When the unthinkable happened the morning of August 26th, everyone was taken by surprise as they literally watched sheer horror take place on television in Moneta, Va. Two journalists, Alison Parker, 24, and Adam Ward, 27, were shot dead, as well as an interviewee, who was wounded on live television by a disgruntled former employee.
Dan Sweeney was caught right in the thick of it all. And on Tuesday morning, he spoke via FaceTime to Marty Dobrow’s Journalistic Ethics class about both the event and how to handle the situation appropriately as a journalist.
Sweeney, a graduate of Springfield College’s Sports Journalism program in 2005, is an Assistant News Director at WDBJ in Roanoke, the station that the journalists worked for. After graduating from Springfield, he covered sports for his hometown newspaper in Elmira, N.Y. before writing for the Ithaca Journal up until he took the job at WDBJ in August of 2010.
While at the station, he became friends with Adam Ward, the cameraman that was murdered that morning.
“Adam was a good friend. He was a huge sports fan and just an all around polite, good guy,” Sweeney said. “He was from Roanoke and always help acclimate new employees to the area and help them move in and things like that.”
He was also well acquainted with the reporter that was shot, Alison Parker.
“[She] was going to be a big part of the future of the station. We had just done an hour long special on child abuse and she handled that with grace as she always did with everything.”
And the shooter, Bryce Williams (his professional pseudonym), who was fired in 2013, sat in the cubicle immediately to the left of Sweeney while employed at WDBJ. He cited that the two never had any major conflicts, but he does recall the culprit being visibly upset on a few occasions when his scripts would be critiqued.
He did say, however, that on multiple occasions he overheard the culprit on the phone with photographers that he would work with. On more than one occasion, Sweeney noticed Williams tended to be somewhat confrontational with them. He also noted that at one point, he wrote an eight-page complaint to a restaurant for telling him to have a nice day as he left.
“He actually said ‘doesn’t it bother you when they tell you to have a good day?’ Sweeney recalled.
The fateful morning started like any other morning for Sweeney. He was up early working out in his home gym with his TV on watching WDBJ’s morning newscast when all of a sudden he heard “pop, pop, pop.” He initially thought it was a car backfiring, but knowing Smith Mountain Lake where the interview was shot he knew the parking lot was too far away for the popping to come across that loud.
It was then that he saw the camera drop and heard Parker scream. He ran upstairs, grabbed his keys and drove to the station while stilled dressed in his workout clothes. As he drove the few minutes down the road to the station, his first call was to Ward, who didn’t answer.
The feed on Ward’s camera continued to run to the studio, and it was when an employee took a screen grab of the culprit in the frame that they realized who the shooter really was.
From then on, Sweeney was responsible for putting the notification online that it was in fact their station that had been involved and that it was their employees that were affected. They got calls from their rival NBC station who offered to help to provide video of the scene as WDBJ was locked down in their building.
There was a brief discussion on whether to show the video of the shooting happening, but the answer was no. Sweeney cited probably his biggest ethical challenge of all in distinguishing his “journalist hat” and his “emotional hat”. Not only was he struggling with this, but the entire station was as well, as all were so overcome with emotion, yet still realized they had a job to do in reporting upon what had transpired.
“We are the top ranked station in our market so a lot of our viewers saw it happen live. We didn’t want to exacerbate the horror for the community or the staff. [Some stations] would play it every hour, but they would preface it with a warning about the graphic content,” Sweeney said.
Like most major tragedies, theories of the shooting being a hoax began to come to light. And not only were people making these claims on the Internet, but they also called the station.
“If it were a hoax, it would be the best news I’ve heard in my entire life,” Sweeney said. “We’ve gotten a lot of support … and that’s what we try to focus on. You can’t try to rationalize the irrational.”
Throughout the roughly 40 minute conversation, Sweeney tied in some ethical points as they pertained to journalism and also took questions from students in the class. It was an emotional and powerful conversation, and it shed light on such a major issue that someone close to the college community experienced first hand.