In Wake of Capital Gazette Shooting, Remembering Journalism’s Mission

By Justin Silverman

A gunman harboring a grudge against the Capital Gazette, a community newspaper outside Annapolis, Md., opened fire in its newsroom last week killing five staff members and injuring several others.

Those killed include the editorial page editor, an editor and features columnist, a longtime sports reporter and editor and a local news reporter — all of whom had a “love of journalism,” according to a former publisher of the paper.

Like countless other organizations and right-minded Americans, NEFAC unequivocally condemns all mass shootings. But as guardians of the First Amendment, we are especially saddened and concerned by this most recent tragedy because those targeted were journalists. In a very real sense, this hits home for us.

Journalism, the profession loved by those lost this week, is more a cause than a career. It’s an allegiance to the truth. It’s a commitment to providing citizens the information they need to make educated decisions about their communities and government. It is a mission vital to our democracy and one that’s enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution.

Sadly, the profession is challenged daily by low public support and, more generally, a lack of understanding about what journalists do. To many citizens, journalists are indistinguishable from the partisan personalities that dominate cable news programming. To many public officials, including our own president, journalists are “enemies of the American people” and purveyors of “fake news.” And to the Capital Gazette gunman, apparently, journalists are unfair critics and defamers deserving of his revenge.

These are the types of misperceptions bearing down on journalists today. But while asking difficult questions and exposing the misdeeds of others will always create a certain amount of tension within their communities, journalists nevertheless remain committed to informing them. Perhaps no actions speak to this commitment better than those of the Capital Gazette staff during and after the shooting:

According to The New York Times, crime and courts reporter Phil Davis crouched under his desk and began tweeting reports about what he saw and heard. Photojournalist Joshua McKerrow began taking photos when law enforcement arrived at the newsroom. At a mall across the street, reporters from the paper worked out of the back of a pickup truck to publish stories and photos. Those who weren’t working that day quickly joined their colleagues to help get information to readers. And just hours after the shooting, in an act of journalistic grit, reporter Chase Cook declared on Twitter: “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper.”

That’s journalism. Publishing a first class newspaper to inform readers. Reporting on-location for the benefit of viewers. Providing in-depth interviews for listeners. And doing this every day despite false accusations of bias, shots at integrity, and the risk that a disgruntled reader may show up to the newsroom with a grievance to settle.

As a country we need to reaffirm our commitment to the cause and support journalists like those at the Capital Gazette. We need to recognize the challenges faced by these reporters and editors as they provide us an invaluable public service. Most importantly, we need to push back against those who create these challenges and make sure our press stays independent, robust and safe.

Justin Silverman is executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition.

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.

Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe, Boston University and WBUR-Boston.

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