Wednesday marked six years since WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward were murdered while working on a story in Moneta, Virginia.
The story is one that readers of The Roanoke Times know well. Parker and Ward were on an assignment leading up to the 50th anniversary of Smith Mountain Lake when a former reporter for the station shot them during a live broadcast.
It was a crime that shocked not only Virginia but the nation.
The lives of Parker and Ward continue to influence many today. Parker’s father wrote a book and her mother started an arts foundation in her name. Together, they are active in efforts to curb gun violence. Her boyfriend, Chris Hurst, now represents the 12th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. The Ward family has established scholarships in his name.
Their deaths also represented something more, and that is the long record of sacrifice by journalists in this country and around the world to practice and protect a free press.
Now an effort to memorialize Ward, Parker and others like them is moving ahead in Washington, D.C. The concept of a Fallen Journalists Memorial has been approved by Congress, honoring the work by journalists across the nation and around the world as they face new threats. Fundraising has begun and design is expected to begin next year.
Leaders of the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation are in the process of completing a site selection study for presentation to the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission. The ultimate goal is to receive approval for a high-profile location befitting a memorial to America’s commitment to a free press and those who died advancing it around the world.
In addition to a physical space for commemoration, the memorial will provide ongoing educational programming to remind current and future generations about the risks to a free press, the contributions of journalists to preserving democracy, and the various forms of journalism protected by the First Amendment.
Make no mistake, a free press is under attack from a variety of sources. Economic changes have hollowed out this nation’s newspapers. A wave of misinformation spread through social media threatens to undermine the shared understanding of basic truths central to a functioning democracy.
It is even worse in other countries. At least 30 journalists were killed overseas in 2020, according to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists, and 21 them in retaliation for their work.
My support for this project is driven directly by my personal understanding of the risk every journalist faces. In June 2018, a man unhappy with a newspaper column about his use of social media and the courts to harass a high school classmate used a shotgun to kill five of my colleagues in our Annapolis, Maryland, newsroom.
Like the deaths of Parker and Ward, the Capital Gazette shooting galvanized for many the risks journalists face because of their profession. Others have died in ways that get less notice, such as plane crashes or car accidents while covering a story.
More lost their lives while covering armed conflicts from the front lines around the world. In April, Indian photojournalist Danish Siddiqui became the 33rd member of the news media to die in Afghanistan since 2018, according to a United Nations study. More are likely to die now that the Taliban has returned to power.
I urge you to visit the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation website at fallenjournalists.org to learn more about this project. Make a donation if you can.
Alison Parker, Adam Ward and my colleagues died because they chose to be journalists. This is an important way to recognize the gravity of that choice and the price they paid for it.
Rick Hutzell is the former editor of Capital Gazette and a member of the Board of Advisors at the Fallen Journalists Memorial. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland.