Tuesday, September 18, 2018

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Off Beat: Newsroom shooting on journalists' minds

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    Rick Hutzell, right, the editor for Capital Gazette, is joined by staff members, from left, reporter Selene San Felice, and photojournalists Paul W. Gillespie and Joshua McKerrow, as he rings a bell during a moment of silence at 2:33 p.m., Thursday, July 5, 2018, in Annapolis, Md., for their five colleagues who were killed a week earlier in one of the deadliest attacks on journalists in U.S. history.


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As news of a mass shooting at a Maryland newspaper spread around the Leader-Telegram newsroom on the afternoon of June 28, my co-workers and I reacted with a mix of shock, horror and resignation. 

Shock and horror are understandable responses to any event in which someone walks into a venue and shoots and kills helpless victims. In this case Jarod W. Ramos entered the office of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md., and shot to death four journalists and a sales assistant working there. 

The resignation is a sad byproduct of the fact that public shootings at such places as schools, workplaces, nightclubs and music concerts have become commonplace enough that their shock value is diminishing. With each instance of an angry gunman wreaking havoc and ending lives, we, unfortunately, become less surprised, our senses dulled a bit more by what is becoming our disturbing new normal.  

Still, this newsroom shooting registered on the collective journalistic radar of my media colleagues more than others. The deadly hail of bullets didn’t happen in a classroom or at a big music concert in Las Vegas. It occurred in the newsroom of a relatively small daily newspaper in a city with a population of about 40,000, significantly less than Eau Claire’s nearly 70,000.

Details of the shooting made their way to media outlets, one chilling detail at a time. Ramos, 38, was angry at the Capital Gazette for its coverage of his pleading guilty to having harassed a high school classmate in 2012. Since then, Ramos has a well-documented history of issuing threats to the newspaper’s journalists, often venting his frustration at them via a series of profanity-laced tweets. 

Ultimately, Ramos’ anger boiled over in the form of a shooting rampage. As I pondered the awful event as more information became available, I was struck by an uncomfortable reality. Attacks against journalists don’t just take place in dictatorships, in Third World countries or in big cities. One could happen right here, in Eau Claire, in this retro-1960s newsroom I have called home for the past 21 years.  

Mixed discussions

I don’t typically think of being a newspaper reporter as a dangerous profession. We reporters and editors work in climate-controlled offices, earning our paychecks simply by talking to people, then typing the day’s news on a keyboard. 

Oftentimes the conversations that generate stories are friendly, or at worst have a businesslike tone. Many of our story sources are people we talk to frequently, and some of them become friends.  

However, the shooting at the Capital Gazette served as a stark reminder that not all of journalists’ interactions with those we report about go so well. Sometimes our job necessitates that we ask people, especially those in positions of power, tough questions they would rather not answer. On other occasions we report on people during the worst moments of their lives.

Sometimes, especially given the very public nature of what we report, our work prompts angry responses and threats. A survey of some of my journalism colleagues revealed too many warnings against them through the years to count. A few involved threats of physical harm, but most were angry outbursts or empty warnings of lawsuits. 

I have experienced a handful of the former and lots of the latter, and I typically pay them little heed. But perhaps, given the Capital Gazette newsroom shooting, I should rethink that approach. Maybe we journalists, even here in Eau Claire, aren’t as safe as I thought. 

Safety debate

The Capital Gazette shooting sparked debate about newsroom safety at media outlets across the U.S., including where I work. The incident prompted grim discussions among my colleagues about what we would do if someone wielding a gun looking to harm us entered our workplace.

How secure is the door to our newsroom? Who would be first in the line of fire? (I was among those deemed most at risk of being shot first, based on my proximity to the main door entering the newsroom). 

I don’t assume that because a deadly incident occurred at a newspaper halfway across the country that it will happen here. But in the wake of the Capital Gazette shooting, for the first time I now wonder whether it actually could. Fueled in part by President Donald Trump’s anti-journalism bravado, sentiment against my profession feels stronger today than in past years. I hear more claims of  “fake news” by people looking to disparage journalism, and I was the target of the misguided use of that term last fall in response to a story I wrote.

Still, I believe many people value journalists’ work. We do our job imperfectly. We make mistakes. We try hard to avoid those miscues, to report the news in a thoughtful, balanced manner as we work for relatively little pay amid long hours, deadline pressure and shrinking resources.

The day their newsroom became a murder scene, Capital Gazette reporters and editors worked in circumstances more difficult than I can imagine to put out a paper the next morning. Perceived danger or not here in Eau Claire, my colleagues and I remain committed to doing the same. 

Contact: 715-830-5911, julian.emerson@ecpc.com 

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