The shooting deaths of journalists Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters and John McNamara and advertising assistant Rebecca Smith has left newsrooms across the nation to address the question of how to protect themselves from threats. (Hannah Gaskill/Capital News Service)

Newsrooms reviewed security after Capital Gazette shooting

By: Hannah Gaskill, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS — One newsroom in Alabama said they tested their panic button, while others are circumspect about disclosing what has become of their security measures.

The June 2018 mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, has affected newsrooms around the nation.

The tragedy resulting in the murders of journalists Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters and John McNamara and advertising assistant Rebecca Smith has left newsrooms across the nation to address the question of how to move forward in an industry where vitriol and physical violence are constant and real possibilities.

More frequently, news organizations large and small have security guards in their bureaus and with their broadcast crews out in the field.

But this wasn’t always the case.

Joan Jacobson worked for the Baltimore Evening Sun and later the Baltimore Sun in the 1970s before leaving in 2002, and said that readers with questions or complaints could just ride the elevator up to the newsroom and enter at will.

“It was unheard of to have security,” and it was often annoying that the public was able to walk freely in and out and around the newsroom, she said. “No one ever felt threatened with violence back then.”

Jacobson described how safety procedures began to shift in the ‘80s when the newspaper implemented security desks and people needed permission from staff members to visit the newsroom.

Security at the Sun and the Capital Gazette newsrooms — both owned by the Tribune Publishing Co. — has certainly evolved since Jacobson’s time there.

The Sun now has a gated parking lot where guards check IDs before visitors can enter the property. Guests have to be approved with employees, and guards call and verify before they are allowed to pass through a menagerie of doors to the first floor.

After the shooting, the company “immediately stepped up security,” hiring someone to complete assessments at each of their locations across the country and placing armed guards at their Maryland offices, said Baltimore Sun Media Group spokeswoman Renee Mutchnik.

The company has also moved the Capital Gazette newsroom to an undisclosed location and is undecided about whether to reveal its whereabouts to the community.

“We feel strongly that a local community newspaper needs to be a real part of the community so we’re not trying to isolate ourselves, but I think in time, perhaps, (opening it to the public) will happen,” said Mutchnik. “For now we’re going to not publicize it.”

In a November 2018 review of their third-quarter results, the Tribune noted: “financial impact from the Capital Gazette tragedy” as contributing to a multi-million dollar reduction in net earnings.

The murders of Capital Gazette staff members didn’t just change security for Tribune-owned bureaus. The scope of the attack was national.

Some representatives of news organizations are hesitant to discuss any security measures taken after the attack.

Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Executive Editor and Pulitzer Prize winner David Shribman said that the publication became more security-conscious than ever, but did not want to disclose many details about operations put into place since June 2018.

“We matched our sadness with what happened in Annapolis with our vigilance,” Shribman told Capital News Service. “Journalism has always been intellectually dangerous, and sometimes physically dangerous, but these dangers that we face today are completely unanticipated.”

“What the Capital Gazette shooting did in this regard was make newsrooms and the people who run them super, hyper-vigilant about the safety of their employees,” said Dan Shelley, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association.

Both Shelley and Shribman’s respective organizations have been in close proximity to other more-recent instances of mass gun violence.

In 2018, Shribman and his reporting staff at the Post-Gazette won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Shelley said his organization ramped-up security this year for its annual Excellence in Journalism conference in San Antonio, Texas — a decision made because of the conference’s partnership with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, its proximity to El Paso, where a mass shooting targeting Latino individuals had happened a month prior and the state’s “open-carry” gun policy.

Shelley said in an interview with Capital News Service that in the last two years he has told journalists to “watch your back, but don’t back down,” further saying that “they have a solemn obligation to seek and report the truth…but you can’t perform that solemn obligation if someone physically attacks you, or worse.”

Bro Krift, executive editor of the Montgomery Advertiser—a Central Alabama publication owned by Gannett—said that the tragedy at the Capital Gazette reopened his newsroom’s conversation about safety policy and procedure.

“Immediately afterward we had discussions relating to it,” said Krift, who described the tragedy as a “‘let’s review this and make sure we have things in place’ kind of moment,” going as far as contacting the local police department to see whether they could test their newsroom’s emergency panic button—which they did. It still works.

Krift says that threats are more apparent today because of the direct relationship that journalists have with their readership through social media platforms like Twitter, further detailing the difficulty that comes with sifting through messages to find actionable danger.

“It’s hard to measure that threat,” he said. “You don’t know what’s real or not based on a tweet.”

Social media harassment is a large part of the story that unfolded with the Capital Gazette. The paper became the online target of Jarrod Ramos after a column was published detailing his 2011 guilty plea to harassment charges in a case brought against him by a former Arundel High School classmate.

Ramos pleaded guilty last month to five counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and other assault and gun charges.

He is facing a trial to determine his plea of not criminally responsible, which is akin to an insanity plea in the State of Maryland. After a postponement in late October, that trial is set to proceed in March.

In records from his harassment suit, a woman who had graduated high school with Ramos in 1997 said that he established contact with her over the internet in 2009. While their first interaction was friendly, it later took a turn.

According to court documents, the woman, whom Capital News Service is not naming, stated that he told her to kill herself, was collecting information about her in an Excel spreadsheet, and had even gone as far as contacting her employer and friends.

The Capital Gazette published a column about his harassment plea in July 2011, prompting Ramos to levy a defamation lawsuit against the newspaper. That suit was eventually dismissed.

The Capital Gazette and its staff members, among others, were for years referenced on a Twitter page in Ramos’ name. The account appeared to go inactive beginning in 2016, tweeting once more on the day of the shooting from inside the newsroom.

Digital harassment of reporters is by no means a new venture, though the venues have changed.

The Trump presidency has embraced the “fake news” rhetoric as seen by his Twitter account and media at his events, including a video shown earlier in October at his resort in Miami that depicted a mass shooting at the “Church of Fake News.”

On Oct. 14, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham tweeted “Re: the video played over the weekend: The @POTUS @realDonaldTrump has not yet seen the video, he will see it shortly, but based upon everything he has heard, he strongly condemns this video.”

The president has released no statement.

Many outlets and advocacy organizations are looking for ways to arm reporters with tools to prevent and combat online harassment.

PEN America, a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect the freedom of expression for authors and journalists across the country, has created an Online Harassment Field Manual to arm writers and their employers with the appropriate protocol for preventing and handling harassment, including self-care tips and when to involve law enforcement. https://onlineharassmentfieldmanual.pen.org/

Viktorya Vilk, PEN America’s manager of special projects and free expression programs, says this toolkit began after an increase in reports from writers in 2016 detailing instances of abuse and harassment online that in some instances would cause them to stop writing about certain topics. PEN America saw this as a censorship issue.

“We had a role that we had to play…to help push back and help arm people with resources,” Vilk said.

She has been performing training sessions over the past year on how to navigate instances of online abuse and says that the toolkit gets updated based on her conversations with journalists at her sessions.

For example, the program arms writers with tools to prevent doxing — or the online publication of personal information — by setting up Google alerts to track what is posted about them and using “people finder” databases like Spokeo to see what is already out there.

“It is an increasingly hostile and difficult environment to be a journalist in this country right now,” said Vilk, “and journalists need our support and care.”

Vilk says that the Capital Gazette shooting has caused an institutional shift in the industry, including a tendency for some news organizations to address the harassment of their staff institutionally rather than leaving them to handle it on their own.

“There isn’t a guidebook,” said former Capital Gazette reporter and shooting survivor Phil Davis as he addressed reporters and camera crews outside the courthouse after Ramos’ guilty plea.

Davis — a cops and courts reporter — knows firsthand how journalists’ personal safety affects their mental and emotional health, specifically when it involves loss of life of those in their own profession.

“I would ask that everyone here try to do something…about the feelings you guys are having about this event and how it relates to you.”


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