How safe are our journalists?

December 26, 2017 11:00

I would like to revise and extend last year’s remarks, as they say in Congress.

At the RTDNA convention, I had the privilege of accepting an award and giving a short talk.  In it, I meant to encourage aspiring journalists in the room with the statement, “Journalism is a safe profession.”  My point was rooted in the deaths of two of my employees at WDBJ Television in Roanoke on August 26, 2015.

Alison Parker and Adam Ward were gunned down by a former colleague while they were conducting a live remote interview on the morning show.  They were killed not because of the journalism they were conducting but because of some demons plaguing the shooter.

We need courageous investigative reporters, and I didn’t then and don’t now want to discourage anyone because of what happened in Moneta, Virginia.

After I spoke, that year’s Paul White Award winner took the stage to deliver remarks.  Among the important points he made was this one:  Journalism is not safe for those covering conflict around the world.  I immediately realized that I should have distinguished between domestic reporting and war-zone news coverage, which is dominated by brave, mission-driven reporters, producers, translators and photojournalists, working at considerable risk.

A year later, I have come to believe that domestic reporting, while still generally safe, is under real threat.  We have a president who has made journalists into the enemy.  He labels any coverage he doesn’t like “fake news,” and that mantra has spread.  The tee shirt that read “Rope.  Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED” was actually for sale at legitimate online retailers.  Is this incitement, or what?

When I exposed a city councilman who was pushing through legislation to benefit his business partner, was I “the enemy of the people?”  The voters didn’t think so.  They kicked him out of office at the next election.  Today, I can imagine the words his supporters might use, empowered by what’s going on nationally.

Deborah Potter, network correspondent, journalism trainer and founder of the NewsLab, told me, “To some extent, we’ve entered a period similar to the 1960s, when reporters covering the civil rights struggle in the South were threatened and intimidated.  

“My advice to journalists is to be hyper-aware of their surroundings, to work in teams whenever possible, and to let the public know whenever they are threatened on the job.  Do not assume your credentials will protect you.”

Real harm against reporters has been exceedingly rare.  Pushing and shoving, yes, but the workplace-related murders of Adam Ward and Alison Parker, the assassination of Don Bolles and the disappearance of Jodi Huisentruit are such extreme anomalies that they are memorable for their rarity. 

Our job is to fight to make the worst threat we hear, “I’m going to call your editor.”

Editor’s note: According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, at least 36 journalists in the U.S. have been the victim of a physical attack in 2017, including 22 assaulted while covering protests. RTDNA, through its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force, defends against threats to the First Amendment and news media access and helps the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives.


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