First Person: Journalists Must Balance their Safety Against Story

Sep 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Don Wall

After 11 years as an ABC News producer in New York, Dallas and Washington and 16 years as a senior reporter at WFAA-TV, Dallas-Fort Worth, I’ve covered hurricanes, tornadoes, plane crashes, floods, earthquakes, oil spills, toxic explosions, wildfires and two space shuttle disasters.

I’ve dodged close calls, trying to balance my safety with the demands of covering the news.

During the Southern California wildfires in 2003, WFAA photographer Billy Bryant and I were racing to reach Julian, a mountain town outside San Diego, to hook up with a satellite truck. But the fire had rapidly burned its way up the mountain and threatened to cross the mountain road. We suddenly found ourselves boxed in on three sides, and we could feel the intensifying heat.

Quickly and carefully, we backed down the mountain road and waited for the fire to move on. We arrived at the truck just in time to cut and feed the story and do a live shot for the 6 o’clock news. We also learned that the same fire had just killed a firefighter. We were the lucky ones.

While covering the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, a lack of space forced American journalists to work in the basement of a television building. Without warning, the hanging florescent lights started swaying. We could hear and feel the rumble of a second earthquake. Some people began yelling, “Let’s get out of here!” All the reporters, producers, cameramen, editors and technicians lined up to climb a narrow stairway, hoping to reach freedom and safety. All except one.

Amid the frenzy, ABC News correspondent Charles Murphy, who had covered President Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle in the 1960s and civil wars in Central America, did not flinch. He puffed smoke rings on his cigar, rolled a script book into the manual typewriter and began typing.

No story is worth dying for, and somehow, he knew or sensed, we weren’t going to die that day. And if we didn’t get back to work in a hurry, we wouldn’t make air.