Every newsroom in America has its story. Hell, just about every journalist I know has their own story. A story of a reader or source or subject whose comments turn dark. A story of a reader or source or subject whose comments turn darkly personal. Or a story of a reader or source or subject whose comments turn to threats and, sometimes, whose threats turn into action.
Last week, as the United States Naval Academy held a swearing-in ceremony for the 1,200-plus plebes comprising the Class of 2022, a man with an ax to grind made good on his years of threats. He took a shotgun, went to the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis and shot five employees to death. He barricaded the exit to the newsroom and blasted his way through the glass doors of the front entrance. With no way to escape, staffers and interns hid under desks, with one intern tweeting for help.
The shooter also was found hiding under a desk when police arrived and put up no fight when he was arrested. The woman who he stalked and harassed for years, meanwhile, said she had lived in fear for years that he would find her and kill her, and that when news of the shooting first broke, she called police to tell them she knew who did it.
Journalists use some fairly dark humor to deflect the reality that their work can make them targets of threats or harassment. And please note, gentle reader, that when I say threats and harassment, I am not talking about legitimate criticism of our work. Most of us welcome that and even invite it. If you don’t like something we write or broadcast, by all means, let us know. It might lead to greater dialogue. That we don’t mind.
What we do mind? Death threats. Rape threats. Comments suggesting the commenter knows where we live, where our children go to school, where our spouses work, how many dogs we have and how often they go outside during the day. Comments wishing us and our families harm.
I asked some journalism friends for their stories. Almost every woman who responded had a rape threat story. In one case, a friend who had been reporting on immigration cried as she recounted how a man said he wished for “all these hordes of Mexicans to come and rape me and my mother, and then threatened to do it himself.
“They bring up my mother?” she said.
Another woman said a reader used to drop off sexually explicit letters for her at her office (the office manager threatened to call the police on him if it continued). Another reader would send her letters from prison urging her to renounce her “feminist ways” and offering to buy her a Versace blouse if she did. Another journalist in the Pacific Northwest who was reporting on white supremacists got “doxxed” – meaning the posting of her personal information such as phone number and home address – on the neo-Nazi forum Stormfront. Others have turned over threatening letters to the police. One alt-weekly editor in the South keeps a handgun locked in his desk, as does a woman in his office.
Killing journalists isn’t new. In the two weeks before the Capital Gazette shooting, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported the shooting death of a newspaper reporter in the Philippines, the shooting death of a radio reporter in Brazil and a reporter in Indonesia who died while being detained in police custody awaiting trial on defamation charges for his reporting on a land conflict between a palm oil company and local farmers. In all, 33 journalists have been killed in 2018, CPJ reports; some of them died while reporting in conflict zones, and others were flat-out murdered.
At the Weekly, we practice active-shooter drills. We keep the front door locked and if you want to visit, you have to be buzzed in (best to make an appointment, really). We keep a running mental list of sources/readers/subjects most likely to show up and try to do us harm. I tell cop acquaintances that if I end up dead, it’s most likely (name redacted) who did it.
Just hours after the shooting, Capital Gazette reporter Chase Cook tweeted the following: “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” And so they did and so would we all. Because despite the threats and harassment and even deaths, that’s what journalists do.