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Emmy-Winning Broadcast Grad Talks Getting Tear-Gassed, Life on the Frontlines While Filming Headlines & The Growing Issue of Misinformation

Above: Rebecca Knier ’13, filming a segment live on location for WUSA9.

Rebecca (Becca) Knier graduated from Millersville University in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in speech communication and an option in broadcast. Today, she’s an investigative videographer – or photog, as they call them in the industry – who’s worked at WUSA9 in Washington, D.C. since 2017. She’s also an Emmy award winner – nominated seven times – and took one home in 2020 for her Continuing Coverage, along with her colleague Laura Geller, on military housing that’s infested with mold and lead.

Above: Becca Knier poses for a photo.

It’s a tough job: not only is Knier tasked with carrying and transporting lots of heavy equipment, she’s often one of the first people on the scene of a breaking story, sometimes ahead of ambulances and even the police. In the summer of 2020, Knier found herself caught squarely in the middle of the George Floyd protests in Washington, D.C.

While Knier was visiting her sister in Hampton, Virginia in late May of 2020, she awoke to a phone call at 1 a.m. from the assignment desk at WUSA asking her if she could come in to help cover the George Floyd protests in the capital. “I had already started getting notifications from coworkers who were called into work that night,” she says. “Obviously, because I was three hours away, I was of no use.” The next day, her boss called and asked if she could come into work from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

She agreed and headed in on May 31.

“Nathan Baca, my colleague, and I were at Lafayette Square Park in front of the White House,” she says. “That’s where the peaceful protests were taking place.”

Suddenly, her colleague noticed a group of protestors leave and head down the street.  They also took note of officers who were blocking roads to keep the protestors from disrupting traffic on parallel streets. “One protester jumped on top of a police car and smashed in its windshield,” she explains. “That’s when I had my first experience with flash bangs.” Flash bangs, for the uninitiated, are sometimes called stun grenades and emit an intense bang and flash of light, meant to be non-lethal but disruptive.

Around this time, Knier started streaming the events as they unfolded in real time via a WUSA Facebook live broadcast, which you can see footage of here. “The Facebook live started with my camera,” she says. “It ended up being five hours long, and we never stopped recording.” The atmosphere, Knier says, was intense.

“At one point, I got a notification from my Apple watch that said, ‘Are you ok?’ says Knier.

She looked down and discovered that her heart rate measured at 176 beats per minute. For the record, the average resting heart rate of an adult  should be within a range of 60 to 100 beats per minute.

Above: A screenshot of Knier’s heartrate while filming the protests on May 31, 2020.

It was clearly a stressful situation and things only became more intense as it got darker out.  “At the 3:50:30 mark on that Facebook live, you’ll hear two men start shouting at Nathan, “Take a knee! Take a knee if you stand with us!” One of the men then grabbed my camera,” describes Knier. “I was able to hold on and our security guard was able to get him off me. They took and threw the microphone that Nathan was holding, breaking it. But as photographers, we’re always prepared. I had a backup ready to go.”

The following day, June 1, Knier and her team went back out to cover the protests as tension ramped up. “I had two reporters with me that day, Nathan Baca and Darren Haynes, along with the security guard Jon, who came with us the day before,” she says. “I don’t think we would have made it out unscathed if it weren’t for Jon who pulled me out of multiple situations.”

Knier reports that the team described the protests that day as peaceful – until around 6:30 p.m. when the National Guard advanced closer to the fencing around Lafayette Square Park. “We heard flash bangs, saw people running down the street and we followed suit,” she explains. “Darren did a quick interview with a lady who was pushed by police and suddenly I heard our security guard say, “We gotta go.” I looked up and there were mounted police right on top of us.”

Recording while walking backwards down 17th Street in Washington D.C., Knier went live on WUSA’s Facebook page. “There were flash bangs, smoke and gas around us,” she says. “Our live feed was cut short by the President speaking at the Rose Garden. So, our security guard told us to cross the street . . . to get out of the way of the advancing officers – but in doing so, we had to run through a cloud of tear gas that made us cough and tear up.”

They were safe, if not a bit uncomfortable and tired, says Knier. “When Nathan informed us that the President was speaking [nearby], it was the first time I know why we got moved out,” she explains. “From our view, the protests to this point had been peaceful. Even if someone tried throwing a water bottle or anything at police, the rest of the protesters would tell them to knock it off. So, the retaliation to move us that far from the square, seemingly unprovoked, was puzzling.”

As they walked back up the street, Knier’s security guard noticed a flash bang grenade on the ground. “Then Nathan noticed two silver shell casings on the ground,” she explains. “One said OC gas and the other said CS gas. We spent the next few weeks trying to get any police agency that was there to take responsibility for the gas canisters.” The police denied that the gas canisters belonged to them. You can read more WUSA’s coverage on the issue here and here. Officials maintain that moving protestors out of Lafayette Square was unrelated to the president’s photo op.

While the job is tough, Knier says it’s an honor to tell the stories that make headlines around the globe. “What I want people to know about journalists is local news journalists live in your communities and tell your stories,” she says. “The line between your local news station and political commentators on national news networks has somehow gotten blurred. We share what happened in your neighborhood today, no hidden agenda.” She went on, explaining, “I don’t get paid more if your candidate wins or loses the election. I don’t get paid more to seek out bad news. I capture what happened today; the news – no matter what it is.”

Knier also notes that journalists do their best to make sure a story is accurate and undergo extensive training on the subject. “Long story short: if I don’t have facts and both sides of the story, I can’t share the story,” she says. “Journalists only share what we have fact checked. At WUSA9, we go through misinformation training, so we know the steps to take to determine the validity of a story whether on Twitter or sent to us by email.”

Being a journalist is never an easy job, but it’s especially true now, says Knier. “When I tweeted about getting tear gassed on June 1st, I faced Twitter trolls who told me I flat out lied about it, even though we had evidence and I had video,” she says. “All we can do as journalists is keep sharing the truth. Not everyone is going to believe the facts.”

Knier also urges people to help combat the spread of false information. “It’s so easy to just click share,” she says. “That’s how misinformation gets spread. It’s also so easy to fact check. Sometimes if you just Google it, you’ll get what’s right and what’s wrong.” WUSA9 even has an entire team devoted to handling misinformation called Verify. “Viewers send in questions they need verified and we go to the experts,” she explains. “The team will also cover things like the presidential debates and fact check the claims by both parties.”

Knier offers this piece of advice to students thinking about a career in journalism and broadcast media: “I have one soapbox: It’s internships,” she said. “I had an internship at FOX43 in the summer of 2012 and I learned so much.”

She went on, saying: “I learned during that time that I was likely a better photog than I was a reporter, which was what I thought I wanted to do with my degree.” This, she notes, is an important way to figure out your strengths. “I guess that’s my second piece of advice: be open minded to the career,” she says. “I’ve talked to so many students who want to be on-air, but there’s so much more to this field than on-air talent. It takes a village to put the news on-air.”

Also, notes Knier, be prepared to work Christmas, Thanksgiving and holidays. “The news stops for no one,” she says. “But it’s all worth it to be thanked for telling someone’s story. You will change lives.”

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