Normally, when a mass shooting occurs anywhere in the United States, journalists run toward the danger.
On June 28, that danger came to the journalists and others at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. Five of them were killed, four of them journalists. The gunman was arrested moments after police responded.
Any mass shooting is shocking. This one was perhaps more devastating to those of us in the journalism profession because our colleagues – and we are all colleagues in moments such as this – were the victims.
To be clear, I am not in any way suggesting that a mass shooting targeting journalists is any more tragic than a mass shooting victimizing any other group of people – school students, church congregants, concertgoers, nightclub patrons, etc. All are horrific.
In the early hours following the Capital Gazette attack, there was much speculation – fear, on my part, I must admit – that the gunman had somehow been motivated by today’s vitriolic ideological and political environment. Many on social media jumped to that conclusion prematurely (not RTDNA), only, as we later learned, the suspect had a long-running personal vendetta against that specific newspaper.
Still, the events in Annapolis underscore the need for all journalists to heed an admonition I have been delivering to journalism groups across the country: Watch your backs, but don’t back down. And they don’t negate the fact that trust in journalism is at near-record lows.
An AXIOS/Survey Monkey poll released June 27 – the day before the shooting in Annapolis – shows that 92 percent of Republicans – statistically speaking, that’s pretty much every Republican – believes “traditional news outlets knowingly report false or misleading stories at least sometimes.”
To pile on to the problem responsible journalism faces in today’s fiercely polarized environment, 79 percent of self-identifying independents believe we use our own version of “alternative facts,” to borrow a phrase from the early days of the Trump administration. Fifty-three percent of self-identifying Democrats believe it.
As I travel the country speaking to journalists, and broadcast and digital executives, in groups large and small, I ask them the following questions as a means of trying to help them to protect themselves and rebuild trust with their news consumers:
- Is your newsroom reporting stories that expose problems in your community, and then following up with stories about potential solutions?
- If you’re a news director, editor, general manager or publisher, have you taken steps to protect the safety of your reporters and photojournalists, for example safety courses, self-defense training, and extra security precautions at the station or office?
- Do you send one-person multi-media journalist crews into dangerous areas? If so, stop.
- If you’re a general manager or a news director or a print or digital editor, are you making an effort to speak to the public – on the air, online, during speaking engagements, and during conversations with influential people in your community – about the public service your news organization regularly provides?
- If you’re a television or radio news director, do your news anchors and reporters explain on the air, and/or on your station’s website and social media channels, the process they go through in order to report news stories?
- Do you publicly discuss the ethical dilemmas you face when reporting particular stories and the process through which you’ve gone to resolve them?
- If you’re a broadcaster, do you air public service announcements that explain the importance of responsible journalism to your community?
- Do you, if you’re a broadcast station executive, do on-air editorials in which you explain your station’s newsgathering philosophy and commitment to serve your community?
The fact is that it is nearly impossible to guard against every potential attack on journalists. But we can be as prepared as possible.
I am heartened that despite the emotional heartbreak and physical devastation, the Capital Gazette published its June 29 edition, the morning after the attack on its newsroom.
That’s what we, as journalists, do.
We should all be inspired by the courage of the surviving Annapolis reporters and editors, even as we hold them in our thoughts.