Early on in life, Jason Rice knew he wanted to capture the news as it happened and contribute to people’s understanding of what’s happening in their world.
That is just what he has done as part of an WMTV-15 NBC TV news team covering the Black Lives Matter protests in Madison last summer which, after a day of peaceful demonstrations, had turned violent in the evening hours.
Rice’s and the rest of the news team’s coverage recently earned the station a Chicago/Midwest Regional Emmy award.
A 1998 Fort Atkinson High School graduate, Rice got involved in the school’s audio-visual club and found he loved shooting video.
His father, a local police officer, had instilled in him from an early age an interest in current events and local affairs.
Combining these two passions, Rice went on to study TV broadcasting at the Brown Institute in Minnesota. Moving back to Wisconsin after graduating from Brown in 2000, he became an editor with NBC affiliate WMTV-15 in Madison.
After two years, in 2003 he moved into a photojournalism role with the news team, and that’s what he has done ever since.
Every day has brought something different, with many exciting, even dangerous assignments.
Among the highlights, he recalled covering the Lake Delton breach during the Flood of 2008, shooting video of a house falling into water. That coverage also received national recognition, though he chalks it up to being in the right place at the right time.
On the fun side, he really enjoyed traveling to Dallas as part of the station’s coverage of the Super Bowl in 2011, which offered memories of a lifetime.
But beyond the big headlines — positive or negative — the most rewarding stories for Rice are those that make a difference in people’s lives.
“If I am able to help someone or to warn viewers of a danger so they can avoid it, to me that’s the most fulfilling part of my job,” he said.
The coverage that earned Rice and the other members of the news team the most recent award occurred during the protests in Madison in late May last year.
“I was there basically all day and night,” Rice said. “All day long, there was a peaceful protest which was very respectful. Then, in the evening, things turned more violent.”
Rice was helping to provide live coverage from 5 p.m. through midnight.
The award itself is for the morning show he worked on the day after, which distilled the events of the previous 24 hours with all of the highlights and low-lights.
The images that really stick with him from shooting video the evening of the protests are the most incendiary ones — literally.
He was on the scene when rioters set a squad car on fire.
“I covered that live. That was pretty intense,” Rice said. “There was ammunition in the car and you started to hear popping. I remember yelling, ‘Those are bullets — get away!’”
He also shot video of fights and looting. But while some angry people were seizing the moment to cause damage, others actively were working to help prevent destruction.
He said he saw regular people trying to put out the fires as well as people starting them.
Asked about how he balances coverage when shooting something as controversial as a protest which has turned violent, Rice said he has to approach every scene strictly as an observer.
“I have no choice or say in what people do — it’s my job to document what is in front of me,” he said.
At the time he was shooting video of the scene, Rice said his adrenaline was high and he had no opportunity to worry about the danger he might be in.
“Thinking about it afterward, something bad could have happened, but I was fortunate it did not,” Rice said.
The photojournalist also addressed the hostility toward the media which arose during last summer’s protests among stalwarts on each side. On one side, some felt news reporters concentrated too much on the grievances of the Black Lives Matter protesters while minimizing the positive aspects of local law enforcement, while others took the opposite view.
“Some people would get in our faces,” Rice said of reporters and photojournalists as a whole. “Fortunately, I never got assaulted that way.”
However, he was the unfortunate recipient of several doses of tear gas during the course of his live coverage.
“I was in a great position, right between the police and the demonstrators,” Rice recalled. “The police would send the tear gas toward the protestors and the protestors would kick the canisters back. And, of course, I was right in the middle.”
That night, he counted seven times he received a full or partial dose of tear gas.
“Luckily, I had to deal with only one full-blown dose,” Rice said. “The rest of it was somewhat downwind, but I could still feel the effects.”
Fort connectionRice said his Fort Atkinson roots have played a big role in where he is today.
“The foundation was built right here,” Rice said. “The person who made the biggest impact in terms of me going into photojournalism was Mark Lee, who drove Fort TV and served as media coordinator for Fort Atkinson High School.”
In the AV Club, he said, Lee encouraged a high degree of professionalism among his club members and passed along a passion for the field.
Meanwhile, Rice’s family passed along their own life lessons which he would carry with him always.
His father, Jack Rice, a Fort Atkinson police officer, was a huge influence in his life, while his mother, Laurie Rice, showed her support for any challenge he wished to take on.
Jason’s older brother, Robert Rice, was another founder of Fort TV with his friend Don Neff. It was Rob who first influenced Jason to join the school’s AV club and develop those skills he still is using today.
The awardRice said he was humbled to have been part of the team distilling the news for local viewers that week, and he is pleased for everyone who contributed that the station received regional Emmy recognition for its coverage.
“I was right in the middle of it, but I certainly couldn’t have done it alone,” Rice said. “It was a team effort.”
Early on in his career, Rice said awards meant a lot to him, but they no longer are a driving force. Rather, he measures the value of his work by how it affects people’s lives.
If he winds up covering some huge event like a protest of national significance or a natural disaster like the 2008 flood, that’s more likely to garner an award. But some of the smaller stories about ordinary people can be just as meaningful in a local community.
“Each story is unique and important in its own way,” Rice said.
The nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and the violence that broke out at some of these protests were among many pivotal events that highlighted what truly has been a crazy year.
Rice said he understood that the message of the protests was not imparted in the property destruction and violence that happened at the end of the day, but rather in all of the peaceful action that preceded it.
“The riots were not necessarily even the same people,” Rice said of the demonstrators. “They were people out to take advantage of the situation.
“I would rather have gotten an award for helping on a story about a kid with cancer than for showing destruction in our beautiful downtown,” he said, “but I shoot what’s in front of me.”
Jason lives in Oregon with his wife, Lucia. They have a son, Aiden, and a daughter, Giulia.