Tuesday, 27 Feb 2024

Orlando Journalist Mourned as Local Newsrooms Face More Danger

A day after a journalist was killed on an assignment near Orlando, Fla., his colleagues were in shock and grief. And experts in journalism said it was a warning sign that the world of local news might be growing more dangerous as reporters rush to cover the daily drumbeat of gun violence.

The killing of the reporter, Dylan Lyons, as he covered a fatal shooting that happened hours earlier, was a “rude awakening that danger still exists in our industry, and we have to confront that and persevere through that,” said Erik Sandoval, a reporter at WKMG-TV in Orlando. Mr. Sandoval recalled working many nights with Mr. Lyons, 24, who was an intern at the station in 2019.

“He wanted to do this, and he had a bright future ahead of him and the fact that that future was taken away from him breaks my heart,” Mr. Sandoval said in an interview on Thursday.

The authorities said they were still trying to piece together what led to the fatal shooting on Wednesday of Mr. Lyons, a reporter at Spectrum News 13, as well as two others, Nathacha Augustin, 38, and a 9-year-old girl, T’yonna Major.

The violence began around 11 a.m. in Pine Hills, about five miles west of Orlando, when a man, later identified as Keith Melvin Moses, 19, fatally shot Ms. Augustin, as she sat in a car with Mr. Moses’ cousin, according to the Orange County sheriff, John W. Mina. It was not clear why Mr. Moses shot Ms. Augustin, the sheriff said.

About five hours later, detectives had interviewed witnesses and “cleared the scene,” Sheriff Mina said, but local journalists were still there preparing news reports. Mr. Moses returned to the neighborhood and shot Mr. Lyons and Jesse Walden, a News 13 videographer, as they sat in a vehicle together, the sheriff said.

Minutes later, Mr. Moses walked into a nearby house and fatally shot T’yonna and wounded her mother, Sheriff Mina said.

The condition of the mother, whose name has not been released, was unclear. Phyllis Turner, T’yonna’s great-aunt, told NBC News that the 9-year-old was “the apple of her parents’ eye; she was just a true joy to them.”

It was unclear whether the gunman knew that the reporter and videographer were journalists. Sheriff Mina said that their vehicle “didn’t have any markings that stood out,” and that the gunman had passed by “another news vehicle.”

Journalists from WFTV in Orlando witnessed the shooting and then rendered aid to Mr. Lyons and Mr. Walden until deputies arrived, Sheriff Mina said, praising them for their bravery.

Mr. Walden, 29, who had been in critical condition on Wednesday, remained hospitalized on Thursday but was speaking to detectives, Sheriff Mina said.

Sheriff Mina emphasized that investigators did not know the suspect’s motive or the nature of his connections to the victims. He said that Mr. Moses was not speaking to the police.

Mr. Moses, who had a Glock handgun when he was arrested, was charged with one count of murder in the killing of Ms. Augustin. Sheriff Mina said that he was “100 percent confident” that Mr. Moses would also be charged in the murders of Mr. Lyons and T’yonna.

Mr. Moses’ criminal history includes charges of aggravated battery, assault with a deadly weapon, burglary and grand theft and gun violations, Sheriff Mina said.

The shooting jolted journalists in Florida and across the country, reminding them of the dangers they might encounter covering gun violence in their communities. The morning news meeting at WKMG-TV was like a “big therapy session,” Mr. Sandoval said, as station members wept and mourned their fallen colleague.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Mr. Lyons had distinguished himself as a driven young reporter determined to succeed in television news, colleagues said. He joined Spectrum News 13 in July 2022 and had worked before that at WCJB TV20 in Gainesville, Fla., according to the Florida Association of Broadcast Journalists, which had given Mr. Lyons an award in 2020 for his coverage of a local congressional race.

The news of his death on the job punctuated a “new and alarming” increase in threats, harassment, and violence against local reporters in the United States, said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University.

“In the past, we’ve thought of physical danger as something that accompanies war or high-risk investigative reporters. This is different,” Mr. Shapiro said. “What we’re now seeing around the country is local newsrooms feeling and experiencing more danger.”

The uptick has meant that newsrooms now “increasingly feel they need the kind of training and vigilance that you would once have assumed only those journalists venturing into hostile environments overseas.”

Chris Post, a journalism safety educator who has trained thousands of local and national reporters, including some at The New York Times, said that over the last 10 years, domestic news gathering had in some ways become as dangerous as reporting in international war zones. And yet few local reporters receive basic safety training.

He said that local news managers should tell reporters who are covering crime or other local stories that if they feel unsafe, “they can abandon the assignment or do it from another location.”

“It’s O.K. for them to step back,” he said. “Its O.K. for them to leave the scene.”

Such advice might be anathema to some local journalists, who pride themselves on reporting directly from crime scenes and, in Florida especially, standing in hurricane-force winds for the TV cameras.

“It’s part of our jobs; we know the risks,” said Louis Aguirre, an anchor and reporter at WPLG-TV in Miami.

He called the death of Mr. Lyons a “gut punch” but added: “I don’t think this is going to change the way we cover news here in South Florida. I don’t think journalists are going to think twice about going into situations like this.”

Mr. Sandoval, noting that no evidence had emerged to suggest that Mr. Lyons was shot because he was a journalist, said that reporters he had spoken with did not feel “targeted.” He said that one reporter remarked that it could have been a delivery driver or any bystander who was shot.

“I’m heartbroken but woke up with a renewed fire in the belly that we can’t let this stop us,” Mr. Sandoval said. “We still have a job to hold people accountable, be the watchdog over our community and report on the dangerous situations that arise in our community. We have a responsibility.”

Abigail Geiger contributed reporting from Orlando, Fla.

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