A core role of journalism is to discover and publish information others would prefer not be brought to the light of day. From the beginning of print to today’s digital world, the people whose job it is to gather that information are unfortunately sometimes put at risk.
One of the untold stories of the past few weeks has been the incredible effort stations have exerted, sometimes at great expense, to protect their crews in the field. One general manager told me that when a bullet was fired into a news car, the entire team of security guards he had hired immediately quit. Because of the danger, other companies declined to step in at all. He eventually brought in military mercenaries to act as bodyguards.
Another general manager said that after one of his photographers was assaulted by a mob, he doubled the number of guards with each crew. Multiple stations have told me that they have removed logos and other markings from their news vehicles, all in an effort to keep their crews safe. An untold number of stations now have armed guards for their buildings.
All of this takes me back to the beginnings of my career in Mississippi during the late 1960s. That was a different time in our country, one I hope we never see again.
As a brash college kid majoring in Radio, TV and Journalism, I wanted to be part of everything. I remember walking the grounds of the state capitol in Jackson, Mississippi during the Medgar Evers March Against Fear. It was eerie to be surrounded by crowds of marchers, then look up and see men with rifles on every building. One could feel the tension.
The bad guys in those days were the Ku Klux Klan. My first encounter with the group involved an interview with Robert Shelton, the Grand Wizard of one of the most violent factions, the Knights of the KKK. Too young and stupid to know better, I agreed to interview him while riding in his car to a Klan rally. Not being completely dumb, the moment we arrived, I made sure I had my tape recorder and my story safely in hand before I ran to a waiting car driven by one of my friends and we took off.
After graduating, I got a job at the CBS affiliate in Jackson. The station was in a secluded area which made us a target. The Klan hated us not only because we were part of the press, but because we had African American employees.
Back in those days, it took four people to run master control, including a live booth announcer, which was one of my jobs. Because of threats, those of us working the night shift were always armed. I kept a 16-gauge shotgun in the announcer booth. Before dark, we would move our cars to the back of the building and set up studio lights in the yard. When we signed off, we would plug in the lights, make sure our guns were loaded, and leave together.
There was an understanding in those days that no one who worked for the media was really safe, so it was normal to keep a pistol in your car, something that would be shocking today.
Thankfully, those days are long past. My generation was the first to be confronted with the lie of segregation, the cruelty of treating some of God’s people as less than others. Because of that, Mississippi has changed. The state is not perfect, but people reach across racial boundaries to live and work together.
My worst experience with the Klan is a testament to that change. That hate group burned down my church, Grace Memorial Baptist in Gulfport, Mississippi, because the congregation had refused to break a relationship with a neighboring black church. The day after the fire, church members met and vowed to rebuild. The church is still standing and thriving today. In contrast, the Klan is little more than an embarrassing part of history.
As long as there is news to cover, and people who do not want that coverage, journalism will never be a completely safe profession. Newsroom leaders try to limit the risk but it’s always there.
So, why do journalists regularly put their lives in harm’s way? Because without this profession and the backing of our nation’s First Amendment, there’s no assurance that we could continue to live in a free country.
Hank Price is a veteran media executive, educator and author of Leading Local Television (BPP, 2018) and co-author of Managing Today’s News Media: Audience First (Sage, 2015) a management textbook. He is a frequent speaker to television industry groups about the future of media. He currently serves as Director of Leadership Development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss. During a 30-year career as a television general manager, Priced specialized in turnarounds, leading television stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett. During this time, he became known for turning traditional businesses into multi-platform brands. Simultaneously, he spent 15 years as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center, teaching in both the domestic and international executive education programs.