Imagine that a football team from the smallest high school in the state were to play the Green Bay Packers – and beat them. Then imagine that same team of neophytes winning the Super Bowl. That’s the metaphor Mark Zoromski uses to describe an unprecedented achievement by a group of journalism students at UWM.
Eighteen students won what is considered the top professional award for investigative broadcast journalism, the Edward R. Murrow Award, sharing the limelight with large network TV stations like WCVB-TV in Boston and WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C. The series also won a regional category of the award.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some top journalists and 99 percent of them have never won a regional Murrow award, let alone a national one,” says Zoromski, a senior lecturer in JAMS. “These students have won before they even left the classroom. It’s just astonishing.”
The Murrow awards, given by the Radio Television Digital News Association, are named after prominent CBS radio and television journalist Edward R. Murrow, who produced TV news reports leading to the censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954.
The students produced a series of investigative broadcast reports on the event of an active shooter on campus. The series of reports, “School Shooter Safety: An Act of Malpractice,” aired last year on PantherVision, a weekly broadcast produced by students in the Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies Department (JAMS) in the College of Letters & Science.
“It feels surreal,” says Chris Verhyen, who was one of the original reporters covering the story. “Especially the national award, where we went up against large network TV stations. I don’t think it has sunk in yet.”
Hours of research and reporting went into the series that involved more than 30 students over two semesters. Mentored by Zoromski, a former news producer at WITI-TV (Fox 6) in Milwaukee, the students discovered that the UWM police were well-trained as responders, but no training existed for students and staff.
As part of the coverage, PantherVision journalists surveyed all the schools in the University of Wisconsin System, finding similarities across the 26 college and university campuses. Then they cast the net wider, uncovering that many universities nationwide do not have plans in place to train students and staff to deal with an active shooter.
“What we found was this could happen at any university, especially at the larger ones,” says Erin Nordloh, a recent JAMS grad who is now working in public relations in Boston.
Nordloh conducted one of the most powerful interviews included in the series – a first-hand account of the Washington Navy Yard shooting in September of 2013 from UWM alumnus John Monroe, who survived the attack. The gunman killed 12 people in one building on the compound before he was fatally shot by police.
The incident was so fresh in Monroe’s memory at the time that Nordloh was worried he would decline the interview because he was suffering from post traumatic stress.
Monroe told Nordloh that, from his office hiding spot, he could hear the cries of co-workers as they were shot and killed
The biggest challenge, she says, lay with the student reporters trying to obtain information from campuses.
“It was hard to get to the decision-makers. In the end, we wanted to make a difference. This is something that, down the line, could save many lives.”
As a result of the series, a task force at UWM was formed to improve campus preparedness during an active shooter crisis. Task force recommendations came out in April.
“The most important thing I learned was to identify how a story impacts people,” says Verhyen. “When you’re trying to tell a story you have to focus on why it’s important. The fact that we found something that is relevant to a lot of people, I think about that every time I write a story now.”
For Zoromski, who is currently fundraising to send the students, most who have already graduated, to the awards banquet in New York City in October, the word “proud” isn’t strong enough.
“The future of broadcast journalism is in very, very good hands,” he says. “These students have really learned the role of the press in being a watchdog, exploring wrongs and righting them, holding the powerful accountable, and giving voice to the voiceless.”
PantherVision is a unique educational union between UWM — whose students generate news content — and Milwaukee Area Technical College, where the newscast is taped and whose students handle the technical aspects. During the school year, PantherVision can be seen on Time Warner Cable, AT&T U-Verse, and online at panthertv3.imt.uwm.edu/panthervision/panthervision.html and milwaukeecommunitymedia.com/?s=PantherVision.
Zoromski’s fundraising effort is more than halfway to its $15,000 goal. To contribute to the fund to send the winners to the Edward R. Awards banquet: http://www.gofundme.com/ab27lo