Coping with Tragedy: Yes, Viewers, Newscasters Do Have a Heart

I have never set foot in Missoula, Montana, though people have told me the country is beautiful there.

I had a loose connection with Missoula 35 years ago.  The company that purchased WTVM in Columbus, Ga., where I was an anchor and reporter, was headquartered in Missoula.  The new owners did not enter the building wearing cowboy hats.  One had a distinct accent when he talked about “how we do things in Muntenna.”

Other than its geography, life in Missoula may be comparable to that in Jackson, Tn., where I have lived for the past 25 years.  Both cities have populations of slightly fewer than 70,000.  Both are located along fairly large rivers.   Health care and education provide the largest sources of employment in each town.

One significant difference between the two is in violent crime:  two years ago, Missoula had one murder.  Jackson had 11.  Rare is the night when Missoula television news leads with a homicide.

The evening of May 6, one of those rare evenings developed.  Only not of the ilk imagined in the worst nightmares of anyone working in the newsroom at KTMF.

For those who have never worked in a television newsroom, the police monitor is the equivalent of a living person.  Reporters, producers and videographers commit numerical crime investigation codes to memory.  Assignment editors, arguably the most stressed individuals in any news operation, often have one ear peeled to the monitor while dispatching crews to a scene.

Two weeks ago on a Wednesday evening, if events unfolded as they typically do, a call ensued on the police radio at KTMF.  The street address was 314 Brooks Street.

Missoula is currently the 165th largest television market in America.  Only 45 markets are smaller.  Cities the size of Missoula have a touch of Mayberry.  People tend to know more people.  A trip to a Walmart takes less than 15 minutes.  Television newscasters are not just local celebrities.  They become members of the family.   The average Joe and Mabel feels comfortable approaching an anchor or reporter by first name in Albertsons or Safeway.

In a television market the size of Missoula, the newsroom is frequently populated by young journalists in their first jobs, all hoping to climb a ladder they hope will take them to the big-time or at least the medium-time.  Some members of the anchor team are people who have chosen to make their homes in a smaller city because their spouses and children have a comfort with the landscape.

When journalists are in their twenties, few have dealt with death.  The percentages of them who have lost a parent or immediate family member are small.  In Missoula, since murders are so infrequent, deaths reported on KTMF usually involve prominent citizens or past political leaders who pass from natural causes or bouts with cancer.

I was not in the newsroom at KTMF on May 6.  However, I have little doubt more than one voice was hushed if the words “314 Brooks Street” rang a bell.

That was the address of KTMF news director Kalee Scolatti.  Kalee was the exception to the rule of most people her age in television news.  In reading news accounts in the last two weeks, I learned that Kalee was a graduate with honors of the University of Montana in 2005.  She went to work for one of the local television stations after graduation.  Stories tell of her work in production that eventually segued into the newsroom and culminated in the role as KTMF’s chief news officer.

Kalee pursued a career track that I often tell my students at Union University is an admirable one.  She stayed home.  I told a group recently, “You don’t have to go to New York or Chicago to be a success in broadcast news.  Wherever your journey takes you, you may find the town that becomes home for you and it may be a smaller town.  You won’t make as much money as you will in a larger market, but as long as you work hard and you’re happy, you can be an equal servant to your community in Panama City as one is in Philadelphia.”

No news directors, no anchors, no producers, no journalists worth their credentials ever harbor a desire to become the story.  Some viewers don’t like us because we often have to report unpleasant occurrences.  Some hold grudges because an investigative light is often cast on political or other community leaders involved in wrongdoing.  Those alleged perpetrators have friends.  Friends are often loyal even when their pals are guilty of malfeasance.

Even still, in the Missoulas, the Jacksons, the Dothans or the Macons of the world, viewers tend to look on television newscasters as people they would love to ask over for supper.  Carol Goldsmith of WYFF in Greenville, S.C., is one such news anchor.  Former WYFF producer Michelle Baker once told me, “Women love Carol because they know she is a mother and she connects with other moms.”

Kalee Scolatti was a mother of three.   In reading some painful narratives during recent days, we learned that Kalee was having a troubled personal life.  Her husband was no longer in the home.  Yet, no one could have foreseen the events of May 6.

In the last decade, news reports on domestic violence have become a standard.  They were even before the sordid stories unfolding from the National Football League last year.  Some cities were slow to answer the bell because small towns are supposed to be immune from such things.  Yet, in 2015, one might suspect even Mayberry might house a couple of domestic abusers.

Last fall, my students—-whose daily newscast Jackson 24/7 is a staple of local cable—-engaged in a week-long emphasis on domestic violence in West Tennessee.  They learned as much as they reported and interviewed.  They learned domestic abuse cuts across every racial and cultural boundary, every age bracket, and every occupation.  Sometimes, the results end in tragedy.

In February 2014, those same students were forced to deal with an incident that will forever remain with them.  Some of them were barely 20 or 21.

Union University does not have the enrollment of The University of Montana.  Union is a private Southern Baptist institution, not a state school.  For more than a century, students have referred to “the Union bubble,” an imaginary shield that they sometimes mistakenly believe shields them from the real world beyond campus.

Violent crime does not happen at Union University.  At least it did not until the morning of February 12, 2014.  A music major with a healthy set of friends was found dead of a bullet wound in her car on the parking lot of a building across from the main Union campus.  Olivia Greenlee was to have graduated the following May.  She was engaged to marry fellow Union student Charlie Pittman last August 9.

Three days after Olivia’s body was found, Pittman was charged with her first degree murder.  He has pleaded innocent.  A judge has given him a final deadline of June 8 to change that plea.  If Pittman maintains innocence, his trial is scheduled to begin September 27.

Paigh Lytle and Kelsey Graeter were the anchor team for the noon edition of Jackson 24-7 the morning after Greenlee was found dead.  As was the case with many Union students, Paigh and Kelsey knew one or both of the two young people involved in the tragedy.

At the time, investigators still had not ruled Greenlee’s death a homicide.  Outgoing Union president David Dockery agreed to appear with Paigh and Kelsey on that noon newscast.  When he met me in the hall before entering the studio, I knew from the expression on his face that Union was about encounter a first and not one that would be included in the school’s future public relations materials.

Paigh and Kelsey appeared shaken but asked the difficult questions of Dockery.  To his credit, he answered every one of them, most of them without the typical p.r. spin one might expect of someone in his position.

When the broadcast was over, Paigh and Kelsey were both emotionally over-wrought.  Both had to leave to compose themselves.  When they returned, we had a discussion about a painful lesson they had just learned.  If you pursue journalism for a career, at some point you will likely have to report a story that challenges everything that is within you because you are acquainted with or are friends with the central figure or figures involved.  One simply does not expect that to happen as a junior in college.  Regardless of where Paigh or Kelsey or their Jackson 24-7 colleagues ultimately land, their world was forever changed.  The Union bubble had burst.

The culture in any young television newsroom is often comparable to that of people in any profession who have to work as a team.  Because most of the reporters are under 30, they have an emotional sense of invincibility.  Regardless of the menu of any given day’s news, some espirit de corps is required to deliver the nightly output.  Some days, people like the news director; other days, people would like to wish the news director into a cornfield, a la the classic Billy Mumy episode of Twilight Zone.

I was not in the newsroom at KTMF or one of those in the news car that drove to 314 Brooks Street May 6.  I do know that the sense of detachment that occurs from covering many tragedies all too quickly evaporated.  Once word spread via phone or texts to others in the newsroom and those who were already home for the evening, the culture of KTMF was forever changed.

Kalee Scolatti and a family friend, Anthony Dupras, were dead.  As we learned from police reports in the days that followed, Kalee’s estranged husband entered the home.  At some point, she called Dupras, whom she had frequently referred to as a brother.  Investigators say the evidence indicated when Dupras arrived, Nicholas Scolatti took out a handgun and shot Kalee, Dupras and himself.  Nick Scolatti died two days later.  The Scolattis left behind three daughters.  Dupras had two sons.

How the anchors of KTMF managed to deliver the news to Missoula that night I will never know.  Active news directors aren’t supposed to die, much less become the victims of an alleged murder.

We live in a vastly different world than the one in which I became a rookie reporter in the mid-1970s.  Seven years ago, Anne Pressly—a reporter-anchor for KATV in Little Rock—was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered in her apartment.  Last December, Patrick Crawford—a morning weathercaster at KCEN in Waco, Tx., was shot three times on the station parking lot.  He survived.  In February, San Diego sportscaster Kyle Kraska was shot ten times through the back window of his car.  A month later, Kraska miraculously returned to his job at KFMB CBS 8.

Within a day and a half, the story of Kalee Scolatti’s untimely death was in The New York Daily News, The Los Angeles Times, and the U.K.’s The Daily Mail and The Guardian.  Missoula rarely is the locale of news outside of Montana.

Often, viewers mistakenly are of the opinion that broadcast journalists have no heart and no soul.  They are moreso of that mind of network newscasters, but the adversarial relationships occasionally filter down to the local level.  As one of my former students and long-time WBBJ anchor Keli McAlister told a gathering at Union last year, “There’s no textbook that prepares you for the first time you take a phone call from an angry viewer.”

Having been on the working journalist side and in an administrative role for 19 years, I am acutely aware of the emotions of a newsroom.  People on a news staff have bills to pay, have to deal with frozen pipes and stopped-up toilets, have worries about children, struggle to determine how to finance college for those same kids, battle illnesses, experience depression (a subject for an upcoming blog entry) and deal with deaths in the family.

When a fellow staff member, whether the boss or a peer, not only dies but is apparently murdered, one does not simply put on the game face and report the facts.  Once I read the story of Kalee’s death, I knew hearts were breaking in the KTMF newsroom.  Those hearts would not mend in a matter of days.

Union is a Christian university.  We believe in God.  We believe in prayer.  I told my students of the tragedy in Missoula.  I asked them all to pray for everyone in the KTMF newsroom, as well as the families affected by the tragedy.  They did.  As I told them, “You want to be where they are soon.  Just as we experienced with the sad story of Olivia and Charlie last year, those people are hurting.  They don’t know you but they need to know others are thinking of them.”

I knew no one on the KTMF staff, but I reached out via e-mail to the first anchor on the station website, Angela Marshall.  I shared the story of what we experienced 15 months earlier and the emotional stress for Paigh and Kelsey.  Here is an excerpt of my communication:

 “Unfortunately, times come when you have to tell unpleasant stories to a waiting audience even if your heart is breaking inside. I know many questions will continue to be asked that end up with that one-word question “why?” in the next days and weeks concerning Kalee’s death. 

         The answers may not come to the emotions of your team as quickly as the answers will for police investigators.  You can’t just turn off the pain and the grief inside, all the while having to maintain a sense of professionalism to your audience.

        Just know that one who has sat in your seats for many years and has been teaching a sense of journalistic and personal values to college students for 23 years is thinking of all of you and has you in my prayers.  My students likewise offered a prayer for your entire news team after our broadcast today.”

A few hours later, I heard from David Winter, Angela’s co-anchor:

“I left the business for about 20 years and recently rejoined the Fourth Estate,” he wrote.  “Having reported last in San Francisco before leaving the business, I was exposed to a lot of crime reporting.  Now that I have “retired” to Montana… and for the most part to the anchor desk… it was unusual circumstances that led me to be the one on the scene when I learned my friend and news director had been killed.”

David offered me something to pass along to my students.  “As painful as this story was to report… EVERY tragedy that we cover is just as painful for the people on whom we are reporting,” he wrote.  “Disassociation with the stories and the people we cover is often used as a defense-mechanism to protect our own feelings.  But too much disassociation can lead to callousness, and a disservice to our stories, their subjects, our viewers, and perhaps most importantly to ourselves and our personal relationships.”

How right he is.  An occasional rogue reporter views tragedy as a stepping stone to the next big job.  Most I know, thankfully, have a breaking point because they do have a heart for the people who are victims of murders, fires, or domestic violence.  That’s not a loss of objectivity.  That’s being a human being.

As I write this, KTMF’s online page now offers stories on an upcoming school bond vote in Missoula, students in Bozeman who are building wheelchairs for children in Mexico, and a clinic which serves people who cannot afford proper dental care.  The world and Missoula have had to move forward.

Yet, still on the “Most Popular” bar is a link to Remembering Kalee Scolatti.  A video remains with a montage of the good memories of Kalee and what she meant to her station, her colleagues and her friends.

Eventually, Remembering Kalee Scolatti will disappear from that website.  Yet, the memories of Kalee will never go away from the hearts and minds of the people who work for KTMF.  After the night of May 6, the lives of those who make television and report news every night to Missoula and its neighboring cities and counties will indeed never be the same.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s