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OICKLE: Remembering a dark day in journalism

People should understand that reporters have a job to do and they have a right to report the news, even when you don’t like them being there, says Vernon Oickle.
People should understand that reporters have a job to do and they have a right to report the news, even when you don’t like them being there, says Vernon Oickle. - 123RF Stock Photo

The View From Here

June 28, 2018, will be remembered as a dark day in the journalism world.

That was the day that a mass shooting occurred at the offices of The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland in which five employees were killed and several others were gravely wounded. The attack on the newsroom not only deepened the political divide in the United States over tougher gun control laws, but also underscored just how violent our world has become.

According to news sources, the Anne Arundel County Police Department reported that the shooting began around 2:34 p.m. (EDT), resulting in five fatalities and the wounding of several other victims. Reportedly, the gunman barricaded the rear exit of the office to prevent people from escaping and then began shooting. Media also reported that the lone male gunman used a 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun to carry out the attack.

Phil Davis, a courts and crime reporter at the site of the shooting tweeted that the gunman “shot through the glass door to the office and opened fire on multiple employees.” He also described the newspaper’s offices as a “warzone” after the shooting and described hearing the gunman reload.

It must have been horrific for those in that newsroom during the attack. Anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom will shudder at the thought.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, The Capital Gazette shooting was one of only two incidents in which multiple journalists were killed in the U.S. since the organization began compiling data in 1992. The other incident was the murders of a reporter and cameraman during a live television interview in 2015.

The recent shooting sent shockwaves through the journalism world and specifically touched anyone who works in the news media. Personally, I felt a cold chill race up my spine when I heard the details of the deadly rampage.

Those who work in journalism do so because of an inner calling, not because of some perceived glamour or the excitement that comes with the job. It can be a dangerous profession but that danger does not usually extend into the newspaper offices, at least not in newspaper offices in North America. But clearly, the times are changing.

I admit that when I was employed in the news-seeking business full-time, there were occasions I felt my safety had been compromised. While typically journalists in my line of work covering community events hardly encounter dangerous situations, there were times I felt threatened, both verbally and physically.

At some point in a person’s career, most journalists have felt intimidated or threatened by those either attempting to prevent us from doing our jobs by getting in our way while out in the field, or following the release of a story that someone did not like. In my 33 years of covering the news for community newspapers here on the South Shore, I’ve experienced those angry attacks many times.

When I was editor, those angry calls came, on average, two or three times a month and mostly resulted in a lot of yelling, insults and swearing by the caller. There were times when I feared the calls could escalate, and on occasion, those were reported to the police. Truthfully though, that only happened a few times.

But it was while working as a reporter in the field that I felt the most vulnerable. There was the time when I, along with reporters from other media outlets, were covering a murder trial at the Liverpool courthouse and a group of family and friends of the accused firmly planted themselves between us and the subject to prevent us from getting photos.

Needless to say, the incident turned ugly, leading to one of the other reporters being physically assaulted and pushed back against the courthouse wall, damaging his camera in the scuffle. It ended with us reporting the assault to the RCMP and the authorities intervening, telling the supporters of the accused that they could not interfere with reporters doing their jobs. For the record, the other reporter did not press charges against those who carried out the assault even though he had every right to.

While such physical assaults were thankfully rare, verbal abuse was another thing. I remember another incident at the Liverpool courthouse when the accused approached me while I was taking pictures and he asked me if I wanted to eat my camera. Now this was a huge man, physically imposing with a threatening demeanour and history of violence. One could not take his threats lightly but I stood my ground and firmly answered, “Not really. I already had breakfast.”

Needless to say, this guy was not amused by my flippant attitude and I immediately regretted the comment as I could see he was reaching the breaking point. Thankfully his lawyer was nearby and quickly intervened, pulling his client back inside the courthouse. If he hadn’t done so, I truly believe I would have lost a few teeth that day or maybe ended up with a black eye.

Whatever the case, the incident left me feeling vulnerable and shaken. It also reminded me that I was treading on dangerous ground when I chose to engage in the exchange with the accused. I knew better. Usually, the best way to defuse such a situation was to walk away, but not always, as sometimes the accused or their supporters would follow, attempting to stoke the fires.

As I said, while such physical threats were rare, verbal threats and insults were commonplace when I was in the field and I suspect they still are. However, people should understand that reporters have a job to do and they have a right to report the news, even when you don’t like them being there. The list of names and insults I’ve received throughout my career is a mile long and included me being called everything from a vulture to a maggot to scum and words I cannot repeat here.

While reporters expect that some people will react negatively to their presence and they know it comes with the territory, let’s not forget that reporters are human beings and they do not deserve to be abused or insulted. Reporters aren’t responsible for whatever is going on, they are just there to do their jobs.

I always found it ironic that while people insulted me, they were standing there at the same crime scene or accident site, gawking and sometimes taking their own photos. I was justified in being at such events, as it was my job, while these bystanders were just being nosey. But that was OK by me because curiosity is a natural human thing, but yet, they were judging me. Go figure!

I am thankful that other than the rare brush with physical violence, I never suffered any bodily harm. Those five people who died in Maryland and the others who were injured in the shooting on June 28 were not as fortunate. The incident reminded every reporter and newsperson out there in the business just how vulnerable they truly are and that’s the view from here.

Vernon Oickle was born and raised in Liverpool where he continues to reside with his family. He has worked for more than 30 years in community newspapers on the South Shore and is the author of 28 books. 

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