ-TV report about the deaths of their colleagues.

The footage led with remarks by the station’s general manager, Jeffrey Marks, who looked straight into the camera and delivered the news to viewers.

Clearly, Marks and the three anchors were distraught.

Their voices cracked with emotion. One anchor alluded to studio workers crying in the background. But they were composed and set about their jobs with the utmost professionalism.

The shootings touched me profoundly, and not just because of the loss of such young lives in such a public, abrupt and senseless way, but because, I realized, it touched close to home.

A little over two years ago, I was the executive editor of the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa.

On the night of Aug. 5, 2013, reporter Chris Reber was covering a township meeting when 23 shots strafed the small municipal building.

Reber had been at the Pocono Record a little less than three months in his first full-time staff reporting job.

His beat: The “West End,” a collection of mostly rural communities sprawled across Monroe County’s countryside that included Ross, a square-shaped locality of about 6,400 residents that historically had been a low generator of news.

“Nothing ever happens there,” Marta Gouger, at the time my top lieutenant, warned him.

But Reber, being new and desiring to be thorough, wanted to develop sources and get acquainted with his community.

It was the first Ross Township meeting he had ever covered.

Nineteen minutes into the meeting, gunfire erupted.

Reber would later report in a firsthand account that plaster was blowing out from the walls as gunshots ripped into the building.

He crawled to safety, exited the building and called the newsroom with dispatches from the scene.

I was at home when I got the phone call. I bolted and arrived in the newsroom in a T-shirt, sweatpants and slippers. I alerted our publisher, who made it to the newsroom in 45 minutes for a trip that ordinarily takes 90.

For a brief time, we did not know whether Chris had survived and I was beside myself. Chris was only a few years older than my oldest son and I was overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility and paternal, protective feelings.

In the chaos, I did get this email from one of my editors: “Reber is (at) the meeting. … Reber is OK, but dead guy on the floor in the meeting. Reber is shook, but said he can work.”

(Three people were killed and one seriously injured by a crazed resident who had had a 20-year feud with the township over his debris-cluttered property.)

In a note later to the staff, I told them that their journalism that night represented a high-water mark for breaking news coverage. I went so far as to nominate it for a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking Local News.

We had a therapist come in to debrief the news staff.

We had a “thanksgiving” luncheon “to give thanks for Chris’ safety and a way of giving thanks for the professionalism and personal support in a time of crisis that you’ve all demonstrated in a big way,” I wrote.

Chris has since left the Pocono Record but remains in journalism.

Newsrooms are like other workplaces but perhaps a bit more tight-knit. In them, we laugh, bicker and celebrate like other families.

And when there is an inexplicable loss like this in one newsroom, it’s felt in others elsewhere.

Today I ordered a basket of cookies to be delivered to WDBJ. It is a small gesture to express condolences but, more importantly, to show support.

In the days after the Ross shooting, I was deeply touched by the outpouring of support that flowed to our newsroom by colleagues and strangers alike.

For those who wish to pay their respects, the station’s address is:

Digital Broadcast Center
WDBJ Television
2807 Hershberger Road
Roanoke, VA 24017

Rest in peace,  Alison Parker and Adam Ward.