Award-winning veteran reporter bids fond farewell to Arizona's F - Tucson News Now

Award-winning veteran reporter bids fond farewell to Arizona's Family

(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Before becoming a journalist, Rossi was an officer with the Phoenix Police Department. Before becoming a journalist, Rossi was an officer with the Phoenix Police Department.
Rossi does not only report on our community, she is part of it. Rossi does not only report on our community, she is part of it.
Rossi has been on the frontlines of Arizona's history. Rossi has been on the frontlines of Arizona's history.

One of the most respected journalists in the Valley, Donna Rossi has covered many of the stories that have shaped our state.

Now, after a long and storied career that has taken her all over Arizona, Rossi is signing off from Arizona's Family.

"It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, because I love what I do," she wrote on her Facebook page Wednesday. "It has never been about the awards that I have so surprisingly achieved. It has always been about the people."

I have been honored to have been able to tell stories that have made a difference and to have given a voice to the voiceless.

Those who know Rossi best will say reporting was a natural fit for her, but journalism as a career was not on her radar at first.

While many in the news business knew they wanted to be TV journalists from the time they were young, that was not the case for Rossi, even though her big brother knew it was the perfect profession for her.

"He will tell you that I was made for this business," Rossi said.

After four years with the Phoenix Police Department, Rossi decided to get her college degree. While she majored in broadcast journalism at Arizona State University, becoming a reporter or anchor was not her endgame.

"I never intended on becoming a journalist when I left police work," she explained. "I was intending to go to law school."

With one year left in her college career, Rossi ran into a high-school friend who worked at KNAZ, a small TV station in Flagstaff. It was that chance meeting that set her on her path.

[PHOTOS: Memorable moments from Rossi's career]

[FUN FACTS: 5 things you did not know about Rossi]

After she interviewed and was offered a job at KNAZ, she moved to Flagstaff, transferred her ASU credits to Northern Arizona University and never looked back. She was 29.

"I worked full-time and went to school full-time and fell in love with the business," she said. 

It would be another three semesters before she graduated, and by then journalism had taken root in her soul.

While Rossi has always had an innate sense of justice, fighting for those most in need, she has a unique perspective on the stories she covers, particularly those involving Arizona's law-enforcement agencies.

It comes from her time as a police officer. It is experience she takes with her into the field every day. While she reports from one side of the crime-scene tape, she knows first-hand what's happening on the other side. 

Her time on the force also gives her insight into what our men and women in blue go through on a daily basis.

Shedding light on PTSD in police officers

Once a cop, always a cop, Rossi became a champion for those who protect Valley citizens, shedding light on issues that needed to be brought to our collective attention. Case in point: First responders who suffer from PTSD.

It is only recently that the general public was clued into the very real -- and potentially dangerous -- effects PTSD has on war veterans. Rossi was the first reporter in Arizona, and one of the first in the country, to recognize that our first responders -- police officer and firefighters -- suffer, too.

"I just thought I was doing a story on bringing something to light, and two months later it took a turn," she said. "One of the people I interviewed took their life, and the story snowballed from there."

Having already earned the trust of the Valley's police officers, Rossi was able to share the extremely personal story of Craig Tiger, an officer who suffered from PTSD, was fired by former chief of police Daniel Garcia and eventually committed suicide.

After Tiger's death, Rossi took on Garcia in a way nobody else had, sparking debate about whether police departments do enough to care for officers who are involved in serious on-duty incidents. In Tiger's case, it was a 2012 incident in which he and his partner were forced to shoot and kill a suspect who was armed with bat and was threatening not only them, but civilians, as well.

More than two years after the shooting, Tiger opened up to Rossi and explained how profoundly the shooting, what police refer to as a "critical incident," affected him.

"I went home that night to an empty house. It started immediately," he told her during the candid interview. "I proceeded to self-medicate with alcohol, and it started that night, that very night."

At the time of the shooting that would change and eventually end his life, Tiger was a 12-year veteran with a clean record. After that, his life went into a downward spiral that he was powerless to stop without help. But that help never came.

Two months after he sat down with Rossi, Tiger took his own life.

He left several suicide notes, including one for Garcia.

"You and the city of Phoenix failed me, plain and simple," it read.

Tiger's ex-wife agreed and told Rossi that Tiger's death could have -- should have -- been prevented.

It was Rossi's September 2014 interview with Tiger that shed light on a serious issue, one mental-health experts had known about for years. Until Rossi told Tiger's story, PTSD in first responders was the Phoenix Police Department's dirty little secret. 

I have covered so many stories that have had an impact on my life.

Others came forward to share their stories and to thank her for letting people know about their struggles.

"Craig Tiger is not the first victim that I'm aware of regarding the Phoenix Police Department's lack of care or lack of concern for officers that suffer from this illness," Joe Clure, the president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, said.

With the spotlight firmly focused on it, thanks to Rossi, and the police unions demanding change, the Phoenix Police Department had to take a look at how officers with PTSD were treated. A task force dedicated to the issue put together recommendations, steps the Department should take to help officers suffering from PTSD.

"About a year after the initial story, the Phoenix Police Department implemented changes in their policies on how they deal with officers and critical incidents," she said. "To me, that is humbling and powerful."

Stories that leave their mark

A true Arizona reporter, Rossi has worked and lived all over the Grand Canyon State. She started in northern Arizona, moved down to southern Arizona and then settled in Phoenix. Everywhere you go in this state, hers is a familiar face. People not only know her, but they also trust her.

She worked hard to earn that trust and values it, honors it. 

"She's Arizona through and through but she pours her heart out to the citizens of the world," CBS 5 anchor Sean McLaughlin said.

The stories Rossi told didn't just affect those who watched her from the comfort of their living rooms.

"I have covered so many stories that have had an impact on my life," she said. 

Tiger's is just one of them.

Even before taking on the issue of PTSD in our first responders, Rossi was on the front lines of Arizona history as it was being made: the 1999 sleepwalking murder trial of Scott Falater, the 2004 trial of Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas O’Brien for a fatal hit and run accident, the shooting of former Rep. Gabby Giffords on Jan. 8, 2011 and the two recent Jodi Arias murder trials. 

She was in northeastern Arizona in 2011 when the Wallow Fire, the biggest wildfire Arizona has ever seen, ravaged more than 840 square miles in four Arizona counties and one New Mexico county, injured 16 people and forced the evacuation of nearly 6,000 residents. It had been nearly a decade since the state had seen such widespread devastation. The 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned 732 square miles in Coconino and Navajo counties.

One thing that set Rossi's storytelling apart was her ability to connect with the people behind the stories in a very real, inherently compassionate way. She took a personal interest in them, beyond the story of the moment, which allowed them to open up to her. 

As Ed Munson, vice president and general manager of KPHO CBS 5 explained, Rossi is not just a hard-core newswoman, but she also has "unbelievably kind heart for the people with no voice." 

It's that heart that allowed Rossi to do what she did in an exemplary way.

Because few people ever have reason to be interviewed by a TV reporter -- any reporter, for that matter -- it's natural that they remember the experience and the reporter. 

"What I don't think they understand is that many times I remember them, as well," Rossi said. "I remember them being vulnerable, letting me into their home. I remember them sharing their stories with me of triumph or tribulation. I remember them. 

"I look at each person I come across in my stories as somebody who I can learn something from, somebody who can teach me something, somebody who can make me a better person," she continued. "I look at each person I come across in my stories as a blessing to me in some way, shape or form."

It's a connection that lasted beyond the 5 p.m. news.

Mike Perry (right) can attest to that. His sister and brother-in-law were murdered in 2015. Rossi covered the story and forged a connection. He called her two or three times a day to keep her apprised of developments and mine her insider's knowledge of police work. 

"We didn't have two or three stories a day," Rossi said.

But she always answered his calls, allowing herself to be a sounding board for somebody who was going through the worst possible event in his life.

When detectives confirmed to Perry that her sister's body had been found, his first call was to Rossi. Even though it was the middle of the night, she answered.

"It's humbling," she said. "The power of the media, I am still amazed at it. It's still overwhelming to me, and I hope I don't ever take that for granted."

Rossi has covered her share of tragic stories, not just locally, but on the national front, as well. One of the worst was the Columbine shooting on April 20, 1999. She doesn't even have to think about what day of the week it was. Like so many other stories she's covered, it's ingrained in her memory.

"The Columbine tragedy happened a little after 11 o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon," she recalled. "By 10 o'clock that night, I was live out in front of that school, watching the parents go in to check to see if their kids were alive or dead or in a hospital somewhere. I stayed there until that following Sunday.

"To be immersed in that kind of grief for five or six days straight was indescribable. That was the first big mass shooting that shook this world, that shook the United States. It was all new."

"That was one of the first times we saw the massive memorial spring up in that park that was close to the school," she continued, clearly seeing it in her mind's eye. "It was endless. The flowers. The crosses that people were building. It was endless."

Rossi was invited to the funeral of Kelly Fleming. The 16-year-old had moved to Littleton with her family 18 months before the shooting. She remembers listening to Wynonna singing "You Were Loved."

"Every time I hear that song, I think of Kelly, that young girl lying there in the casket," she said.

Reporting on the Columbine tragedy, being part of it, made some journalists question their choice of profession. Not Rossi.

"It solidified my job choice," she said. "Sometimes our profession tends to lose compassion, and that's one thing that I've always tried to keep at the forefront. The compassion that I hopefully show people makes the big bad media seem not that bad."

Although Rossi has covered her share of tragedy, there have been plenty of good times, as well.

"I've done a lot of fun stuff," Rossi said. "I've gone places nobody else gets to go. I've covered Super Bowls, behind the scenes, underneath the stadium at Joe Robbie in Florida (when that was still a stadium). I've catapulted to the top of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas, live on television, hoping I wasn't going to drop a curse word as they shot me up in the zero-gravity ride."

Some live shots were decidedly less fun.

"I got shot with wooden bullets from a police rifle in a riot in Tucson, live on TV," she said.

It was April 2, 2001, and the University of Arizona Wildcats had just lost the NCAA championship basketball game to Duke University. Violence erupted on North Fourth Avenue, and Rossi was literally in the middle of it.

"It was a unique experience," she said.

Always willing to take one for the team and do whatever it took to make good TV, Rossi, in another unique experience, allowed police to demonstrate how officers might deploy their stun guns in a potentially dangerous situation. Yes, she was Tazed on live TV.

Making a difference

Rossi's stories over the past 28-plus years (the last 23 of them at CBS 5 News) have run the gamut.

"My favorite stories, though, are the stories where I can make a difference in somebody's life," Rossi said. 

She most certainly has done that time and again.

[MORE STORIES: Click here for Rossi's most recent reports]

"When many people are burnt out, I'm not," she said in 2015 when she was presented with a prestigious industry award. "I still have fire in my belly. I still want to kick the butts of those young reporters out there, trying to take my job, who are 20, 25, 30 years younger than I."

Not only was every day an opportunity to tell a story and make a difference, but it was also a chance to learn something.

"I've worked with some incredibly talented people who have made me better, and I still have a lot to learn," she said. "I love the fact that new, young, wet-behind-the-ears journalists walk into this newsroom because I learn so much from them. They always come to me, and they think I'm the mentor. When they walk away, they think that they've learned something from me. I just laugh because I always learn something from them."

Rossi not only reported on this community, she was, is, and will continue to be a part of it.

"I love this town," she said. "I'm very involved. I donate my time, and I volunteer when I can. … I get so much back, more than I give."

And she gives quite a bit.

"She puts so much of her outside-of-work time into helping others," Morgan Loew of CBS 5 Investigates said.

In October 2015, Rossi received the William S. MacDonald Lifetime Achievement Award from Equality Arizona, the leading LGBTQ advocacy organization in Arizona. The award is "given to an individual who has demonstrated long-term commitment to working for the betterment of the lives of the LGBTQ community."

One of the best in the business, Rossi's hard and honest work since becoming a journalist in 1989 has earned her more than a dozen Arizona Associated Press Awards, several Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and induction into the Silver Circle.

"I am extremely humbled and honored to have been chosen as a 2015 inductee into the National Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle," she wrote on her Facebook page, thanking colleague and friend McLaughlin for the nomination.

It's one of the organization's most prestigious honors for which only a few candidates are selected each year.

"There's two types of award winners for the Silver Circle Award. There are those that deserve it and those that earn it," McLaughlin said. "Donna Rossi is somebody that has earned that Silver Circle Award - many times over."

Like those inducted with her and before her, the honor is richly deserved for Rossi.

While Rossi might not have intended to become a journalist, it's clear that just like her brother would say, she was meant for this business.

"I have worked with some of the most talented photojournalists, reporters, producers anchors and news leaders in the business," she wrote on Facebook. "I have been supported by so many in my personal life, who have understood the long hours and all consuming career that I chose. I retire (for a little while anyway) a much stronger, compassionate and tenacious person."

That dovetails with what she said about her career more than two years ago.

"Everything has fallen into place beautifully," Rossi said. "I've had an incredible 26-year career. This induction into the Silver Circle … is just a culmination of so many people having such input in my career, people believing in me, people trusting in me, people allowing me to give them a voice. It's been phenomenal. My thought process has always been when I'm done with this business, I can still go to law school if I want."

Is that what's next for Rossi? Only time will tell, but you can bet that whatever direction this new chapter in life takes her, she will -- like she's been since her police days -- be dedicated to helping those who need it.

She said so herself.

"I am not leaving the Valley," she wrote on Facebook. "I will take some time to breathe....And then I will throw myself 180% into the next chapter of my life. I don't know what that looks like yet, but ... I know I will [continue] to be a champion for those who can't fight for themselves."

And they will be lucky to have her in their corner.

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