“5 People Dead in Shooting at Maryland’s Capital Gazette Newsroom”
A chill went through my body when I read the headline.
As the story unfolded, we learned that a gunman with a grudge against the newspaper had barricaded the back door to prevent staff members from escaping, then walked through the front door with a shotgun and began murdering people.
Reports of innocent people being gunned down while going about their daily business have become far too common. All of them are tragic, but for me, this attack was different. I never met any of the five people who were killed, but this time, it was personal.
Although I didn’t know the victims, I know a little bit about what their lives were like. Journalists everywhere face the same challenges. Our personal lives often take a backseat to the demands of the biz. We put in long hours, face constant deadlines, and have to be ready to change direction at a moment’s notice to respond to breaking news and new developments.
Even those of us who work at small community newspapers are driven by the demands of the job.
We miss dinner engagements, family gatherings, and other events because we are busy covering meetings or other stories. We don’t go home until the last story is edited and the paper has gone to press.
And every journalist must live with the fact that no matter how hard we work to get the facts right and report things in a fair and balanced manner, there will be times that we make someone mad. It doesn’t matter whether or not the response is reasonable. Some people will take offense and hold a grudge against a reporter or an entire news organization.
This was clearly the case in the Gazette incident.
In Maryland, the dead were identified as Gerald Fischman, 61, the newsroom’s editorial page editor; Rob Hiaasen, 59, an editor and features columnist; John McNamara, 56, a sports reporter and editor for the local weekly papers; Wendi Winters, 65, a local news reporter and community columnist; and Rebecca Smith, 34, a sales assistant.
They were all veterans in the biz. None of them deserved to die for doing their jobs.
There was a time when if a person had an issue with a newspaper, he would write a letter to the editor.
The world is different today.
For some in our culture, it has become acceptable to attack anyone who does not share their opinion.
Worse still, those who work to bring facts to light can be victimized or even killed simply for telling the truth.
An assault on journalists is an attack on truth and on democracy.
As we think about the murders in Maryland, it’s natural to wonder why such a senseless slaughter occurred.
Some of the blame rests with those in leadership positions who, instead of bringing people together, choose to drive people apart and dehumanize an entire segment of the population in order to further their own partisan agendas. If a sitting president consistently and irresponsibly describes journalists as “the enemy of the people,” is it surprising that some sick person would take this as a license to slaughter journalists at their desks?
That is not a political question. The way we treat people in this country is a deadly serious matter.
When we allow any segment of our population to be treated as something less than human, we all share in the responsibility for the consequences.
As a newspaper editor, the safety of my staff is something I think about every day.
Our jobs require us to report on crime, government, and a broad range of news stories, any one of which could be a trigger for some disturbed individual who might feel justified in killing the messenger.
We have a responsibility to report the news, and that isn’t always comfortable or easy, but if we chose never to report hard news for fear of reprisals, we would not be doing our duty, and we might as well be writing commercials.
We do important work for low wages because we believe in what we do. In spite of that, I don’t know how I would live with myself if one of my staff members was harmed as a result of covering a story I assigned.
I have tremendous respect for the surviving staff members at the Capital Gazette who, in the face of this horrific tragedy, bravely carried on their mission.
One defiant staffer summed it up as reporters worked out of the back of a pickup truck across the street from their shattered office, “We are putting out a damn paper.”
No one should have to work in fear, and no one should be killed for shining a light on the truth.