Roanoke’s WDBJ7 shares story of on-air murder tragedy

Station members address role of journalism in emergency situation, response to on-air tragedy


Madeline Hill '18

Journalism Professor Kevin Finch led the discussion with the WDBJ staff members about the on-air murder.

Madeleine Haight

Two members of the Roanoke WBDJ-TV 7 staff spoke in Washington and Lee’s Stackhouse Theater Wednesday,  Feb. 3 to discuss lessons they learned from the tragedy that occurred last August, involving the live shooting of two of their colleagues. They were joined by a photographer from a competing Roanoke TV station.

Their former WDBJ colleague killed reporter Allison Parker, 24, and photojournalist Adam Ward, 27, during an on-air interview in Smith Mountain Lake, Va. on Aug. 26, 2015.

General Manager and spokesperson for WBDJ Jeff Marks was joined by WDBJ Senior Reporter Joe Dashiell, ‘80, and Bruce Young, ‘85. Young worked as a photographer for a competing Roanoke news station at the time.

Journalism Professor Kevin Finch moderated this event. He introduced the guests and set the tone to discuss the tragic unfolding of events.

“We are here today to learn from this disturbing episode,” Finch said. “Probably one of the most disturbing episodes in the history of broadcast television.”

Marks agreed.

“Trauma, layered on trauma, on top of trauma,” Marks said of that day.

Marks spoke on topics like workplace violence and recovering from tragedy, but focused on the crucial role of journalism in the days following the tragedy.

“It was a combination of work that I had to do, and that the team had to do, to keep the journalism going, to protect ourselves,” Marks said. “And mostly see to the needs of the people that were in shock.”

Marks said it was difficult to fulfill the duty expected of a news network to investigate and relay a story, when the network itself became the story. But the extremely unusual experience helped reinforce the important aspects and role of journalism, he said.

Marks asked Dashiell to report on the obituaries for Parker and Ward shortly after confirmation of their murder that morning. Dashiell said he agreed, and was thankful for the assignment.

But Finch asked Dashiell if he was able to maintain objectivity, and remain in the journalism mode while reporting on the events.

“Usually you do that all the time, try and put aside your personal feelings as you pursue a story,” Dashiell said. “Many of them aren’t pleasant, and hard to deal with.”

But Dashiell said this story was different.

“I knew the people involved very closely,” Dashiell said.”I was able to put them aside because I wanted to do them justice. I wanted to tell their story and try to share what kind of people they were.”

Marks said his team appreciated the support from what was typically their competing station to help with their broadcasts.

The speakers said both sensitivity and balance are important in journalism. Dashiell specifically said that he remains in a constant state of decision making, using his judgment to decide if certain leads are worth pursuing.

Young said that he is constantly working on how to best handle dangerous situations, which are inevitable in his line of work.

“By definition we are putting ourselves out there,” Young said, “and it’s a constant push and pull of asking myself how much of the story do I need to fulfill my duty as a journalist.”

The speakers closed the discussion with advice to W&L students who wish to pursue a future in journalism.

James Emanuelson, ‘16, attended the event and said the speakers’ insights were interesting.

“It was valuable to hear first hand how journalists process these types of tragedies, and channel their emotional responses in such a productive manner,” Emanuelson said.