Mike and Aaron….and a Newsroom with Broken Hearts

No one anywhere at any time in the next few days or even weeks can say something to ease the pain being felt in a newsroom in Greenville, S.C.  WYFF is a place with which I have at least a token familiarity.

WYFF News 4 LogoMemorial Day is like most holiday observances.  In a TV newsroom, assignment editors scramble to develop a working menu of stories.  While retail stores are usually thriving with people, government offices are closed, schools are out and public servants are taking the final day of the weekend off with their families.

The typical roster includes retail sales compared to year-ago Memorial Day weekend totals, patriotic events, gas prices and holiday weekend travel, holiday festivals, crime or major holiday accidents, and weather-related stories (usually with increasing heat as June approaches or when heavy rains put a damper on Memorial Day cookouts).

The weather was a significant part of news coverage on this Memorial Day.  Subtropical storm Alberto came inland in the Panama City area Monday and began its ascent toward Alabama.  Gulf Coast stations, Dothan, Birmingham, Montgomery and Huntsville were all monitoring the progress closely.  The Carolinas, likewise, were hit with pelting rains that went all the way up the Mid-Atlantic coast and created flooding in Virginia and Maryland.

No one in any newsroom anticipates a holiday will leave a staff heartbroken.  Monday, at WYFF, tragedy struck.

Mike McCormick 2Mike McCormick was an 11-year veteran at the Upstate South Carolina station.  He started his career at WYFF as a reporter in the station’s Spartanburg bureau.  In recent years, he became a weekend anchor.  I never met Mike but I occasionally exchanged conversation with him on Twitter when interesting weekend stories developed.

Aaron SmeltzerAaron Smeltzer was a talented videographer who joined the WYFF staff earlier this year.  As happens when anyone signs on at a new television station, a few weeks are needed to become part of the culture.  From all reports, Aaron had done just that.

Both men were 36.  They were in the prime of their careers.  McCormick, in particular, was a well-known face and voice to viewers in Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville.

Monday morning, their assignment was to report on the impact of heavy rains in the lower portion of Western North Carolina.  They stopped to interview the fire chief of the small village of Tryon, NC.  As is routine, they packed up their gear and were headed either back to the station or to another interview.

One of the offshoots of continuous showers is softening of the soil around even the oldest trees.  I had personal experience with that approximately 10 years ago.  A huge oak tree suddenly collapsed and crashed in my front yard during torrential rains.  Thankfully, the tree fell away from my home.

No more than ten minutes after they left Tryon, a nightmare occurred at mid-morning.  Aaron and Mike were traveling when a huge tree, softened at the roots by the constant downpours, fell and struck their SUV.  They likely never saw it coming and had no time to react.  Both men, with so much ahead of them, were killed.

I have no idea what the instant reaction was like in the WYFF newsroom.  I wasn’t there.  Yet, I know firsthand what the emotions are like when one has to report on the tragic death of a personal friend.  I can surmise tears flowed from even the most stalwart men and women on the WYFF team.  Mike and Aaron were two of their own.  They were not supposed to be the lead story of the evening news on Channel 4 Monday night.

Michael CarolI had no doubt the voices and the emotions would be heavy from WYFF veteran anchors Michael Cogdill and Carol Goldsmith Monday night.  I have known Michael for 33 years.  He was a rookie reporter with WECT in Wilmington, NC, when I was news director at the opposition at WWAY.  I badly wanted to hire him away.  At that time, managements in Wilmington did not smile on “stealing” on-air journalists.  Michael’s wife-to-be Jill Kremer interned with us at WWAY.

Carol is the epitome of professionalism.  She has connected so well with women in the Piedmont area of South Carolina because she is a mom.  When I served my fellowship at WYFF, she told me some interesting stories about her early days as a reporter while covering the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.

I observed how Carol was always ready to answer the bell regardless of the story.   I well remember a Fourth of July that was your typical “slow” news day.  In the final hour before news time at 5, not one but two major breaking stories developed.  A fire erupted in an apartment complex that left more than 20 people without a place to stay.  Almost simultaneously, a Greyhound bus accident on I-85 near Anderson SC forced first responders to set up a triage on the interstate as traffic was backed up for miles.

That day, the WYFF news team was a machine.  No sign of panic evolved. Tim WallerNo worries surfaced in having to rearrange what appeared to be a routine holiday lineup.  Carol and 5:30 anchor Tim Waller, who was subbing for Michael on the holiday, were cool and reassuring to viewers in the midst of what could have been two tragedies.

The difference Monday:  Mike and Aaron were part of the family.  Imagine attending a family reunion one day and receiving word the next morning that two of your relatives are gone.  Mike and Aaron were in that newsroom early Monday morning.  They will never return.

Someone has to do the obituary.  Someone has to decide what to say about two colleagues, who to offer tributes and how to treat the kind of story that is not taught in college textbooks.

Michael and Carol had to tell their viewers that a regular guest in their homes would no longer be dropping in during the early evening or pre-bedtime hours.  They had to give people a frame of reference about another member of the WYFF family they never saw but who was integral to every story he shot and edited.

Earlier in the day, I posted on our local West Tennessee Today Facebook news page a sentence that reflects how I would fell if I were back calling the shots in a newsroom.  “When tragedy strikes a TV newsroom,” I wrote, “the news has to go on but hearts are breaking.”

In TV news, you take a lot of brickbats from viewers who hate the media and feel no one in a newsroom has a heart.  Trust me, hearts are more than heavy in Greenville and will be for a while.

Michael and Carol and the reporting staff will have to go on detailing routine stories.  Meteorologist John Cessarich will be keeping viewers updated on the aftermath of a storm called Alberto and the local weather.  People are already gearing up for the hopeful fortunes of Clemson and South Carolina in football this fall.

Yet, for days, weeks, even months, things will happen that will bring back the memory of two men in their mid-thirties who were brothers in a special family.  New people will be hired to fill their slots on the roster—but they can never take the places of Mike and Aaron.

Memorial Day 2018 will be remembered for years by the men and women who work for WYFF.  In TV news, you cannot put up a sign that reads Pardon Us While We Grieve.  The news will continue on Tuesday and beyond on Channel 4.

In an era when some who act out of misguided emotion attempt to minimize the sincerity of those who offer thoughts and prayers, the outpouring the WYFF family is feeling today is from people who genuinely are offering prayers for the two men’s families and the staff.  A news team is in many people’s homes more than some in their real families.

My father was a minister and his gift was knowing the right things to say to families who were in the midst of grieving, especially in times of sudden tragedies.  I remember many times in eulogies he turned to Psalm 147:3, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

Aaron MikeThat healing will not come tomorrow, this week, or probably next.  For those of you who live in the Greenville area and regularly watch WYFF, remember that a lot of people you see on Channel 4 in the days ahead are hurting inside.  They may not know you personally.  However, you know them.  Offer a prayer for them.  Be a family to them at a time when they need it most.

God bless and comfort the WYFF news team, the entire station staff and the families of Mike McCormick and Aaron Smeltzer.

WYFF 11 p.m. newscast Monday, May 28     

http://www.wyff4.com/article/wyff-news-4-remembers-anchor-photojournalist-who-were-tragically-killed-in-crash/20946162

 

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Keaton Jones: Well After the Buzz

Keaton Jones 1I saw the first story break about 13-year-old Keaton Jones online December 11.  National mainstream media outlets and local stations scrambled faster than the rush for the latest President Trump tweet to paint the picture of a middle school student as a symbol of bullying.

As I watched the hoopla unfold on all the major networks, I told a couple of my students and a former colleague that the story had a life of about three to four days.  My old friend agreed.  The students asked why.

My response, paraphrasing, went something along these lines:  “It’s another opportunity to chase what we used to call a ‘water cooler story.’  You have the perfect setup:  a kid who has just become a teen in one of the most awkward ages of life, he says he’s being ganged up on by peers and he’s elected to tell his story via social media.”  I went on to explain that television and online journalists are attracted to any story that “goes viral.”  In today’s move-on-to-the-next story culture, and with schools about to adjourn for Christmas break, I had no faith that we would see serious, probing reporting on a critical issue that confronts children and teens daily.

However, I added that something did not feel right about this story.  Had Keaton Jones taken a phone camera and posted what was on his heart as a bullying victim with no assistance, that would be one thing.  In this case, his mother was offscreen acting in the role of a quasi-interviewer and, at times, asking what an attorney would call leading questions in a courtroom.

Yet, virtually every media outlet and online presence in America chased after this video.  Regardless of what journalists say, they collectively made Keaton Jones an instant media star and just as quickly abandoned him.  This was a class example of what Rick Neuheisel describes as “playing the hits,” the practice of cable sports networks zeroing in on stars almost to excess because focus group research indicates such standouts “move the needle.”  Keaton definitely moved the needle.

Bullying 2On my Roku set, I skimmed newscasts from 11 different local stations during the three-day period after Keaton’s video went viral.  Every single one prominently featured a story on his being bullied in either the first or second block of an early or late evening newscast.  Only in two I viewed was a remote effort made to localize the story and probe further the extent of bullying in that station’s market and whether anti-bullying policies are genuinely being enforced.

Instead, as a whole, journalism was more concerned with the instant celebrity symbol of anti-bullying attached to Keaton Jones.  Little consideration was given to the potential emotional aftermath for the teen or whether this entire confession online was his idea.  I had one colleague suggest to me, “He and his mother put him in that position, so the consequences aren’t our responsibility.”  Really?

Producers and editors became far more enthralled with Hollywood celebrities, college and pro athletes and even politicians from Tennessee offering emotional support and showering attention on Keaton.  Even a GoFundMe.com account was established to create a college fund for the youngster.

Only in a matter of days were questions raised about the legitimacy of Keaton’s video, past online posts by his parents that suggested racism, and whether the mother was egging on the entire hoopla as an attempted money grab.  Within five days, Keaton Jones was dropped as a central media figure.  The GoFundMe effort was canned.  Whatever serious focus journalism could have placed on the issue of bullying fizzled quicker than Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water.

Four years ago, my university hosted a Saturday seminar for young teens.  The focus was on an essay contest that provided the eventual winner a trip to Washington, D.C.  A local attorney and city councilman sponsors the event.  An entire session, including a documentary film, stressed the consequences of bullying for victims.  The attorney and I had a private conversation after one of the sessions.  We shared that both of us had been bullied in either junior high or high school.

Bullying 5I remember my own experience as horrendously as if it were yesterday.  In an afternoon junior high physical education class, we were doing the 600-yard run-walk, one of six elements of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness challenge.  I did not come from an athletic family.  I never struggled in the classroom but I was a hopeless mess on a playing field.  I usually finished in the final four or five in any running test in the class of 36 guys.  On a particular afternoon, I reached the 400-yard mark—huffing as usual—when I was cornered by two in the class who had already finished.  One was a noted bully.  The other stunned me because I always had a reasonable relationship with him.  He was a full head taller than I was.  The bully-by-reputation was a half-head taller.  The bigger guy grabbed me behind the back.  The other one had his fist clenched.  The one I thought was a friend said, “Look up.”  Certainly that must have been one of the courageous acts of his life to hold someone six inches smaller for another boy to cold cock in the chin.  Call it an act of God or whatever you wish but I did not obey his command to look up.  As I braced myself to be smacked in the teeth, two things happened.  Coach Joe Mercer, who was near the 600-yard finish line, miraculously spotted what was about to happen.  He sped toward my attackers and said something to the effect, “What’s going on here?”  At the same time, a white dog who was in a yard across the street from the junior high athletic field, came running to investigate (and I was privately hoping he would take a bite out of the bully).

Coach Mercer pursued his question.  The two guys, who had all of the grace of pro wrestling villains, suggested, “We were just kidding around.”  Oh yeah?  They both knew they were lying.  I was such an emotional wreck at the close call that I erupted in tears, a no-no in front of a peer group of 13-year-old and 14-year-old boys.  So what?  I could not hold back.  The coach, who was not born the day before, immediately accompanied me inside and asked me to go with him to the principal’s office.  I was questioned about what happened.  Naturally, the experience left me in a quandary.  To unload the entire story would brand me as a tattletale, which was emotional suicide.  To not speak would potentially allow the behavior to continue, either against me or someone else (the bully had popped a friend in the jaw in the locker room three weeks earlier).

What shocked me was the principal’s overall approach.  I was quizzed thoroughly about anything I might have done to provoke the attack.  At one point in frustration, I said to the principal, “Do you actually think I would be responsible for being ganged up on two-on-one?”  He acknowledged such, but said, “We have to be thorough to get to the bottom of these things.”  I have some emotional sympathy with recent victims of sexual assaults who feel they are put on trial when reporting their attacks.  That is exactly what I felt in the principal’s office.

Rather than reassure me that the two guys who were ready to take a chunk out of my face would be disciplined (I never knew if they were), the principal left me even more confused.  He presented me with a final thought that I needed to build myself physically so I could defend myself against a bully.  As I later learned, that was the general consensus among fathers of athletes or accused bullies of the day:  if a kid is bullied, it’s mostly his fault because he isn’t skilled enough to fight back.

Scarred for life?  That probably is a stretch.  However, I went through an entire summer looking over my shoulder every time I walked alone or rode my bicycle, concerned if I would encounter one or both of the bullies.  Even as an older adult, I had periodic pockets where the memory of that May afternoon would flash through my mind.  The pain never eased, nor did the disgust of the lack of decisiveness on the part of the principal.

Bullying 1I go into that kind of detail about my own experience because 50 years ago, this was not an issue journalism ever explored.  Episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” or “Leave It to Beaver” touched on bullying more than television news.  Even then, bullying was depicted as a routine rite of passage of a young male’s life.

In 2002, I was in the class of Faculty Fellows from what was then called the Radio-Television News Directors Association.  The group of 24 fellows were past TV news professionals who returned to newsrooms across the nation for a full month as an educational refresher for our students.  We were all provided a DVD with a collection of first-class stories from markets across America that all posed ethical questions.  That became a great teaching tool for me.

One of the best pieces of investigative journalism in the entire set was from a station in Baltimore.  A reporter and videographer stationed themselves in a van with a hidden camera and captured multiple random and calculated acts of bullying on an elementary school playground.  The physical attacks included kicks to the head of one helpless child.  In several instances, teachers or playground monitors had their backs turned to the melees.  None of them came to the aid of a child suffering from incessant brutality.  When shown to a school district administrator, his first response was, “On the surface, this makes us look bad.”

Since that time, most states—including Tennessee where I teach broadcast journalism—have enacted anti-bullying laws for school districts or have directed school boards to develop specific anti-bullying policies.  However, much of the action has now moved online.  Despite Hawaii becoming one of the last states in the country to enact anti-bullying legislation, KGMB reported that cyberbullying affects one out of every two teens in the Hawaiian islands.

Bullying 3

The National Crime Prevention Council reports similar totals nationwide:

  • Over half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, and about the same number have engaged in cyberbullying.
  • Well over half of those who have been victims of cyberbullying do not tell their parents.
  • Girls are “somewhat” more likely than boys to be involved in cyberbullying.

My key question:  when was the last time television news departments seriously explored the issue of bullying with in-depth reporting?  If you are one of those who is constantly under the gun to “generate content,” as is the popular contemporary term, I am handing you a freebie.  Here are several pertinent questions I suggest should be explored by reporters in every city in America:

—-What are the specific anti-bullying policies for each school district?

—-What are the enforcement procedures for discipline?  Who administers punishment and what are the specific penalties?  What happens on first offense, second offense and beyond?

—-What kind of anti-bullying education programs are conducted within your local school district and at what age?  If it occurs at the middle school level, what kind of followup education is offered at the high school level?

—–What type of mental health counseling or referrals are available for victims of any type of bullying?  Going further, what kind of mental health counseling is directed for those who commit acts of bullying?  Those who are serial bullies may well need therapy as much or more as the victims, because no well-adjusted human being engages in this kind of mental as well as physical intimidation to another.

—–At what point does law enforcement step in to intervene with those who commit repeated acts of bullying, or engage in cyberbullying?

—–What do local psychologists or psychology professors suggest are the reasons people become bullies?  To what degree do we still have male parents who take a passive view of bullying by suggesting victims are at fault for not building themselves physically to defend themselves?  What do psychologists say are potential answers from a mental health perspective?

—–How safe are smaller children on a crowded school playground during recess periods?  How adequately are they supervised?

—–To what degree does emotional scarring carry over for bullying victims into adult life?  How much long-term or short-term depression or anxiety results?

—–How can bullying extend into adult life in a workplace situation?

—–What are the numbers in each state for suicide attempts or actual suicides that occur from acts of bullying?

We have to move past this obsession in journalism that just because something or an individual “goes viral” online is a reason for everyone to chase that post or person with top-of-the-broadcast furor.  When the subject is a juvenile, exceeding caution should be exhibited to thoroughly investigate the circumstances.

In the case of Keaton Jones, British journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson offers some salient perspective.  “The fact that the mother uploaded the video should have perhaps raised some flags,” she wrote two days after the Keaton Jones story broke.  “But more so, reporting that she had made racist comments on an Instagram account, which has since been proved fake, should have been checked. It was also reported that Keaton made an apology on behalf of his mother – except that Instagram account was fake too.”

This should serve as an insBullying 6tructional lesson in the fallacies of rushing to publish social media events.  Keaton Jones was made a poster boy for anti-bullying in one day.  Four days later, he was dropped faster than Brad Keselowski drives around Daytona International Speedway.  Media all over the nation and the world share in the responsibility, as badly as we hate to admit mistakes.

In the process, we missed a huge opportunity to explore one of the most emotionally-threatening issues for children and adolescents in the entire nation.  Bullying exists in every single city, large and small, in America.  Reporters need to be asking serious questions in their local communities about how to combat bullies without finding a social media star to serve as the catalyst.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Sadness Strikes a Television Station

At WREG in Memphis, the newsroom on the Fourth of July is like many across the nation—-skeleton crews, stories that depict Independence Day celebrations, and a challenge to fill one, two or three hours of news time.

However, this Fourth is unlike most in the past at the CBS station.  Friday, the people who work there lost a colleague in a horrendous tragedy.

I never met Nancy Allen, though I have other friends who work at WREG.  I dare say, other than co-workers and personal friends, virtually no one knew that Nancy was employed there.

In a scenario in which all of us have probably had nightmares about experiencing, Nancy’s home erupted in fire.  Authorities say she was probably trying to escape but was not successful.  She was found dead in the aftermath.

Nancy Allen was a graphics operator at WREG.  You never see people such as her on camera.  With the virtual elimination of credits at the ends of newscasts, we rarely see the names of those unseen workers who sustain the production end of local news and commercials.

Graphics operators are the most vulnerable to carpal-tunnel syndrome of anyone in television.  If they were paid by the numbers of words they type or logos they squeeze into a screen, they would all be half-billionaires.  They are the people who type every name of people who appear in a newscast, every logo identification in a commercial, and emergency messages and school and business closings during severe or winter weather.  You want to keep the good ones.

Nancy worked at WREG for 30 years.  People with that kind of longevity in television stations are few and will become fewer with every passing year.  If Nancy was like others I have known of that ilk—Carlos Williams at WRBL in Columbus GA, the late Cy Willis at WTVM in Columbus or Maxie Ruth (who worked under 17 different news directors at WSPA in Spartanburg before he retired), she was as familiar in her station as the location of the coffee pot in the employees’ lounge or the entrance to the newsroom.  Again, I didn’t know her—-but with that many years of service, the word institution is probably not an exaggeration.

I cannot write an obituary tribute to Nancy Allen.  However, I can offer some insight into the emotions of people in local television when they lose one of their own.

Plain and simple, the mood is no different than in any family, a church congregation, or any other business.  If one has worked with a veteran employee for an extended period, the instant emotion is like a blow to the chest.  You realize this friend and colleague whom you saw often as much as you did members of your own family will never again walk through the door, sit at her desk, or be busy at her keyboard.  Someone else will ultimately be hired for the job but the newcomer will need time and the patience of the staff to develop the personal identity that his or her predecessor possessed.

I well remember 37 years ago when a young radio news director John Patterson was seated next to me at a Columbus City Council meeting on a Tuesday morning.  The next day, a police call sent officers to an apartment building.  A couple of hours later, the body of John Patterson was rolled out of the unit.  John had taken his own life.  My colleague Richard Hyatt of The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer wrote eloquently of how we in media are no different from anyone else.  When we lose a member of our fraternity, especially in the way John died, we have regret that we did not see the signs or know him well enough to reach out to him more.  I talked with his colleague from WRCG a week later.  “We’re still in shock,” he told me.  “None of us knew.  We still don’t know how to deal with it.”

I had been gone from Wilmington, N.C., for 13 years when I received the news that my weathercaster during the years I was news director at WWAY, Shirley Gilbert, had succumbed to cancer.  Shirley had one of the sunniest dispositions of anyone I ever encountered in the congested, often tense environment of a newsroom.  She was always prepared and professional.  Her battle with cancer was an extremely difficult one.  She had not been able to work in her final nine months.  Regardless, I spoke to a couple of the half-dozen employees who remained at WWAY after learning of her death.  “You kept saying to yourself that Shirley was going to beat this,” her successor as weathercaster told me.  “Even though we had all been prepared for the inevitable, there’s a big hole in the station right now.”

The toughest moment of any I ever had in broadcasting was in 1999.  In addition to our regular telecasts of Union University basketball, we were doing the first season of a weekly coaches show.  We taped on Sunday afternoon for airing on Tuesday night.  On a cold, dreary Saturday at around 4 o’clock, I received the devastating news that the co-head coach of our women’s team, Lisa Hutchens, had been found dead in her apartment.  Lisa was 38.  She was to have taken over the team in full the following season.  I cannot tell you the emotions that swarmed over me.  Further, I realized I was facing having to do a half-hour show that dealt with Lisa’s death.  We could have opted to suspend the show for a week and our two stations would likely have understood.  However, we all agreed that the longer we postponed acknowledging Lisa’s passing, the more difficult it would be for all of us to deal with the grief of her loss.  Only the providence of God helped me through that broadcast.  We had a little more than a month remaining in the season.  We had to get on with life but not a single game telecast came and went that we on the broadcast team would not look over at the bench and glaringly realize that Lisa was not there and never again would be.

When you’re with a television station for 30 years, you survive a lot.  Nancy Allen endured more than one station sale that is always unsettling to a staff, saw anchor retirements, learned new graphics programs and experienced the nuances of this rapidly changing profession.

Nancy AllenMy good friend Tim Simpson, WREG’s chief meteorologist, and veteran anchor Alex Coleman tweeted some of the first tributes to Nancy.  That was followed by several other veteran members of the News Channel 3 staff.  I could tell instantly that the 140-character limit could not come close to reflecting the sadness and emptiness Nancy’s colleagues felt.

The easy thing for co-workers to say is “she will be missed” or “her passing will leave an empty void in our company.”  The truth is:  any condolence or tribute you offer seems so inadequate, especially when a tragedy takes the life of one you have known for years.

If you are reading this and work for another station in any city in America, tweet a note of condolence and encouragement to @3onyourside.  The staff has had to go on with business.  Television news does not stop even in a time of internal or personal tragedy.  Nancy Allen’s memorial service will be Saturday at Calvary Church of the Nazarene in Cordova, TN.   Many memories will be shared of what she meant to her family and to her professional family.  Those memories will never be far from those with whom she worked at WREG.

 

 

 

Another TV Journalist Joins the Battle to Stamp Out Stigma of Emotional Illness

If you’re old enough to remember the assorted series produced by Quinn Martin from the 1960s through the ’80s, you may well remember two distinct trademarks.  Each segment was labeled Act I, Act II…..until the final three-to-four minute climax to wrap the evening’s story.  In the lower right corner of the screen was the word “Epilog.”

This is one of what may be many epilogs to our four-part series on depression and other emotional illnesses within television newsrooms.  Amidst the live shots, multiple deadlines, middle-of-the-night wakeup calls, and demands to be “on” for community service is a genuine vulnerability to depression.

Saturday, a reporter whose work I have viewed during crisis storm coverage in the last year opened up on Facebook about a struggle she has had and the dilemma as to whether to go public with her story.

Ashley HardingAshley Harding trudges the streets of North Florida for WJXT, the Jacksonville station I grew up watching and which influenced me to enter the field of broadcast journalism.

As background, Ashley and her husband had a child 16 months ago.  As is typical, her colleagues and the station in general celebrated the new birth.  However, Ashley began to experience the type of depression that is often only understood if one is a woman.

She, as did many of us, read of the tragic story of the suicide of Portland, Maine (WCSH) meteorologist Tom Johnston.  Before his tenure in Portland, Johnston was the morning meteorologist for Action News in Jacksonville.  On the air, Johnston was known for his lively personality and his sense of humor.  He was probably the last person most people would perceive would even fathom taking his own life.

Tom JohnstonWhat led Tom Johnston to his decision is still and may forever be unknown.  Ashley Harding was compelled to come forward with a story that had to play heavy in her own heart.  Please read her own account at the link above.  Here are some excerpts:

“For days, I had been mulling over and over in my head, asking myself…should I talk about this with the viewers? Should I share this?  I have been struggling with post-partum depression since our son was born in December 2015,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

As is the case with anyone struggling with depression, the dilemma is to accept that one needs help.  Ashley shared about the challenge of making an appointment with a psychiatrist, a difficult act that her husband finally did for her.  She then addressed personal thoughts about Tom Johnston.

“I did not know him when he worked here in Jacksonville, but this story really hit home for me. It’s time to get real about depression and mental illness. It’s okay to talk about it, and please people, get help if you need it. Reach out to those in your life who matter. Don’t wait as long as I did to try to get better. Rest in peace, Tom.”

I have communicated with Ashley via e-mail since her Facebook post went viral via TVSpy.  As I told her, she will never know whether one or 100 people are compelled to seek help because they have seen her daily on WJXT and recognize that she is not just a TV figure, but a real human who has real problems just as the rest of us do.

In her Facebook post, she details beginning the road back with low-dosage anti-depressants.  That is a common prescription for post-partum depression and for cases of clinical depression.  The key is being patient for the medication to work.  You cannot have the attitude of people who put on 15 pounds during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, hit the gym January 2 and expect those 15 to roll off in three or four days.  Any person experiencing depression may need weeks or even months to become one’s whole self again.

Ashley has taken the two most important steps—-she recognized she needed help and, with the help of her husband, she has sought it.  If she follows through on her treatment program—-and I have no doubt she will, she will get well.

Further, her courage to share her experience will be an inspiration to people in Jacksonville who may be going through the same struggles.  My personal hope is that her story will also encourage others in the television industry who need the same type of counseling and treatment to seek help.  As I have detailed previously, TV news is a profession that is a prime conduit of vulnerability to emotional illness.

One retired news director responded to my previous four-part blog with these words:  “This is a high-stress business.  Maybe people who have depression just shouldn’t be in it.”  That was a 1975-type answer.  

No, the time has come for the broadcast journalism industry and its managerial leaders to recognize that many talented people who work for them have their limits.  Depression can occur even to people in a low-stress profession.  Further, it is time for every broadcasting chain in America to require its senior managers and mid-level managers to undergo specific and disciplined training to understand the warning signs of depression and the sensitivity to be encouraging and patient with staff members who experience emotional illness.  Those who are dealing with depression could be some of those managers themselves.

As for Ashley Harding, she is taking the first steps on the road to a full recovery.  She is not alone.  She has a vast audience of people, many of whom she has never met, who are in her corner.  No doubt, her co-workers at WJXT are rooting for her.  So is The Old TV News Coach.

By telling her story, Ashley will have a positive influence on helping people she does not even know to take that first step of seeking help.  Likewise, she is helping to stamp out the stigma of ignorance and callousness concerning emotional illness.  What do we have to lose by talking about it?  We may save another life.

Photos courtesy wcsh6.com and news4jax.com

It’s National Hug a News Person Day….So Why Not Do It?

The catchy trend on Twitter is to declare national days in honor of a favorite event, person, fictional character, or food.  Some of them click.  Some of them roll over like a dog who just wants to go to sleep.

I know from experience.  I have declared the last two October 4ths as #NationalWardCleaverDay after my favorite TV dad of all time.  I think that one received six likes and two retweets.  I don’t care if it’s none and none.  I will observe #NationalWardCleaverDay this coming October 4th on the 60th anniversary of Leave It to Beaver.

A small group online have suggested we take the premiere date of Captain Kangaroo and declare the first #NationalMrGreenJeansDay this fall.  If you grew up with The Captain, how could you not love Mr. Green Jeans, who was a master of all farm animals and inventions?

That brings me to a slowly expanding online phenomenon of April 4.  I wish #Nationalhuganewspersonday had been around in the mid-1970s when I started in TV news.  Some days, a kind word was so elusive that I thought the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series before I heard encouragement in my newsroom.  That was in the place where the news director/anchor once said in a staff meeting:  “You people are an extension of my arms to get to the places I can’t.  I would do it myself if I could but you’re here to carry out my mission.”  That was surely motivational.

Action 9 News Ad

In the location above, didn’t we all look young, vibrant, energetic, alive, and full of TV hair?  I almost cried when I uncovered this TV Guide ad last weekend for the first time in years.  I wondered, “Where did all my hair go?”  Then, I remembered I now have 15 fewer minutes needed to make those locks lay down.  

WTVM was actually a fun newsroom in which to work.  While we didn’t hug each other every day, we had far more virtual hugs and verbal cheers for each other.  We even laughed on a frequent basis, unlike some newsrooms where the temperature is often at the level of an Amana side-by-side.

Here’s the scoop:  especially in the smaller 125 markets, young people work hard every day to inform you and make the kinds of salaries that often cause them to struggle to make ends meet.  They are on call 24/7 for breaking stories, such as the one this morning in Orlando (and a few other cities) when tornado warnings were issued.  They work in a field which can strain relationships or social lives because of unorthodox schedules in which they work.  Try going in at 11:30 p.m. or 12 midnight to produce a morning show that can last as long as six hours in some cities.  When you accept a job in any television newsroom, you are rolling the dice.  You may be working for an encourager who truly cares about people as people, or you may be under the domain of a total autocrat who gives the impression of caring about nothing in life but what goes on the early evening news.

Here’s another scoop:  a significant number of people who contribute to your favorite local newscast every night are ones you never see.  When I tweeted today about #Nationalhuganewspersonday, I reminded people of the many producers, assignment editors, videographers, editors, directors, audio engineers and studio camera operators whose job it is to make a newscast and the people who deliver the information look good every night.  All too often, the news to viewers is only the people they see on camera.  When Lou Grant, Mary Richards and every one of the regular members of the WJM News staff were fired on the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that group hug in which the gang all trotted together to grab tissues was one of the most hilarious physical comedy scenes ever.  Yet, where were the support personnel who made possible for them to do their jobs.

They deal some days with folks who are not very nice people.  Whoa be it answering a phone when a viewer calls enraged about a story which aired, even though that news watcher did not listen carefully and may have the facts out of context.  The news person’s skin has to be tougher than an overtanned sun worshiper’s face.

I hear some of you, including some veteran executives in the news business.  Some of you are saying, “What a silly thing to observe a day to hug a news person.”  Is it?

I read the accounts of former WDBJ (Roanoke, Va.) general manager Jeffrey Marks in the hours after reporter Alison Parker and videographer Adam Ward were shot to death during a live segment.  Marks gathered his staff together.  Spontaneously they sang “Amazing Grace” together and prayed the Lord’s Prayer.

Marks told reporters:  “I thought it was important that all of us get together and be a family.  What can you do except bring people together?”

His news director said she began doing something she had never done before.  She began telling members of her staff she loved them.  Granted, if your staff has not experienced a cruel and inhumane loss of co-workers, you are not likely to tell your people you love them.  However, the sentiment, caring and sincerity are what count.

I recall 15 years ago when I was an RTNDA (before the acronym changed) Fellow.  One of my colleagues was assigned to serve his fellowship in a New England station.  He was told early on by the news director, “If I haven’t made a female cry at least once a week, I don’t feel like I’ve done my job.”  Yes, that was the culture in that newsroom.  I hope that management philosophy has changed, but I suspect we have a few news operations where that culture, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, prevails.

Sure, #Nationalhuganewspersonday is a fun creation of social media.  Yet, I find that unofficial observation playing into an important need in a highly stressful profession.  People in any line of work need reinforcement, encouragement and yes, at times, a small bit of love.  As deadline-driven and demanding as broadcast journalism is, if its practitioners are constantly in a den of negativity, that will create negative reinforcement, self-doubt and a reluctance to expand creative skills for fear of creating an eruption from temperamental bosses.

Dr. Brhett McCabe, a sports psychologist, recently said on The Paul Finebaum Show:   “Everything we experience is a big deal to us.  Performance anxiety is normal.  There’s a little voice inside that makes us worry about outcomes, rather than deliver outcomes.  That’s a little bit of a trap that keeps saying I have got to prevent mistakes from happening.”

 

So, if you work in a TV newsroom, put #Nationalhuganewspersonday into practice, at least for today.  Even if you’re not a hugger, at least offer a kind word or an ounce of encouragement to a co-worker—even if it’s one with whom you don’t particularly get along.  If you are married to a news person or are in a personal relationship with a journalist, make sure you give them a solid hug today as a reminder that what he or she does matters.  If you are a viewer, drop a positive email or a tweet to a favorite newscaster before midnight.  You may not see the smile on that journalist’s face, but—believe me—that will happen.

To all of you who toil on deadline every day to bring us information that is live….local….late-breaking, here is a virtual hug from The Old TV News Coach.  The same goes to all of you who once gave of yourselves in the industry and are now classified as retired.  I may not know many of you, but I definitely appreciate you.

Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too: We Have to Stamp Out Stigma (Part 4 of 4)

Ken Barlow is a meteorologist in Minneapolis-St. Paul on KSTP.  I have never met him.  Though he doesn’t know it, he is a hero to me.

Five years ago, Amy Carlson Gustafson detailed the day when Ken was emceeing activities concurrent to a walk for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  Here is just a snippet of what Gustafson wrote in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press:

“He knew the time was right to share his own battle with mental illness. He believed these folks — many holding ‘End Stigma’ signs — could understand what the popular KSTP-TV meteorologist was going through.

“When I was standing up there, I was thinking, these people came here to end the stigma of mental illness, and I’m up here living one — I’m afraid of this stigma,” Barlow said during an interview in a Minneapolis coffee shop near KSTP. “I thought as I was on that stage two weeks ago, I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m not going to be ashamed. Two million people have this in the country, and millions of others deal with depression and other forms of mental illness. I’m not alone.”

Ken Barlow was 50 at the time.  Five years earlier, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  He would be the first to tell you that depression, which is not one size fits all, does not necessarily mean one is bipolar.  In fact, a small percentage of those who have depression have the dramatic mood swings that are classified as bipolar.

Ken is a hero to me because he has a large, captive audience in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  For him to reveal his struggles with depression in front of 4,000 people at that walk took a major step of faith and courage.

I shared in a previous installment of this series how I don’t feel my similar public revelation is significantly courageous because my father, who battled depression for his final 42 years, paved the way for me.  He began speaking out about his emotional illness in the 1990’s at a time when the stigma still loomed larger than today.

This blog series is not intended in any way to suggest that everyone who goes into journalism, especially the highly-intense world of television news, will experience depression or a related mental illness.

Despite its challenges and mentally-draining demands, a huge majority of those in a TV newsroom will never contract depression.  

What this series is designed to do is to open the eyes of corporate and local managements who often are too obsessed with the bottom line that emotional illness can and probably already has struck in your newsroom and you may not even know it.

Telling my own story in Part 3 is a call to any journalist who has experienced the lows of depression that it’s okay.  You don’t have to be afraid of it.  You don’t have to avoid seeking help for an illness that requires treatment in the same manner as dealing with the flu or pneumonia.  You don’t have to be reluctant to take medication to help you become whole again, even if you are on the meds for an extended period.   You are also not alone.  If you have a supervisor who even dares suggest you are not mentally tough if you have depression, then that person is speaking out of utter ignorance.  You have people who are speaking up in order to break down the remaining stigmas attached to depression.  I and the Ken Barlows of the world have your back.

Let’s examine a few things about the work and demands of journalists that make people who pursue that career vulnerable to emotional illness:

Constant Exposure to Death and Destruction

Reporters who are on a regular crime beat are going to face scene after scene of bad things happening to good and bad people.  At times, this can be gruesome.  Repeated exposure to the ugly side of life cannot help but affect one’s emotions unless one is inhuman.  Forty years ago, covering four of the seven murders of a serial killer in Columbus, Ga., had its effect on me.  After a few weeks of what became an eight-month saga, one began to shudder every time a police monitor would sound.  If a reporter does not have a personal diversion or hobby, constant witnessing and detailing murders, weather-related tragedies, or physical abuse can make one vulnerable to depression.

Time and Deadline Demands

We felt these in the 1970’s when local news was, at most, one hour in the early evening and 30 minutes in a huge number of cities.  Scrambling to deliver reports live, having to change and adapt lineups at the eleventh hour or even during newscasts, battling one’s competition for story breaks, and now having to do two and three hours of afternoon and early evening news in markets that realistically do not generate that much original news (and in many instances with no extra personnel to handle news expansions) is not how much of the rest of the world functions.  We either know that or soon realize it when we enter the profession.  Speed and deadlines are part of the job.  Yet, often the end result is a difficulty in winding down at the end of the day (or evening) because of the whirlwind on which one constantly is.  I visited with a journalist recently from a station that doubled its news time but only added one producer to handle the load.  Over lunch, I noticed the person’s hand literally shaking.  Nerves had built to that point because of stress and overwork.  None of these represent a path to strong emotional health.

Newsroom Conflicts

Conflicts are not unique to newsrooms.  One will find them in any profession.  However, because of the deadline pressures and—at times—ego battles over story assignments, story placement, or personalities, those conflicts can erupt into stress-inducing disputes that are rarely healthy.  Sometimes, they become loud and public. Trust me, I’ve seen many of them over the years.  When I was a news director, I periodically had to mediate them or break them up.  Regardless of your line of work, conflict environments often create apprehension or anxiety about going to your office.   Ongoing and unresolved conflicts are definite toll-takers.

Erratic Sleep Patterns

Again, this is one of these intangibles that go with the territory.  Sleep deprivation is one catalyst for depression.  For many news anchors and news personnel who work the late shift, namely the traditional 10 or 11 o’clock broadcasts, a challenge is to wind down after the news.  When I anchored at 11, I rarely could drop off to sleep before 1 a.m.  Too much cranks in the mind for too long during the day and night to immediately relax.  If anchors—male or female—have children, an early wakeup may offer the only opportunity to have any meaningful time with their families.  That often means abbreviated sleep.

Add to that the irregular sleep schedules for people who work the morning shifts.  When local television found a profit center before sunrise and gradually eased early morning news back to 4 a.m. starts, that meant producers and editors for the early morning began entering for their shifts as the late news team departed.  That means unnatural, erratic sleep hours that often are inconsistent.  

As Dr. Joanne Stephenson says, “Lack of sleep, inconsistent sleep, or unconventional sleeping schedules can play havoc with your emotional health.”

Inconsiderate or Abusive Bosses

Sure, they’re everywhere in any profession.  This is not to besmirch many good news directors who are fair and considerate with their staffs.  However, take a poll and you will know doubt find the most significant cause of turnover on news staffs is the cantankerous boss who appears to have a doctoral degree from the University of Unpleasantness.  If one has such a boss, the wear and tear on your emotions can mount.

The Superman Complex

If you will recall in Part 3, that’s what I was described as having when I tried to make up the deficit of personnel I had in Jackson by doing the work of the people I did not have, in addition to my own job.  Another type of Superman Complex is addiction to the newsroom.  At least one or two in every shop, especially single people, seem to be perpetually in the building.  Often, that is at the expense of any degree of personal life.  They become so consumed by work that they have no diversions.  Keep that up long enough and even a young, energetic reporter can be worn down.

Insecurity

I well remember my former co-anchor Kathy Pepino telling me, “This is the most insecure business you can be in, but most people are in it because they love it.”  Yet, insecurity is increasingly surfacing with media chain consolidations.  Look at the number of general managers already being replaced by the Nexstar-Media General merger.  Never have I seen as many news practitioners, including many competent veterans who have invested in communities, accept buyouts or take retirements as in the past 18 months.  In many instances, these have nothing to do with the abilities of the journalists.  Their parent companies simply want to pay less money.  When one is in the midst of an “am I going to be next?” environment, enter insecurity.  If that hangs on for an extended period, you are a candidate for a mood swing.

Relationship or Marriage Stresses

At the 1984 RTNDA convention in San Antonio, I attended a session on television news stresses on marriages.  The late Dr. Joyce Brothers was a member of the panel.  So was a veteran news director who had become a general manager.  His marriage ultimately broke up because of his intense focus as a news manager.  In the audience were a few wives of active news directors.  One of them stood and poured out her heart to Dr. Brothers about her husband:  “What do I do when I’ve been home all day, the kids have been acting up, we have a plumbing problem and one of the kids has come down with bronchitis?  He comes home, I want to have his attention and he wants me to tell it all to him in a minute and a half.”  The room roared, in no small part because some of the news directors in that seminar suddenly saw themselves in the woman’s description.

A special person is necessary to be a journalist’s spouse.  Not only is the reporter, anchor, producer or videographer on call 24/7 for breaking news stories, the requests to emcee events or participate in charity activities or judge competitions mount—all in the name of community service and promoting the station’s brand.  When too many of those demands pile up, spouses or significant others can feel alone or abandoned.  Cracks in the ointment of a relationship are personal.  One’s emotional health can be in serious jeopardy.

Alcohol or Drugs

In a previous part of this series, I detailed what appeared to be frequent ill effects from alcohol excesses affecting a few members of my staff.  As it is, alcohol is a depressant.  Yet, I worked with people whose after hours passion was to hit a bar.  A few turned to drugs.  A combination of the two can be lethal.  We have sadly seen a string of on-air journalists show up on TV Spy or TV Newser, as well as their local newspapers, arrested on DUI charges.  In addition to career jeopardy and personal embarrassment, habitual drug or alcohol abuse can lead to self-induced depression.

Professional Danger and Risks

We are indeed living in an age where broadcast journalists are more at risk than in previous decades.  The murder on live morning television of Alison Parker and Adam Ward of WDBJ in Roanoke, Va., was a wake up call for the entire profession.  Yet, I am not certain that we still don’t have some corporate managements operating with the idea “that can’t happen here.”  Meteorologist Patrick Crawford was shot on the parking lot of KCEN in Waco-Temple.  San Diego sportscaster Kyle Kraska was shot several times outside his home.  All of these were in 2015.

You cannot stop doing your job.  However, every journalist who goes out on a live shot has to be far more aware of his or her surroundings.  With some, that can lead to at least mild anxiety.  The relationship between anxiety and depression is closer than that of third cousins.

The laundry list could go on.  These are ten of the most significant elements that can be a trigger for depression for journalists.  Realistically, if one experiences up to four of these on a consistent basis, he or she could be a candidate for emotional struggles.

Twenty-six years ago when I had my first bout with depression, the only time this was discussed within a television newsroom was when a reporter was assigned a multi-part series (remember those?) on the subject.  People on news staffs who had the symptoms suffered in silence.  Gabriel Arana quoted a 16-year-old study that estimated up to 20 percent of journalists suffer from some form of depression during their careers.

Fortunately, the industry is doing a better job of responding to the problem.  A majority of employers in television news are now providing insurance coverage that includes visits for psychological counseling.  That was not true when I was still in the profession.  Since this blog series first appeared, I have been contacted by two journalists who told me their companies do not offer such coverage.

During the Orlando nightclub massacre last summer, at least two stations (and possibly others) brought in mental health counselors who were available for reporters and videographers who faced trauma or difficulty decompressing.  I have been told since then that stations in larger metropolitan markets exercise the same practice.  That is not necessarily true in the bottom 100 markets.

More news directors today are recognizing the need to provide reasonable down time for staff members when catastrophic coverage is required.  You can be a marathon man or woman but you have to realize a diminishing return mentally and emotionally once you go past 12 hours.  A fresh team is far more valuable than an exhausted one.

So what do I suggest are additional resources the industry should consider to help deal with potential emotional struggles that can lead to depression or related illnesses?   Consider these:

Keeping a certified psychologist on retainer

When a potential catastrophic event such as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake or mass violence breaks out, have an agreement where a counselor can come to the station to help the staff debrief and decompress.  In some instances, psychology faculty members from local universities could be utilized for little cost.  Some actually may offer themselves for community service that could be highly valuable support at tenure time.

Saturday seminars with a psychologist

Once and possibly twice a year, schedule a 60-to-120 minute session for the staff with a psychologist for a session of group therapy.  Sure, you’ll have your naysayers who scoff at it but they’ve probably been vaccinated with lemon juice.  No pressure and none of the kind of story analysis as employed when the news consultant comes for a visit.  I will wager a newsroom will function better mentally and emotionally with an opportunity to open up about tough days on the job with a counselor.  The staff will likely have a better road map to better cope with day-to-day challenges.

Making certain insurance coverage includes mental health visits

My university and many others offer five free visits to Pathways for counseling.  Some television stations offer similar plans but not all.  If employees know they can go in privacy for help, valuable preventive maintenance can be performed.  

Requiring managers, including news directors, to have training for mental health issues

If the research is true and 20 percent of journalists suffer from depression, the likelihood is that at least a few staff members will experience it.  At the very least, they could experience some form of post-traumatic stress disorder if they have to cover violent crimes or catastrophic events.  Sensitivity was once considered a sign of weakness in the rough-and-tumble mental toughness world of television news.  In today’s culture, insensitivity or a callous attitude toward depression is a black mark on anyone in management in any profession.

In developing this blog series, the idea was not to suggest I have all the answers.  Far from it.  All I can do is reflect my own experience with an emotional illness that usually requires medication, counseling and patience in order to recover.  One does not need a PhD to determine that the highly-charged, multiple deadline-driven, stress-induced culture of television news makes its practitioners at least vulnerable for depression at some point.

My personal mission is twofold:  to be a catalyst to stamp out the stigma of depression and to help save lives.  The only way we can achieve those is to have an open dialogue.  Ken Barlow was willing to speak up and tell his story.  I can guarantee that because he is a popular public figure, his impact in being transparent has resulted in more people than he knows seeking help.  

I may no longer be a daily practitioner of journalism in a television station.  Regardless, I still care deeply about the profession and its journalists.  As a broadcast educator who has experienced the lows of depression both in and out of the industry, I am sending young people into the field.  I still encounter younger producers and reporters in person and online who seek career advice.  I tell them all to try to enjoy the journey, despite its pitfalls and struggles.

I close with a personal note to any journalist, either broadcast, print or digital.  You are in a rewarding and honorable but stressful profession.  Those stresses, if not managed well, can lead to symptoms of emotional illness or depression.  I hope you never face it.  However, if you are diagnosed, immediately seek help.  If you are prescribed medication, take it and take it all until your doctor says you can cycle off.  Remember, some people have to take medication for the rest of their lives to combat heart ailments.  What’s the difference?  Your heart and your emotions have a reasonably strong connection.  Finally, be patient with yourself.  Recovering from depression is no quick fix.  Listen to your counselor and follow his or her direction.  God gave us psychologists and psychiatrists as well as medical doctors because all are necessary to treat the whole person.  Don’t run from depression because you fear stigma from people who do not understand the illness.  Stigma usually results from ignorance.  You only have one you.

As I tell every group I address:  you can’t get well if you don’t get help.

Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too (Part 3: My Own Story)

Ten years ago, sharing this story would have been difficult.  Today, opening up about my personal bouts with depression over the past 26 years is essential. We don’t have a data base of exact…

Source: Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too (Part 3: My Own Story)