MMJ Safety First Town Hall Recap

SPJ addresses the safety of solo-tv-reporters on the job

The Society of Professional Journalists’ “MMJ Safety First Town Hall” on Jan 29 was a mix of nuts-and-bolts advice for MMJs braving the field and examining much more significant issues of balancing safety with getting the job done, fostering trust, communication, and compromise.

The Zoom gathering organized by SPJ National and the SPJ Georgia Pro Chapter brought together nearly 130 MMJs, reporters, producers, TV news directors, and photojournalists. The conversation sprang from the case of Tori Yorgey, an MMJ hit by a vehicle while doing a nightside live shot for WSAZ-TV in Charleston, WV. 

“This has gone beyond what happened to her. It’s now part of a bigger discussion,” said moderator and SPJ National President Rebecca Aguilar, a former television reporter. She said her phone had blown up with texts and e-mails from MMJs since Yorgey’s incident.

Aguilar said the town hall discussion aimed to find suggestions to help improve the working conditions of a solo-tv-reporter.

“For the record, I did hear from many MMJs. They love their jobs; they love their stations; they love their managers. They’re respected, they’re heard.” Aguilar told the town hall audience that she also heard from twice as many MMJ’s “who are miserable and feel like puppets without a voice.”

One recommendation panelists had to help MMJs, was to work on building trust and mutual respect between them, news producers, and news managers.

Drew Shenkman, assistant general counsel for CNN, talked about his news organization’s culture of safety and trust and good practices any newsroom can apply whether they send out MMJs or bigger news crews. 

“No-one goes (on a potentially dangerous assignment) unless they want to. That’s a universal rule for us that is imparted at every level of the organization.” Shenkman said no one is retaliated against for turning down an assignment. 

KATV Little Rock News Director Amy Sullivan concentrates on building trust and respect by having the producers go out with MMJs on a story. “It’s so they understand what’s being expected of MMJs. So when they have those unreasonable asks, they understand that when an MMJ says ‘I can’t do this,’ they don’t necessarily have to question their integrity.”

Sullivan said there’s always an advantage when MMJs and producers learn to listen, trust and compromise. “There’s less push back… there’s more of a collaborative effort, like ‘OK ‘can you move to a different location or shoot it from your vehicle” offering a different solution that could keep someone safe.” 

Human Resources consultant Sherry Darden applauded Sullivan’s cross-training that she believes helps employees understand each other. “It’s hard to trust on either end when you don’t know what the other person is going through,” added Darden. 

Shamarria Morrison is a reporter and MMJ at WCNC-TV in Charlotte, North Carolina. She recommended solo-tv-reporters advocate for themselves,  particularly in cases where news managers have not established a firm culture of trust and safety. “I think as MMJ’s, we have to put a line on what we will and will not tolerate, and I think that is OK to do.”

Morrison makes sure news directors know what type of MMJ they are getting when they hire her because she makes it known her safety comes first, and there are lines she will not cross. “I deserve to be heard,” said Morrison

Darden also recommended taking a proactive approach when interviewing with a television station. “Ask hypotheticals,” she said. “If I’m going out to do a live shot and it’s 3 a.m., and I’ve already had experience with that neighborhood, and I don’t feel it’s safe, how would you handle that?” If management does not have a good answer, that’s a sign that points towards moving on. 

She also has advice you’ve probably heard before, but bears repeating, “Document, document, document” and give your employment contract a thorough read before you sign it. 

Another issue that management needs to consider is exposing the station to potential litigation and fines when an MMJ is hurt, “When someone gets injured on the job, there’s a financial cost,” noted photojournalist and NPPA media safety educator Chris Post. He said it’s crucial to educate MMJ’s about healthy situational awareness and to provide safety training.

Shenkman is an attorney that CNN crews can call when they need legal advice in the field. He said news managers and producers must listen to a reporter when they feel they are in danger at their location. “Being empathetic to that person on the other side of the IFB is critical in understanding what they need at that moment, because what you need, a really good shot of a fire, is not necessarily what that person needs at that moment.” 

Morrison is at her second TV station as an MMJ, and she believes every solo-tv-reporter needs to take control of their life. ” And at the end of the day, you don’t want to be at a station that doesn’t respect your safety,” said Morrison.

Aguilar wrapped up the town hall by promising the MMJ discussion will continue with a future town hall planned along with the SPJ Georgia chapter. “We need to improve the system and not lose any more great storytellers,” said Aguilar. “Because in the end, who loses out? The public.”

Download the Zoom Chat Transcript Below

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