Threats of violence against journalists for doing their jobs are commonplace, and a coping strategy for many is the thought that the words are mostly empty — until that small comfort was shattered by the shooting deaths of five people in a Maryland newspaper newsroom.
Reporters largely keep stories of angry readers or viewers to themselves, although Thursday’s attack in Maryland compelled many to share their experiences on social media and in newsrooms as a form of group therapy on Friday.
“Since these become a regular part of your life, you have to convince yourself that a lot of people, even if they want to act, won’t act,” said Jared Paul Sexton, who writes on politics for Salon and other outlets. “When something like this happens, you realize that it could.”
Sexton has written extensively about the white nationalist movement, and knows that people track his comings and goings online. People have circled his house in cars, come into his driveway and flashed their lights. His house has been broken into. “Pretty standard intimidation,” he said.
Just this week, Sexton got a phone call from someone who vividly described how he’d like to murder and dismember him.
“I feel a responsibility,” he said. “I think we are in a lot of trouble. This is happening in this country. I feel I have to keep working on this or I’d walk away with a lot of regret.”
Michelle Ferrier walked — and moved — away. As a black female newspaper columnist in Daytona Beach, Florida, her mail revealed plenty of ugliness. She went to the police when one writer stalked her and ratcheted up his threats. When she worked nights, there was no security or anybody to walk her to her car.
Now a journalism professor at Ohio University, Ferrier started TrollBusters, an organization that provides advice and resources to journalists who have been threatened.
While journalists in conflict zones are more likely to deal with violence, there still is a danger to those working in newsrooms in the United States.
Some tough journalists take threat as part of the job; one man said on Twitter on Friday that when he started out, a colleague told him he wasn’t a “real journalist” until he got a death threat. Others obsess about those who threaten them, she said.
The suspect charged in Thursday’s shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis had reportedly sent menacing messages and sued the newspaper for an earlier article about him. Ferrier said she hoped the Maryland shooting reminds news organizations of the importance taking threats seriously. At The Associated Press, the global security chief on Friday sent an email to staff members with security tips.
Many journalists also work in an increasingly tense environment created by President Donald Trump’s criticisms of the media as the “enemy of the people.” CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta wrote this week about an elderly woman at a Trump rally in South Carolina screaming an obscenity at him and telling him that “you are scum. Get out of here.”
Social media is necessary for journalists to do their jobs, but it also makes it easier to threaten them, said Sam Escobar, digital deputy director of Allure. When talking with some other women about it recently, one described being sent a message board discussion of people who wanted to rape her.
Escobar tweeted a message to fellow journalists: “Raise your hand if you know (or are) a journalist who has received a death threat in the last year.” By midday on Friday, she had received more than one hundred responses.
The messages ranged from chilling to head-shaking: a woman who said she writes about makeup was stalked. Someone got a death threat for writing a rough review of a Shawn Mendes album in a college newspaper. A New Yorker cartoonist said someone wrote, “go die painfully in a corner somewhere. Hope we all hear you screaming.”
“I don’t think people realize that behind the stories they read all the time are human beings,” Escobar said in an interview.
While he hasn’t been personally threatened since a man slammed him against a post office box in 1982, newspaper columnist David McKay Wilson said the Maryland shooting gave him a glimpse into a dangerous new world.
“It makes me feel like the kids feel at school now,” said Wilson, writer for the Journal News in Westchester County, New York. “When I was in school, I never worried about people coming in and killing me. It kind of put me in the head of a teenager today.”
Francisco Vara-Orta was a 23-year-old reporter for the Los Angeles Times when he got his first death threat: a person who wrote that he wished Vara-Orta and his mother would be killed and dragged through the streets as an example. He’s working on a project about hate crimes and bias incidents in schools for ProPublica now and was told to be prepared for people getting his personal information online and using it to threaten him.
After what happened in Maryland, it’s important to let the public know what is going on with many journalists, he said.
“People are going to say that journalists are overreacting,” tweeted Anne Helen Petersen, a Buzzfeed reporter who said she’s received emailed death threats and someone who threatened to slit her dog’s throat.
“We’re not,” she wrote. “We’ve been under-reacting for years.”