Journalists vow to ‘press on’ after Capital Gazette remembrance

Clockwise from top left: Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiassen, Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith and John McNamara. (Images courtesy of the Capital Gazette)

BOSTON — In newsrooms across America and in many corners of the world, a moment of silence marked the exact time when a gunman with a grudge opened fire in the Capital Gazette newsroom one week ago in Annapolis, Maryland, killing five journalists.

At 2:33 p.m. Thursday, the phones stopped ringing and keyboards stopped clattering in newsrooms as large as CNN and as small as The Virginian-Pilot. The quiet held as far away as the BBC in London and as close to home as our own newsroom at WGBH in Boston where The GroundTruth Project is based.

Just after the moment of silence was observed in Annapolis, the editor of the Gazette, Rick Hutzell, rang a bell five times for each of the victims: Rob Hiaasen, 59, assistant editor; Gerald Fischman, 61, editorial page editor; John McNamara, 56, a staff writer; Rebecca Smith, 34, a sales assistant; and Wendi Winters, 65, who worked in special publications.

It is a long tradition at the Capital Gazette, a company with newspapers that date back 300 years, to ring a bell for news meetings, according to an article in Thursday’s Gazette.

“Everytime we ring that bell, we are going to think about our friends,” Hutzell said.

The attack was the deadliest assault on journalists in the United States since September 11, 2001, when a freelance photographer and six broadcast engineers were killed during the Al Qaeda terror strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Targeted attacks on journalists in the U.S. have been relatively rare compared to other corners of the world, but according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, this mass shooting has catapulted the United States to the third most dangerous country for journalists in the world, behind only Syria and Afghanistan.

The call for a moment of contemplation, prayer, reflection or meditation came from the American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors. The two organizations released a joint statement saying, “The tragedy last Thursday at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, tears at our hearts, tugs at our compassion and calls forth our fears for the safety of all those on the front lines of truth, accountability and journalistic pursuit.”

The rising number of attacks on journalists in the U.S. and around the world has spurred a movement in many newsrooms to think through safety for journalists and to hold training for “situational awareness” and working in “hostile environments.”

This culture of safety training, which has traditionally been the focus of international correspondents covering foreign countries in conflict, has become more and more common for journalists covering the United States at a time of deep divisions, rising hostility toward the media and a wave of gun violence and mass shootings. Many newsrooms reacted to the immediate aftermath of the Annapolis shooting by beefing up security in their own buildings and for their staff.

In an interview with the Poynter Institute, Frank Smyth, the executive director of Global Journalist Security, who has served as a security adviser and trainer to The GroundTruth Project and to its newest initiative, Report for America, said, “I think that news organizations of all sizes have to think very seriously about the security of their offices and access inside your building.”

He added that while large news organizations, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times have taken precautions for safety, smaller news organizations have not always seen the need for security, adding, “I think it’s time that they reevaluate those concerns.”

A question that smolders after this tragedy is whether the vitriol directed toward the media by President Trump, who has called journalists “the enemy of the people” and persistently hurled insults at journalists, berating them from the podium at campaign rallies and in tirades on Twitter, may have influenced the shooter to carry out the attack. Some experts on the media, including representatives of the Committee to Protect Journalists, have warned against connecting the two without facts that substantiate a causal link.

But some observers, including Lucy Dalglish, the dean of the University of Maryland journalism school where one of the victims, Rob Hiaasen, served as a lecturer, believe we need to explore the possibility. Dalglish told USA Today, “We will never know whether, if our nation’s public discourse had not gotten so poisonous this man would have felt that he could just act with impunity. But I can’t help but think that the nastiness from the top hasn’t helped.”

The alleged shooter, Jarrod Ramos, 38, made threats against the Capital Gazette, accusing the newspaper of defaming him in a column that described him pleading guilty to harassing a woman over social media. The defamation case was dismissed.

Ramos is charged with five counts of murder. He is being held without bond.

The reporters and editors at the Gazette spoke at yesterday’s gathering about the need for them to honor their colleagues by continuing their work as reporters. The lead headline on the website Friday morning was “Press on.”

These two simple words have become a call to action for the community, and the article referenced a local artist who was inspired to print up T-shirts and stickers with the logo with proceeds from sales going to support the Capital Gazette Families Fund.

“Press on.” They are just two words that pack a powerful message of defiance in support of press freedom and a call to all of us in journalism to keep doing our jobs.