Threats surface, but newspapers remain dedicated to community

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Reflections from my Notebook

“There are no 40-hour weeks, no big paydays — just a passion for telling stories from our community,” Jimmy DeButts wrote on Twitter last week. “We keep doing more with less. We find ways to cover high school sports, breaking news, tax hikes, school budgets and local entertainment. We are there in times of tragedy. We do our best to share the stories of people, those who make our community better. Please understand, we do all this to serve our community.”

DeButts is the community news editor and metro columnist for the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. His message carried quite an impact as it came soon after he wrote he was “devastated and heartbroken” about the shooting that killed five people at his newspaper.

Journalists across the United States were also devastated to hear the news of a shooter gunning down journalists as reported on the scene by the staff of the local newspaper even while the newsroom was still under siege.

The incident gives all of us in this profession pause, even in the office of this small newspaper in rural Minnesota. Newspapers, no matter what size, are often a lightning rod for criticism since our work is constantly in front of the public. We get our share of complaints, but nothing compares to what the staff of the Capital Gazette went through. 

“There is nothing more terrifying than hearing multiple people get shot while you’re under your desk and then hear the gunman reload,” said Phil Davis, a crime reporter.

The incident stems from the shooter’s dispute with the Capital Gazette that began in July 2011 when a columnist wrote about a criminal harassment case against him. He brought a defamation suit against the columnist and the newspaper’s editor and publisher. A court ruled in the Capital Gazette’s favor, and an appeals court upheld the ruling.

Seven years after that column, he burst into the newspaper to fulfill a growing vendetta, turning the building into what reporters described as a “war zone,” leaving the crime reporter, who routinely covers shootings and death, feeling “helpless.”

That was the work of one deranged individual, an assault that likely will never happen in the offices of most newspapers in America.

However, there are other kinds of assaults taking place against journalists.

One attack is causing us to “do more with less,” as DeButts referenced, due to a bruised business model upended by new technology.

A more worrisome assault is the pummeling of the integrity of the press, something journalists encounter today even in casual settings in small town Minnesota. The disparaging comments aren’t personal attacks against local journalists, but are putdowns of the entire profession, with people joking about “fake news” that is supposedly so prevalent or musing about the many ways the media can blame the president for anything bad that happens.

This view is coming from the top — the president of the United States, Donald Trump, who feels it necessary to constantly undermine the press. Defenders say it is just Trump being Trump, but words do have consequences, as those of us in this profession understand even when the reminder doesn’t come from bullets aimed at our colleagues.

That Trump’s rants have an impact is shown in a recent letter to the editor in one of our other publications, which had a headline, suggested by the writer: “We need civility in politics.” In the second paragraph the letter references “Lying Hillary.”

The writer likely didn’t mean to discredit his whole premise with that insult. Instead, the term, popularized by President Trump, has become such a normal part of his vocabulary that he didn’t see it as incivility.

Trump’s phrases about the news media have also become a normal part of people’s conversations, so much so that they may not realize they are helping undermine institutions that serve the community.

Fake news truly exists, but it is defined as deliberate misinformation or hoaxes distributed through social media. However, Trump has turned it into a generalization of anything negative written about him or his agenda, accusing entire news organizations of pedaling fake news to get back at him.

He wrote on Twitter last year that the nation’s news media “is the enemy of the American people” and another time he called the media’s efforts to inform people a “stain on America.”

When CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl asked Trump during his campaign in 2016 why he regularly attacked the media, she said he told her, “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

That’s quite an admission.

In some cases, the president may have a right to complain. Journalism is an inexact craft undertaken by humans who make mistakes, have inherent biases and limited capacities to understand every subject. And, as in any other profession, there are unethical and incompetent people who taint the practice.

Yet, people don’t go into a profession with long hours and no big paydays to scam the American people. Journalists, whether they are working for a national publication, a community daily or a rural weekly newspaper, hold many of the same values with an emphasis on upholding the integrity of a free press.

Journalists from the nation’s capital to Annapolis to southeastern Minnesota are on a kindred journey.

That’s why we are devastated and heartbroken when a deranged shooter takes the lives of our colleagues. It’s also why we bristle at the systematic undermining of our profession.

In times such as this, we find it necessary to defend our craft even if we would rather be covering high school sports, breaking news, tax hikes, school budgets, local entertainment and the other important news that serves our community. Telling the stories from our community week after week is our true calling.

We’ll never know what it is like to cower under a desk while shots are fired around us, but we can relate to the tweet from Capital Gazette reporter Chase Cook a few hours after friends in his newsroom were murdered: “I can tell you this. We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”