It was midnight. Right on the dot. The buzzing of my cell phone on my nightstand woke me up.
“Hi Steven!” came the chipper voice on the other end. Too chipper. That was always a bad sign. “We’ve got semi-truck jackknifed on Interstate 5.”
‘Jackknifed.’ A police scanner word. A word that wakes up groggy producers and means a long night for an unsuspecting reporter. Same thing with “shots fired,” “fatal,” “structure fire” or “snow.”
I knew what words were coming next.
“We need you to come in.”
Didn’t I tell you it was a bad sign?
When you work in TV news, you will invariably be on-call many, many times. Which mean if something big happens overnight – and by ‘big,’ I mean something a producer can fill 90 seconds of the show with – you are always holding the short straw. You get the call, pull on some pants, and head to the scene of the story.
In this case it was winter 2010, and I was driving our Chevy Trailblazer news car – a behemoth of a vehicle – up I-5 to the scene of a semi-truck crash. It had snowed earlier that day and melted, and it was slick on the highway. I could understand how a truck could crash. When I got to the scene, Oregon State Police and the Oregon Department of Transportation had cordoned off the crash area, which meant I had a safe place to park behind a trooper’s car. I put on a reflective vest, grabbed a camera and light, and quickly shot video of the crash. Breaking news typically doesn’t take very long to cover, especially something cut-and-dry like a car crash. You get your video, grab interviews with troopers or witnesses, and take off.
On my way back, the roads looked clear. They appeared wet, but in the way that pavement usually glistens under the glow of headlights after it rains.
Then I lost control. It was the invisible danger of black ice.
I started to feel the back end of the Trailblazer drift to the left, but my momentum was still carrying the car forward. Instinctively, I tried to correct. Bad move. The back end of the car swung violently to the right, spinning the car in a complete 180, and slamming the side of the car into the concrete median.
The first miracle: I wasn’t hurt, and it didn’t appear the car was severely damaged either. Second miracle: I was right next to an exit. And third miracle: no one else was on the road at 1 a.m. If any other car or another semi-truck had been in that same stretch of road, I would not be writing this. I was able to pull off, check the car, and eventually make my way back home.
People don’t tend to think of reporting as a dangerous job, but sometimes it is. Reporters are expected to be at the scene of dangerous situations: slick roads, snowy mountain passes, neighborhoods with a suspect on the loose. Other situations are inherently dangerous, like setting up a live shot alongside the freeway. Take a look at what happened to a KIRO news crew in Seattle.
Didn’t mom ever tell you not to play in the street? Thankfully, no one was hurt.
The reality is, sometimes you will be told to play in the street. You need courage for a job like that. But it also takes common sense. If you know you are heading to a place that poses risks, take the steps to protect yourself. Carry tire chains, keep a fully-charged phone and extra battery, and drive slower than you think you need to. You can’t live in a bubble. In every profession there are risks, but you can’t let them keep you from doing your job and living your life.
Understand the risks and stay safe. BUT, be willing to stand up for yourself when the time comes.
I’ve loved most of the producers I’ve worked with, because they try to think like a reporter, which helps us put together our stories. But they have jobs to do, too. They need to get the top stories to viewers quickly and accurately. Or they desperately want to fill 90 seconds of airtime with something new. They’re too busy or too unconcerned to hold your hand and make sure everything is safe, which is why it’s so important to make that call on your own when a situation is too dangerous.
One winter, we began hearing chatter on the police scanner about a nine-car pileup on I-5. I knew the area where the crashes happened – it was extremely steep, a place in the mountains I didn’t like driving in when the weather was nice.
I drove south on I-5 to see what traffic was like, and I could see things getting slick. I knew from my experience it would be even worse in the mountains.
I finally got a hold of a firefighter at the scene, someone I’d worked with before and trusted.
“Steve, do not drive here,” she told me. It wasn’t a request, it was an order. “It’s black ice the whole way here, and if you come here, you WILL be part of this accident.”
Like clockwork, after I got off the phone with her, I received another call from the newsroom, and was told to go to the scene.
I told them no.
I used my best judgment. I knew from firsthand experience how hard it was to see black ice, and how quickly it could make you crash. I knew the area where this crash had happened, and how steep and winding the roads were. And I recognized the seriousness in the firefighter’s voice, the way she told me that I “will” be part of the accident.
So I said no. And it was the only time I ever refused to go out on an assignment, out of fear for my safety.
The next day, of course, I had to go into my boss’ office and explain this thought process to them. Nothing happened. I was never disciplined or saw any effect on my workplace relationships, but that was because I stood up for myself. That night, other reporters did make the trip to the scene – safely, I might add. Were the roads not as bad as advertised? Were those reporters not as concerned? I don’t know, and frankly it doesn’t matter. Only you can gauge your own safety.
You can’t be a timid reporter, but you shouldn’t be an overly cavalier one, either. Because in my view, the story should never be more important than your safety.