Broadcast-news industry is exploiting its own, which threatens the public trust | Opinion

·3 min read

Last May, after 13 years as a broadcast news reporter and anchor, I walked away from the industry in which I had worked so diligently and sacrificed so much. During the past few years, I was asked to switch between being a reporter (accompanied by a cameraperson/editor), a one-man band (required to shoot and edit stories myself) and a fill-in anchor and digital reporter. When needed, I simultaneously covered news for our Spanish-language sister station. To say that I was overtasked is an understatement.

Thursday, I saw a reflection of my past life in a viral video that showed a journalist being hit by a car while reporting live on air. Seemingly unscathed and unshaken, WSAZ reporter Tori Yorgey, in West Virginia, continued reporting and working — alone — after the incident. It’s a sad reminder of the exploitative practices that have become commonplace in the newsroom. The images not only left me wondering about the fragile state of the industry, but about the implication that these stresses have on our ability to properly and responsibly bring information to the public.

The practice of sending local broadcast reporters into the field alone to shoot and edit their stories began more than a decade ago in news markets throughout the country. They were called “multimedia journalists” or MMJs. Since then, technology has enabled news crews to transmit live with only a cell phone or tablet, so the most recent responsibility added to some MMJs’ plates is to produce a live shot (while working alone). I was never asked to go that far. However, the pandemic has only exacerbated the issue, and solo live shots are now the norm in many areas of the nation.

I am grateful to have acquired MMJ skills. It gave me the 360-degree prowess and confidence that have served me well as I venture into the world of documentary production. Still, newsroom leaders need to be called out for raising expectations so high that they unnecessarily put reporters in dangerous circumstances.

Many reported that, after being seen at a hospital, it looks like Yorgey is “doing fine.” However, the response from Yorgey’s colleagues is just as disheartening as the images themselves. “She is my hero,” Savannah Guthrie said. Though I, too, was awed by Yorgey’s ability to trudge through her live shot as the incident played out, the comment totally missed the mark. The least significant matter in that situation is the reporter’s on-air performance. The real conversation is that the stress and demands being placed on journalists are untenable —and hazardous.

As journalists, no one understands better how important it is to keep the public informed. However, I worry that by exploiting the sensational angle of the story, instead of confronting this imposed occupational hazard disguised as heroism, some national anchors perpetuate the expectation that broadcast reporters must continue to submit to dangerous situations so their station can save a buck.

Ironically, despite all the newly acquired skill sets, MMJs are paid the least among their reporter colleagues. The entire practice screams of the lack of value placed on these professionals’ work and their lives. It also makes for sloppy journalism, a problem that will only add to the public’s already-deteriorating trust that has debilitated our democracy in recent years.

In an age when journalists in the United States are being scrutinized and villainized, more than ever before in modern history, newsroom leaders should stand firmly behind them, protecting them from as much professional and physical harm as possible. Instead, our “heroism,” like that of our teachers, first responders, service workers, and many others who have been risking their lives over the past two years, remains only as relevant as the last media cycle. Change starts with us and we must do better, for the sake of our profession and for the future of our country.

Nathalia Ortiz is an award-winning journalist and documentary producer who works as a contributor for NBC Latino and host for Comcast Newsmakers in Florida and Washington D.C. She was formerly a reporter and anchor at Telemundo and NBC stations in New York City and South Florida.

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