February 23, 2023

Every reporter can relate to Dylan Lyons.

A 24-year-old journalism school grad, Lyons was beginning his climb up the ladder, juggling a personal life and professional opportunities. On Tuesday night he stood in a dark parking lot hours after a local school board meeting for what turned out to be his last live shot. On Wednesday afternoon the Spectrum News 13 reporter was gunned down at the scene of a murder investigation. His photojournalist colleague Jesse Walden was critically injured.

When the terrible news broke, I went back and watched Lyons’ work from earlier in the month. It was exactly the sort of reporting that consumers say they want: not sensational, not ideological, just factual and reliable. Most importantly, it was truly local. One day he was in Daytona Beach. The next day, Sanford. He reported on a looming deadline for hurricane aid; a Black history art exhibit; and a local family affected by the recent earthquake in Turkey.

Tuesday appeared to be a typical day. Lyons attended a school board meeting in Brevard County and described discipline issues on some of the county’s school buses. He interviewed the school board chair and a driver who wore a “Make Bus Driving Great Again” hat. He was live for the 10 p.m. broadcast, and his report reaired through the overnight hours.

Glamorous, it was not. But a great example of civic journalism, it was. Lyons exemplified how local TV news is a glue that binds citizens and communities. I have seen it firsthand, as my wife works for Spectrum’s cable news channel in New York City. Spectrum’s newsrooms are the epitome of actually local media — full of tenacious, creative journalists who tell the stories the rest of us need to know.

Anyone who knows local TV knows that it’s a grind, yes, and the gripes about being underpaid and under-appreciated are real. But there’s something else too: a pride that comes from outworking everybody else. A joy that comes from working the street and landing the interview and turning the tape. Scrolling back through Lyons’ tweets, I can see his exuberance. His love of the job. He was “a special member of our team,” anchor Julie Gargotta said on Spectrum News 13’s morning show on Thursday.

Watching the coverage on Spectrum News 13 Wednesday night and Thursday morning, I was struck by how calm the broadcasters remained, and how assiduously they covered the other victims of the mass shooting, lest anyone think they were only reacting because journalists were involved. “This is something that plays out in our country every single day,”  anchor Tammie Fields said, and “there are days when it hits extremely close to home.”

Across the news industry, shock at Lyons’ killing is coupled with a strong sense of “what if?” What if my news crew is ambushed next, just like Alison Parker and Adam Ward were targeted in Roanoke in 2015? What if my newsroom is attacked next, just like the Capital Gazette was assaulted in 2018? Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German was stabbed to death just six months ago. It’s increasingly difficult to report the news without feeling like there might be a target on your back.

Committee to Protect Journalists president Jodie Ginsberg added global context on Thursday morning, observing that “the majority of journalists killed in 2022 were killed outside of war zones. Local journalists are particularly at risk.”

For all the occasionally sanctimonious conversations we have about the role of journalism in democracy, Lyons and Walden were just trying to gather facts and package those facts for the nightly news. In this case, facts about a far-too-common occurrence in a local community.

So many of the arguments about bias, distrust and disinformation in the “media” are really arguments about the analysts and entertainers who talk about the news all day. I know I’ve done more than my fair share of talking in my career. That’s why I now try to draw a very clear distinction between reporters and repeaters. Journalists like Lyons and Walden gather the raw material that everyone else talks and argues about.

People sometimes say local news jobs are thankless. But that’s not true. Many of us are thankful for the work of correspondents, photographers, producers, editors and production assistants. We are even thankful for the executives. We should probably say thanks more loudly and more often.

When Lyons and Walden were shot, other journalists who were nearby rushed to their aid, Spectrum News 13 reported. That’s a powerful example of how news crews, no matter how competitive, also watch each others’ backs. Because every reporter really can relate to Lyons and his approach to the job. Every reporter can relate to feeling a target on the back, as well, but no one should have to.

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Brian Stelter is the Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. He is a…
Brian Stelter

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