A physical attack of this scale against journalists is unprecedented in the United States. Prior to June 28, the last time a journalist had been killed in a confirmed targeted attack was in August 2015, when Alison Parker and Adam Ward, a TV anchor and cameraman for a local Virginia news channel, were murdered by a gunman while filming a segment. However the nation’s media climate has grown increasingly hostile in recent years, prompting more concerns about journalists’ safety.
During his first year in office, President Donald Trump declared the press an “enemy of the American people” and critical media organizations “fake news,” while dealing countless other verbal attacks toward news outlets and journalists, often calling out individuals by name. His persistent harassment was coupled with an alarming number of press freedom violations at the local level, including 34 journalist arrests and 44 physical attacks against them, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker.
While the Capital Gazette shooter’s motive appears to be a personal grudge against the paper, it is impossible to untangle President Trump’s rhetoric from the rise of intolerance toward journalists in the United States. Among the journalists most fervently harassed are those covering politically-sensitive topics, including the activities of the Trump administration. White House correspondent April Ryan, a veteran reporter for American Urban Radio Networks and CNN contributor, told Variety in April, “I actively get death threats just for asking a question. I have law enforcement on speed dial.” CNN’s Jim Acosta said he received a “threat of violence” for asking President Trump a question during the annual White House Easter Egg Roll. He told Variety: “I probably receive more death threats than I can count. I get them basically once a week.” Media and technology website Vocativ has established a link between the peak moments of online harassment of former Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly and President Trump’s attacks against her via television and Twitter.
Unfortunately, the Capital Gazette shooter’s behavior leading up to the shooting was alarmingly familiar to journalists across the country. The very nature of reporting leaves journalists vulnerable to harassment from the subjects of their work, especially in local news, and lines between verbal and physical violence are becoming increasingly blurred. Audrey Cooper, editor in chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, tweeted on June 28: “Every newsroom I know of, regardless of size or geographical area, has at least a handful of people who regularly harass its journalists. Every one.” As recently as July 5, one week after the Capital Gazette shooting, media organizations reported the Circleville Herald, a local newspaper in Ohio, received a threatening letter containing an unknown substance in the envelope. The letter threatened to physically harm the newspaper staff and contained a white powder, which the letter said was fentanyl, an opioid that can be fatal in high doses.
“RSF has been tracking incidents of harassment and reporting on them weekly at the same time that anti-press rhetoric has become ‘mainstream’ in the United States,” said Margaux Ewen, Director of RSF’s North America bureau. “Our fear was that this verbal harassment would eventually translate to physical violence, and it did on June 28 in Annapolis. RSF urges law enforcement, social media platforms, and employers to treat harassment of media outlets and their personnel as a priority, and to take all necessary measures to guarantee journalists’ safety.”
As the media landscape has evolved, so has the form these threats take. As most people now access their news online, and particularly through social media, many journalists have become the subject of aggressive online harassment on platforms like Twitter, which they often use to share their work and connect with other reporters and sources. In interviews with RSF, some journalists said they chose to be less visible online or self-censored after facing aggressive online harassment. After reporting in July 2017 on the Reddit user who created a video of Trump wrestling and violently punching a figure whose head was replaced by the CNN logo—which Trump retweeted—pro-Trump figures began posting negative comments and personal information on social media about the reporter, CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski, including his home address and personal phone number. According to The Daily Beast, Kaczynski’s parents and wife each received around 50 intimidating phone calls the day after the story was published. In the aftermath, Kaczynski stopped tweeting for more than a week and published only once in the almost two weeks that followed the story’s publication.
While many journalists have long considered this harassment to be par for the course—something to erase from their inboxes every morning—for some the harassment is becoming difficult to simply disregard. Jared Yates Sexton, a politics report for Salon who has been the subject of aggressive online harassment for the past two years, tweeted on June 28: “I’ve been getting an influx of death threats over the past week. I know other journalists who have as well. These things are organized, coordinated, and serious. We’ve pretended they weren’t for way too long.” Sexton had received harassment in July 2017 similar to Kaczynski’s for reporting on the same Reddit user.
The safety of journalists as they navigate social media is a uniquely elusive issue, and one that is not yet being adequately addressed, especially by social media platforms. According to a 2017 survey conducted by PEN America, of the more than half of respondents who said they have alerted social media platforms about their harassment, 70.8 percent said the platform was unhelpful. Some journalists who have been victim to online harassment have had their own accounts temporarily disabled by social media platforms after reporting the harassment.
With little help from those platforms in dealing with online harassment, what was at first considered an unfortunate circumstance of using the Internet is now being recognized by the journalism community as a security threat they must address in order to protect their own. After the Capital Gazette shooting, news organizations and journalists have been sharing their experiences of harassment. Many others are sharing resources for reporters who are receiving threats. Newsrooms from the Wall Street Journal to The Washington Post utilize tools like those provided by The Coral Project to moderate and remove disruptive or threatening comments on their websites, and to protect the privacy of their reporters. A spokesperson for the Huffington Post told RSF they offer trainings for their journalists so they can “protect themselves, and their identities, online.” PEN America recently published the “Online Harassment Field Manual.” In 2017 the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) published a report on possible solutions to online harassment of female journalists, and RSF’s own Safety Guide for Journalists, which was published in partnership with UNESCO in 2015, includes information to help journalists facing harassment in the course of their work.
Between 2017 and 2018, the United States dropped two places in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, ranking 45th out of 180 countries.