Journalism: Coping with Witnessed Tragedy

By Alan Yudman

 

It was the evening of April 14, 1989. I had been the News Director at KRTV in Great Falls, MT for just under 3 months. Our 5:30 P.M. news had just wrapped up and most people had left the small newsroom to grab dinner, shoot an evening story or, as in my case, just go home for the night. The only 2 people left were me and our videographer Casey Carroll. We had 2 news vehicles at the time. A 1988 Ford Tempo 4-door and an older, beat-up Chevy Citation. As Casey and I headed for the door we heard the police scanner squawk. There had been a shooting up behind the station on Highway 87. A Montana Highway Patrol officer had been shot and wounded. Casey and I were both young, but we knew this was a big story. Our anchor, Shannon Everts, had taken the Tempo to shoot some story, the topic escapes me. So, Casey and I jumped into the Citation and raced up Highway 87 to get to the scene. Other police officers were already there and had blocked off the road to keep away prying eyes (and cameras). The gunman was also on the loose, so they had set up a perimeter to try to capture him.

 

As we arrived, we jumped out of the Citation. Casey grabbed our gear. This was a now preposterously large and involved set up that included a camera and a deck that recorded video on ¾” tape. We got as close as we could, which thinking back was still way too close considering there was an armed gunman roaming about. But it was close enough to burn a memory in my brain. As we approached the police tape, we could both hear it. The sound of Montana Highway Patrol officer Mary Pat Murphy in pain. She had been shot twice and was moaning and crying out as EMT’s loaded her into an ambulance. I don’t have to think hard to remember that horrible sound. It still cuts through my heart and my gut. Back then I had built up enough of a callous that I didn’t think much about it. Or maybe I just buried the feelings. But in recent years I can hear Officer Murphy’s desperate voice and it now makes me emotional and filled with anxiety.

 

Why do I now feel compelled to write about this? Well, Monday August 12, 2019 I heard a sound I thought I would never hear again. I now work at KTTV in Los Angeles, CA. I’ve been at the station just over 25 years. I’ve seen a lot in those years, though now I’m a producer and writer so the horrors I’ve seen I’ve seen on video, rather than in person. It keeps you a little distant from the tragedy, like watching people falling from the Twin Towers on 9/11. We see a lot of raw video that is horrific that we never put on TV. It’s too grotesque or disturbing.

 

Back to August 12. A California Highway Patrol officer had pulled over a pickup truck near the border of the cities of Riverside and Moreno Valley. As I write this the investigation continues and the CHP hasn’t said why motorcycle officer Andre Moye, Jr. pulled over the truck. But as he was processing the truck for impound, the driver pulled out what looked like an AR-15 rifle and started shooting. Officer Moye was mortally wounded but got out a call for help. Other officers arrived and were met with more gunfire, two were wounded. A freelance stringer was right there shooting video as the gun battle ensued. Heroic CHP officers dragged one of the wounded officers back to a Riverside Police Department patrol car and loaded him into the back seat. In that raw video was the sound. The wounded officer was conscious and in pain. I could hear him moaning and crying out. It brought up all those feelings about what happened on that Friday in 1989.

 

So, you may be asking, what’s my point in sharing this story. Call for gun control, banning assault weapons? Good ideas to consider, but not my point. Maybe I just wanted to share a story from 30 years in TV news that shows how difficult it can be at times. Maybe it’s a catharsis. Sharing the anxiety as a way to make it go away or at least cope with it. I don’t know the reason other than these are two incidents that have bookended my career. They are two things I won’t ever forget, incidents that I’ll remember every time there is a mass shooting or a police officer is wounded by gunfire. Maybe this is a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to get into journalism. Just know that no matter what part of journalism you are going to be involved with you will witness tragedy, human beings at their lowest or most vulnerable points. Be prepared for it. Seek help if you need it. You may think your trauma is insignificant in light of events. It’s not. Your mental health is important. Dealing with it makes you a more empathetic and healthy human being and a better journalist and storyteller. Don’t just shove down into a box and hope you never have to open it again, because you will. Over and over again. How you deal with it will determine whether you do the job or whether the job eats your alive.

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