This article originally appeared on Poynter and in Poynter's newsletter The Cohort. It is reprinted here with permission. Stay tuned over the coming weeks for a series from RTDNA examining new research about trauma in newsrooms and what managers can do to support their teams.
On June 28, a man walked into the Capital Gazette newsroom and killed five employees with a shotgun. It was the first deadly attack on journalists in the United States since two WDBJ journalists were killed while doing a live shot in 2015. (A video journalist was killed earlier this year, but the motive has not been confirmed.)
WDBJ anchor Kimberly McBroom was on air when two of her colleagues and friends, Adam Ward and Alison Parker, were killed on August 26, 2015. Nearly three years later, she shares how her newsroom made it through the tragedy.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I am guessing that the recent shooting was pretty hard on your newsroom. How did the Capital Gazette shooting remind you of the tragedy your newsroom experienced?
It didn’t immediately resonate with what had happened to us necessarily because I was thinking, ‘Who did this? What had happened there before? What led up to it? Are there going to be more victims?’ As a journalist, you are more in the moment thinking about what had happened to them. I’m flipping around CNN and some other national media outlets, and they mentioned us, what had happened here. This is very similar, and this is the first deadly attack that has happened to journalists since what happened to Adam and Alison. And then it really hit me more on a personal level.
Friday [June 29] around here was difficult. We got in and worked. Obviously we covered the news of the day, which was what happened to the Capital Gazette, but as far as our response or our connection, we were still putting that together. That sort of all unfolded throughout the day on Friday. But my first thoughts were just with them, the people of Annapolis and how horrible it was to lose that many people. It was terrible.
I think it’s interesting that you said your first instinct was your journalistic one. You showed so much strength on air, and during a crisis, journalists are called to work. How did you continue doing your job through the tragedy?
I remember waking up the day after. I hadn’t really slept, and I was crying. Like everybody else, I was completely devastated to the core. But I set my alarm. I woke up. I got ready like I do every day on autopilot. I remember really wrestling with: How do I do this? I don’t want to do this. I have to do this. I have to do this for my two friends. I remember thinking that if it had been me, they would have come to work the next day. They would do their jobs. They would let everybody know the kind of person that I was, which is what I did the days after and the weeks after. My mission was to let people know who these wonderful, professional, young people were. My passion was letting everyone know who we lost and this enormous loss that we had suffered.
It was just one of those things where I couldn’t imagine being at work, and I couldn’t imagine not being at work. Nothing felt right because it was such a horrible time.
We had a lot of help from sister stations. At the time, we were owned by Schurz Communications so we had heads of the company down here helping us write and helping us get the show together. We had a consultant who we had used from time to time. He was here helping to orchestrate. We had web people from other stations helping. We had outside help who came in, who flew in to help us. Without them, I can’t even imagine how we would have gotten the show together.
I was by myself, anchoring alone. One of our sister stations sent veteran anchor Steve Grant to be here with me, to co-anchor with me. I had never met the man before in my life, but he was a lifesaver. We sat down together. We did the show. I remember telling him that if I can’t get through something, I’m going to grab your hand and that means you need to take over. That was our deal. He ended up staying for a couple of days to help out.
We had a lot of outside help. Even our competitors offered to shoot things for us. They sent us their video. It definitely took a village. It took a lot of people coming together.
We had media from all over the world reaching out to us, offering condolences through messages, through tweets. We had local businesses sending us cards and flowers, and restaurants sending us food. There was just this massive response and in those days after, that was what got us through. We needed it. We needed all the help we could get. No one had ever been in this position before. This had never happened to a station before. There was no guidebook. There were no instructions. This was unprecedented.
On the night of Alison’s memorial, we had a former anchor come in and offer to anchor the 6 p.m. [show] that night so everyone could go to the service. We had a former meteorologist come to do weather. It was things like that that were beautiful gestures. An assignment editor came in just to stand there and help. We had all these people who just wanted to do something to help. Had it not been such a horrible thing, it was kind of beautiful just the outpouring of [help]. In any kind of tragedy, I think there are things that are beautiful that come out of them. The outpouring and support that we got was beautiful.
How did this feel different than covering community tragedy like natural disasters?
You can’t compare this to anything, honestly. When I’m at work and there’s a tornado warning, I’m sitting there hoping a tree doesn’t fall on my house, like everyone else. Yet, you’re at work. You’re not at home, watching to see what happens there. I don’t even know if you can compare this with a natural disaster. To me, it’s not the same because you are dealing with people. You’re dealing with friends who you lost. That is far above being worried about a tree falling on your house.
I know everybody who was here at that time, our whole team, our whole morning crew was deeply, deeply affected by this. We talked to each other. We cried together. We hugged. We went out to dinner together to celebrate their lives. That really helped me, to be able to lean on my friends here, my work family. I lean on my own family, of course, my husband and my mom and everybody. They sympathized, but they didn’t necessarily understand exactly what I was going through and what it was like. They couldn’t. The only people who could understand that truly were the people in this building who were working at the time. So we leaned on each other.
The station provided counseling, and we had people come in from time to time to talk to us. We would have a big group session, and that was really beneficial. It was good to hear everyone else’s perspective. I knew what I felt and what I had been through, but folks in the control room saw more than I did. Our editor saw a lot more than I did. So each of them brought their own experience, and it helped each other know where we were coming from. Just talking it out just really helped. It really was therapeutic knowing that you’re not alone in your feelings.
Do you feel like your coworkers and management made a point of looking for signs of burnout or mental health issues? What did you find most useful?
They knew that we had all been through trauma, and they knew that we needed to probably talk to somebody professional. That service was offered for quite a bit of time after everything happened.
I can’t speak on behalf of everybody else, but just for myself, it did help me to talk through it. I had just lost my dad earlier that year, suddenly of a heart attack. I was still in grief mode for him, and then this happened. That compounded everything. I was finding that I was still dealing with losing him and then losing these other two people who meant a lot to me.
They wanted to make sure that we were OK. I don’t think they were looking for anything to be wrong. They were trying to take care of their people.
How did you and the staff reach out to your colleagues in the short term to keep everyone informed and focused? What forms of communication did you find the most effective in the first few hours and days?
We were calling people right after to get them here for security. We talked mostly face to face. In that situation, I think you need to talk to people. We texted, but it was mostly face to face.
So you gathered people to the newsroom and built the community there.
Yeah. Like when anything happens, if you have a death in your family or death of a close friend, people gather. And that’s what this was. I felt better being here with my coworkers, and I think we were all still in shock, but we wanted to make sure that we could see people and know they were safe.
When I was interviewed by The Roanoke Times a couple of days after, I remember one of the things I told them was that I wanted to put a big tarp or dome over the newsroom and keep everyone inside and keep everyone safe.
That was how I felt. Please just everybody be here together, everybody be okay. That was my mentality. Coming together was the best thing.
How did you decide what to communicate to your audience? This is your hometown station. How did that play a role in your tie to the community?
We covered it like we covered everything. We told them the truth. We told them what happened and how it was affecting us. Especially on the morning show, Leo [Hirsbrunner] and I were very honest about how it was difficult. We were very transparent through the whole thing, but especially those first few days, with the difficulty and how devastated we were. We talked about the little things about Adam and Alison and why we loved them and why we missed them.
No matter what role you had, whether it was general manager, news director or reporter, it was difficult for everyone. But we covered it as honestly as you could have possibly covered it. We had a ton of media here, so a couple of us were doing interviews. I think we covered it as well as you can considering.
Your general manager said that the national media coming in after the shooting really affected the newsroom. Why was that so hard?
I’ve never been on the other side of that! I’m normally the one holding the microphone and asking the questions, and to be on the other side was very different. It definitely gives you a different perspective. There’s nothing like having eight or 10 microphones in your face asking you all these questions about them and about what happened. That was definitely a different experience.
My mantra was, 'I’m doing this for my friends because if it had been me, they would have done it for me. They would have stood up. They would have spoken about me.' Honestly, that was the thing that got me through. I wasn’t doing it for anybody else. I wasn’t necessarily even doing it for my job. I was doing it for my friends.
Did it change any policies for your newsroom in terms of journalist safety?
We did. The back of our building is where the employee parking lot is. It had see-through windows, and they added the frosting to cover that. We had a lot of meetings about safety around that time, personal safety and on-the-job safety.
Kimberly added later via email that the newsroom also added more security cameras and a glass partition separating the receptionist’s desk from the lobby.
Do you have any advice for the staff of the Capital Gazette?
The fact that they put out the paper the next day just speaks volumes. We’re journalists. Some days are tougher than others, but the fact that they were able to get that paper out, they did what they had to do. And they did it in honor of their colleagues.
What you want to do is just go home and sob and not come out of your house. That’s what you want to do. That’s what you feel like doing. Is that the best way to pay tribute to the people who lost their lives in the workplace? The best way to pay respect to them is to continue doing your job, continuing telling the truth. Continue doing journalism and telling stories that matter. Serving the community is how you pay tribute.
There are days where you need a good cry, and I would tell them that this is going to affect you for probably the rest of your life. Each day will get a little bit easier. When people offer help, accept it. When they offer a shoulder to cry on, accept it. If they offer counseling, accept it. And be honest with how you are feeling. And do your job. That’s how you pay tribute to them: Keep going.