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WOSTER: The security of a reporter's notebook

Anyone who has been a news reporter for any length of time has been threatened with harm at some point for something published in a newspaper or broadcast over the airwaves.

I can't cite studies to back up my statement. I base it on personal experience and anecdotes from others. I was a newspaper reporter for more than 40 years. I was threatened a few times, and I heard stories from many other reporters about their threats. It's the nature of the business, I suppose. We report and write stories. Even though the reporters I've known tried mightily to be fair and factual, sometimes what they wrote offended, angered or hurt someone.

My first real threat came when I wrote a story about some guy who was convicted of assault or something. I was in my first year with The Associated Press. I thought I was writing a short piece about a court proceeding. The subject of the story thought I was holding him up to public shame. He told me he would track me down and "talk to you with my fists.'' He never did, but I watched my back for a while when I was out alone anywhere.

In those days I worked a Saturday shift on the fourth floor of the Capitol. Few other people were around on weekends. I was uneasy with that situation for a few weeks, but I soon forgot the phone call. In those days, nobody really expected a person to actually carry out such a threat.

Lots of reporters could tell a story like that. Subjects of unfavorable news stories sometimes become angry and in the heat of the moment they make threats they don't carry out once they calm down. Time tends to ease the impact of the story and the desire for revenge.

How the world escalated from heated phone calls from angry guys threatening to punch reporters in the face to an angry guy with a shotgun and smoke grenades showing up in a newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, and shooting to death five reporters and editors, I can't understand. How can anyone nurse the desire to do real harm so long it becomes an action plan that actually is carried out? I don't understand that at all — not about shootings in schools or at music concerts or nightclubs, and not about a shooting in the newsroom of a daily paper.

The killer in the Capital Gazette offices in Annapolis apparently was offended by newspaper coverage. Like the people who used to make the angry phone calls to the news desk, he seems to have stewed and fretted and nursed a wholly irrational grudge against the paper and its reporters and editors. But he didn't just make threats. He carried out a murderous, planned attack.

If you think that attack hits home to every reporter or editor who ever worked in the profession, you're right. I can't imagine one of us — and I'm still a newspaper person, no matter how far removed from the daily business I am — not wondering if it could have happened to us.

It doesn't help that the current president singles out reporters as enemies of the people and that his most loyal supporters seem ready to believe it without question, free press or not. That sort of rhetoric does nothing to contribute to a calm and reasoned public discussion of issues.

The thing is, even though I took the occasional angry phone calls, I never felt vulnerable in my reporting days. A cheap ballpoint pen, a slim reporter's notebook and a press pass were safeguards against harm in my world, like a cross held in the face of Dracula. Except for reporters in war zones or street riots or other flash-point incidents, I suspect most newspaper people probably felt fairly safe in unsettled situations. I always felt I could pass through the lines of opposing sides unscathed because all parties knew I wasn't a combatant, just a working reporter trying to get a story right.

The deadly attack at the Capital Gazette newsroom illustrates again just how far we've fallen from those times. I find that, and the lives lost, terribly sad.

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