My father always used to ask me who was mad at me that day.
If I didn’t have a name right away, he would chide me saying I’m not doing my job.
Dealing with angry people is simply part of a newspaper editor’s job. Sometimes the reason for the anger is unintentional i.e. we spelled little Johnny’s name wrong. More often, the anger stemmed from something we wrote.
When I was in Williams Lake, the mayor stormed into my office one day, and I do me stormed. He was obviously angry and told me that he was going to call and ream me out, but he wanted me look him in the face to see how angry he was.
At one point I thought he was getting ready to take a swing at me. I must admit that, for a moment, I thought about egging him on because “Mayor attacks newspaper editor” would make for a great headline and story. However, the thought of our photographer capturing a shot of two middle-aged men rolling around the floor trying to be tough guys tempered my thoughts of how great a story that would be.
Another time I had three priests show up in my office, yup, three. They were upset at our coverage of a young boy being run over and killed by semi-truck. They didn’t threaten any physical violence, but they told me the mother was suicidal and that if she did anything, her death would be on me. Basically, they told me I was going to Hell. I couldn’t get independent corroboration, so I dismissed it.
One morning we arrived in the office to find that a rock had been thrown through the front window with a note attached saying: “Going to blow all of you racist bastards up.” We reported it to the police, but didn’t take the threat too seriously. A month later Gustafsen Lake rolled into the national conscience so, in retrospect, we probably should have taken it a bit more seriously.
I had a reporter once who was covering a court case and when they hauled the bad guy away to jail for beating another man nearly to death, he looked at my reporter and said: “You’re next.” That sent a chill.
Here in Prince George, one of the top guys of one of local the biker gangs showed up at the office for a chat about our coverage one day. Everyone was on edge for a long time after that. A threat isn’t really a threat unless you believe the person making it is capable of carrying it out.
Another local crime figure actually sued The Free Press for calling him a gangster. While it was comforting to see him take the legal route to settle a score rather than use other methods favoured in that world, it was still very unsettling.
Newspapers and/or journalists often write stories that anger people and the risk, or fear, of people enacting their revenge physically is always there.
That appears to have been what happened at The Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland last week. In case you missed it, five people were killed by a gunman who stormed the newspaper office and opened fire. He was, apparently, upset with stories the newspaper had written about him.
It has sent a chill through the journalism world because, even though journalists often deal with threats, it’s rare to see them acted on, at least in North America. We can blame it on the U.S. gun culture. And when the president of the United States routinely calls journalists “enemies of the people” and incites violence, we can probably expect attacks on journalists to increase.
So what can we do? Send our thoughts and prayers? Not a chance. To quote George R.R. Martin’s Tormund Giantsbane: “The dead can’t hear us, boy.”
The only thing you can do to save a journalist is read their stuff.