When local journalists come under attack

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.

A note from Kristen: Almost two weeks ago, the city of Annapolis lost five people in an attack on the Capital Gazette.

Along with horror, grief and anger, one of the things I think a lot of us felt as we learned more was dread. If you've been threatened for doing your job, and a lot of us have, what happened in Maryland brought that terror right back to the surface. 

What do you do when you've faced threats? Does it change how you work? How can you take care of yourself? The day after the shooting, I talked about this with my colleague, Al Tompkins. 

Today, he's taking over Local Edition with what he heard when he asked these questions to local journalists. 

Here's what he found out:

Journalism, at every level today, includes risks. The Committee to Protect Journalists put out a warning to journalists traveling to Russia to cover the World Cup that they should consider encrypting their filings, that they sweep and clean their social media profiles and be prepared to be bugged while there.

This to cover a soccer tournament. 

Every damn day, it seems, CPJ has something to add to their alert banner. A Mexican journalist killed, militants seizing and holding journalists in Syria, secret arrests of journalists in Myanmar. 

I cannot prove that journalism is growing more dangerous. But when I cast a net out to lots of journalism social media sites and email threads I am a part of, I got a flood of responses from local journalists who have been attacked, threatened and stalked.

Cassie Fambro, a reporter at WPMI in Mobile, Alabama, told me that she has been stalked online and at one point a social media stalker told her that her mother, who had passed away years earlier, "would be ashamed of her."  

"When I do my job now I’m much more private than I used to be," she said. "I’m extremely vigilant about what information I post online and truly believe there’s no longer any such thing as a 'personal' account. Anytime I see someone take a photo of me or if a car has been behind me for a long time, I do become extra aware. I always make sure someone knows where I am, and if I work at night, I either ask to be escorted to my car or I make sure to park in a gated lot."

Fambro said social media allows critics to attack, "and in this day and age, they get to hide behind a cloak of anonymity, while you show your face every day on TV."

Victoria Lim, a freelancer now but a longtime consumer investigative reporter in Tampa, told me that investigative work is dicier today. As she became more visible on TV, she said she became more cautious. 

"I started having to ask someone to at least sit in a car across the street from where I might meet someone," she said. "I remember getting locked in a business after the photographer I was working with stepped out to get b-roll and the owners demanded I hand over my paperwork and swear I wouldn't do a story or else they wouldn't let me out. The photographer ended up banging on the door until they opened it and let me leave. During that incident, I didn't bring my phone in because I didn't want it to potentially ring and interrupt an interview."

After that, she said, "I never went anywhere without my cell phone on me so I could call for help."

Christine Maddela, an anchor at KVVU in Las Vegas, said the current political climate is making the job of local journalists a lot more difficult. Here's what she told me:

"While a photojournalist and I were out shooting b-roll (mundane weather video at that), a grown man out jogging yelled 'fucking liberal media' and spit at us."

She has had viewers send emails that "hoped I was raped and murdered by one of my illegal cousins so I know what it’s like to deal with the all the roaches infesting our country."

My dear old photojournalist friend Dave Wertheimer summed it up:

"Since 1980, I have been shot at, stabbed, punched, pushed, tackled, tear-gassed, and pepper-sprayed on assignment. It is a reality of the business of defending the public's right to know." 

Resources

It is time for news organizations to do more to protect journalists, said Frank Smyth, the Committee to Protect Journalists' senior adviser for journalist security and executive director of Global Journalist Security — a journalist training company based in Washington, D.C. Smyth compiled this deep and useful checklist of 10 ways newsrooms should consider security, from international work to local journalism.

I particularly appreciate the attention Smyth gives to freelancers, who often work by themselves and don't have a newsroom to call if they get in trouble. Poynter's Daniel Funke also pulled together these tips for newsrooms that don't have a lot of resources. 

The stress of the job

A few months ago, my wife, Sidney Tompkins, who is a psychotherapist and has worked with Fortune 500 companies and government agencies on managing employee stress, spent a morning with local journalists from Tampa Bay. The event, sponsored by The National Association of Black Journalists, focused on how local journalists can control the stress of the job.

One journalist said she had covered the shooting in Las Vegas, the Pulse nightclub shooting and a few weeks before had been at the scene of the Parkland, Florida school shooting. Several in the room said they had been covering a neighborhood terrified by a random shooter in Tampa in the weeks before we met.

Research from 2011 said between 80 percent and 100 percent of journalists have been exposed to some kind of work-related traumatic event. My wife said, without a doubt, many of the journalists in our seminar room were suffering from some degree of PTSD.

My wife, being married to a journalist for 24 years, says she believes photojournalists, producers and reporters underestimate the trauma they have experienced because they think of it as only being what they see in-person. But she says, every time you edit an image, every time you write a story for a newscast, you will relive that trauma over and over. It is not just what you see in that little viewfinder when you captured the image or video. 

Within a few weeks, my wife and I met with a number of international journalists working in conflict zones. One woman told us she had been raped. Another, detained. A third journalist had been beaten and left in an alley after he wrote a story critical of the local government. In every case, the journalists said they kept doing their job without making a big issue of the attack because they didn't want to be "seen as weak" and could not afford to lose their jobs.

Journalists are under attack. Not just in war zones. The journalists I have spoken with, exchanged emails with in the last few weeks tell me they are questioning if it is all worth it. 

So far, the answer, they say, is yes.  And they want to see their news organizations follow through with new security, with a new awareness that social media exposes them to constant harassment and that sending lone journalists into inflamed situations is risky business.

One last note. The Dart Center has a useful checklist that will help you sort out whether you need clinical help. Dart says psychotherapy may be useful:

  • After covering a particularly difficult story or series of assignments about human suffering, violence or cruelty that is leaking into your day to day life and/or interfering with your life (sleep problems, personal life, feeling more reactive, concentration trouble, greater hypervigilance, lack of motivation, greater agitation or anxiety.)
  • After job-related violent attacks, threats, captivity or torture
  • When you want greater insight or self-awareness
  • When some aspect of your work or personal life is particularly stressful or out of balance
  • When there is an increase in your use of alcohol or other substances

Dart's webpage, written specifically for journalists, will help you find and evaluate a therapist and know what to expect.  If you need help, get it. NOW. We need you to be great at your job. You will only be great if you take care of yourself first.

  • Kristen Hare and Al Tompkins

    Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for the Poynter Institute. Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online.

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