By Nat Barrows
All journalists understand that our professional work will cause people to be angry with us and that sometimes we will receive actual threats against us personally and institutionally. It is a part of human nature, both individually and collectively, to respond negatively when misdeeds and mistakes are made public by journalists. Rather than take personal or institutional responsibility for their actions or inactions, they blame journalists, no matter how balanced or fair their coverage is. In these situations the angry individual’s emotions are running high. What a journalist will believe is an objective, balanced, factual and fair presentation of information in a story could be perceived totally subjectively by the individual or institution involved. People can feel wronged. Usually the response is anger directed at the individual reporter and sometimes the editor or news institution.
Direct threats do occur. These threats can come from deranged or monomaniacal individuals and groups as well as from people and institutions whose power or authority is questioned or covered in ways they feel is unflattering. All too often the threats do not stop with words but result in direct retribution against individual journalists and the institution they work for. The most recent example of this came last week in Maryland when an individual, harboring a grudge and issuing threats for many years about a newspaper’s reporting of a crime for which he was convicted, attacked the newspaper’s newsroom. Five journalists were killed and others wounded.
Sadly the stories of violence against and murder of journalists now and through history in our country and around the world abound. In earlier times “kill the messenger” became part of the language when kings would kill messengers who delivered messages that displeased them. Maine native Elijah Parrish Lovejoy, a Colby College graduate and editor of a small-town newspaper in Alton, Ill., was killed in 1837 when an anti-abolitionist mob, angry with his coverage of the slavery issue, attacked his printing press. In his honor, Colby College gives an annual award to a journalist who continues Lovejoy’s heritage of fearlessness and freedom. The late James Russell Wiggins, former editor of The Washington Post and owner, publisher and editor of The Ellsworth American, was the third recipient of the award in 1952.
In recent times, to name but a few, extremists attacked a magazine office in Paris, killing many staffers. Displeased with her coverage of corruption in Malta, forces there killed a journalist with a car bomb. Our country has a long tradition of those in power threatening journalists and seeking to intimidate them. With more focus and persistence, that practice is happening now on both a national and state level.
Anger and threats are part of what happens to us here at your community newspapers. All of our working journalists have had anger directed at them for their coverage. During my long career as editor and publisher, I have been the brunt of both anger and threats. I have been threatened with physical violence, had my family threatened with retribution, and my home promised damage. Advertising boycotts of the newspapers’ advertisers have been threatened. Sometimes threats have turned into personal vilification and slander of me.
We swallow hard, then reach for our inner courage. Guided by our core values and ethical standards, we persist. The rights of citizens, the ability for societies to be free and humans to be safe, depends of the continuing courage of journalists to seek the truth through facts.
Nat Barrows is in his 50th year as owner, publisher and editor of Penobscot Bay Press newspapers in Hancock County. He will be inducted into the Maine Press Association Hall of Fame in October.
From the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which we follow at Penobscot Bay Press:
Preamble: Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.
Seek Truth and Report It: Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
Minimize Harm: Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
Act Independently: The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
Be Accountable and Transparent: Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.