Last May, after 13 years as a journalist and TV presenter, I walked away from the industry in which I had worked so diligently and sacrificed so much. Over the past few years, I’ve been asked to switch between being a reporter (accompanied by a cameraman/editor), a one-man band (required to shoot and edit the stories myself) and a back-up presenter and reporter digital. When needed, I simultaneously covered news from our sister station in Spanish. To say I was overworked is an understatement.
On Thursday, I saw a reflection of my past life in a viral video that showed a reporter hit by a car while reporting live. Seemingly unhurt and unshakable, WSAZ reporter Tori Yorgey of West Virginia continued to report and work — alone — after the incident. It’s a sad reminder of the exploitative practices that have become commonplace in the newsroom. The footage not only left me wondering about the fragile state of the industry, but also the implication these constraints have on our ability to properly and responsibly inform the public.
The practice of sending local broadcast reporters into the field alone to film and edit their stories began more than a decade ago in news markets across the country. They were called “multimedia journalists” or MMJ. Since then, technology has allowed news crews to broadcast live with only a cellphone or tablet, so the most recent responsibility added to some MMJ plates is to produce a live shot (while working alone ). I was never asked to go as far. However, the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem and single-player live shootings are now the norm in many parts of the country.
I am grateful to have acquired MMJ skills. It gave me the 360 degree prowess and confidence that has served me well as I venture into the world of documentary production. Yet newsroom leaders must be called out for raising expectations so high that they needlessly put journalists in dangerous circumstances.
Many have reported that after being seen in hospital, it appears Yorgey is “doing fine”. However, the response from Yorgey’s colleagues is just as disheartening as the images themselves. “She’s my hero,” Savannah Guthrie said. While I too was impressed with Yorgey’s ability to cross his live fire as the incident unfolded, the commentary totally missed the mark. The least important issue in this situation is the journalist’s on-air performance. The real talk is that the stresses and demands placed on journalists are untenable and dangerous.
As journalists, no one understands better the importance of informing the public. However, I fear that by exploiting the sensational angle of the story, instead of facing this imposed professional risk disguised as heroism, some national presenters are perpetuating the expectation that broadcast journalists must continue to subject themselves to dangerous situations so that their station can save money.
Ironically, despite all the newly acquired skills, MMJs are the lowest paid among their fellow reporters. The whole practice cries out at the lack of value given to the work of these professionals and their lives. It also makes for sloppy journalism, a problem that will only add to the already deteriorating public trust that has weakened our democracy in recent years.
At a time when journalists in the United States are scrutinized and reviled more than ever before in modern history, newsroom leaders should stand by them firmly, protecting them as much as possible from professional and physical harm. Instead, our “heroism,” like that of our teachers, first responders, service workers, and many others who have risked their lives over the past two years, remains as relevant as the latest media cycle. Change starts with us and we must do better, for the good 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 a host for Comcast Newsmakers in Florida and Washington DC. She was previously a reporter and anchor for Telemundo and NBC stations in New York and South Florida.