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Safety 101 for journalists

Journalists are facing physical threats. How can they protect themselves?

When Chase Cook arrived to cover the June 2018 shooting at the Capital Gazette, he was in a state of shock and running on adrenaline. His focus bounced around. One moment he was trying to do his job as a journalist and cover the story; the next he was thinking, “Oh my God, I can’t believe my colleagues have been killed.”

Cook, a Capital Gazette reporter, had been given the day off.

What happened at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, isn’t a common occurrence. According to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists, the four reporters (and one staff member) killed that day are the only journalists so far to be killed in the U.S. in 2018. Only 11 killings occurred between 1992 and 2018. (Two Canadian journalists were killed in the same time frame.) But the tragedy has prompted concern about safety in journalism — not just for foreign correspondents, but for domestic reporters. Coupled with the anti-media rhetoric that’s been building the past two years, journalists and newsrooms are reconsidering what it means to be safe on the job.

The Capital Gazette’s office used to be on the first floor of its building. The glass, lockable door separating reporters from potential danger was often propped open. After 7 p.m., you needed a badge to get in.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It gave way to a newsroom where anyone could come in and drop off an obituary, ad or letter. The Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates would come by with information, and then stay to chat lacrosse with the sportswriters. The paper was part of the community, and the community was part of the paper.

That’s all changed. After the shooting, the team was moved to a temporary office (it would have been “horrific” to return to the old one, says Cook) and little was the same. For starters, they’re on the third floor of the building. They have armed security 24/7, and they’re having conversations about what they want security to look like at the new building they will move into.

Though the shooting hasn’t erased the open communication with the public that community papers cultivate, it may signal the end of an era where anyone could easily walk into a community newsroom and have their say.

Newsrooms around the U.S. have upped their security, and the 2018 ASNE-APME-APPM News Leadership Conference featured a new session on newsroom safety, where Cook was a speaker. It was the first session ever to focus on safety for domestic journalists.

The Trump effect

You may have heard these terms before: “fake news”; “the failing New York Times”; “the enemy of the people”. All were popularized by U.S. President Donald Trump.

His words have noticeable effects. In 2017, Republican congressman Greg Gianforte attacked Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, and White House reporter April Ryan hired a bodyguard after receiving threats; she blames Trump’s anti-media rhetoric. Most notably, a man was charged with threatening to shoot reporters at the Boston Globe after they participated in a nationwide editorial campaign that criticized President Trump’s attacks on the media. The threat, this time, was real: searching the man’s home, police found 20 guns.

In 2018 the U.S. fell to number 45 from 43 on Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index — Canada sits at 18. Meanwhile, a 2017 Gallup poll revealed that 29 per cent of Americans don’t trust mass media at all.

Covering political rallies six years ago was simpler, says Casey Blake, the opinions and engagement editor at the Citizen Times in Asheville, North Carolina. People on either side might have refused to speak to you, but everyone was always polite. A Trump rally in 2016 was a very different experience: the “level of vitrol and ugliness” she saw struck her as serious. People threw cups and spat at journalists.

In August, CNN reporter Jim Acosta attended a Trump rally, where he was heckled and mocked. He responded by saying “it felt like we weren’t in America anymore.”

Pete Vernon, a staff writer with the Columbia Journalism Review, says there is a fear of physical violence against reporters right now. He doesn’t see the anti-media rhetoric easing up in the 2020 election. If anything, he says, it will get worse.

Journalists killed in 2018 around the world
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Picture a newsroom.

You’ll probably see desks, coffee; reporters scurrying around. Maybe a few windows.

Or maybe not. Editors should consider a future where newsrooms have no windows, says Tom Marquardt, the former publisher of the Capital Gazette. To make sure reporters are safe on the job, editors are going to have to make a few changes — maybe even drastic ones. He says they should be prepared for newsrooms to look like police stations.

Newsrooms aren’t the only places where change is needed — journalists may have to take their safety into their own hands. Marquardt thinks they should consider owning a weapon. It could be a gun, or a baseball bat under the bed.

“I hate to say it, but journalists can’t assume anymore that nothing’s going to happen to them. In fact, they have to assume just the opposite.”

After the shooting, Marquardt purchased a gun and now has a concealed carry license. His wife has also learned how to use a weapon — just in case.

True north press

In 1998 Tara Singh Hayer, publisher of the Indo-Canadian Times, was murdered in his home in Vancouver. Hayer is the only journalist to be killed in Canada in the last 20 years.

Even though Canadian reporters aren’t being murdered regularly, veteran Canadian journalist Dan Leger, a columnist with the Halifax Chronicle Herald worries anti-media rhetoric could be slipping over the border.

Leger says Canadian journalists always received threats — it was part of the job. But they’ve gotten “way worse” since Trump came into power, especially now that sending threatening messages via Twitter is all too easy.

Buzzfeed reporter Scaachi Koul recently covered a conference in Toronto hosted by ultra-conservative news site the Rebel, where she was insulted by speakers and attendees. Koul partially blamed this on Trump’s attacks on the press.

Despite increasing threats towards journalists, Canadians have more faith in the news media than Americans do. The 2017 Shattered Mirror report, commissioned by the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa to discuss the survival of trustworthy journalism in the digital age, revealed that 70 per cent of Canadians surveyed think news plays an important role in our democracy. In response to President Trump’s attacks on the media, Justin Trudeau said in March he would keep defending the free press.

The CBC made everyone in its newsrooms more aware of security after the Capital Gazette shooting. Joe Hill, director of resiliency and security at the CBC, says looking at security after a major incident is nothing new. This mass shooting, he said, while horrific, was “just one of many.”

Press Freedom Rankings:  U.S. and Canada; 2014-2018
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What does the public do now?

If journalists can no longer afford to leave newsrooms open to the public, where does that leave the public?

“I think the public can adapt,” Chase Cook says, “and I think news reporters can adapt.”

Adapting doesn’t mean learning to love newsroom guards and exhaustive security measures. Journalists have a tool they can use, already at their disposal — and indeed, many use it to stay in touch with readers, viewers and listeners.

It’s rare to find a journalist today who isn’t on social media. Most put their email address in their bios, and many have their DMs open. Journalists also regularly use Twitter to contact sources, and tweeting a journalist a story idea is an easy way to get them to notice you.

But while social media leaves journalists vulnerable to threats it can also help journalists and the public communicate. In the age of security standing at the doors of some newsrooms, social media may be an unexpected healer of a fractured relationship.

Cook has changed since the shooting. He’s less curious, more suspicious, and loud noises tend to scare him. He’s more prone to thinking he’s in danger, and he and several co-workers have undergone therapy to deal with the trauma.

The caution he takes now, though, doesn’t translate to fear of doing his job — and there’s been no mass exodus of journalists quitting during the Trump era. Journalists are, at least for now, showing up for work.

It’d be hard to stop the reporters at the Capital Gazette, anyway. In the hours following the shooting, there was little definitive information. Cook’s updates were full of those uncertainties, so he tweeted the one thing he knew for sure: “We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”

They haven’t missed a day since.

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