The tragic fatal shooting of five journalists at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland is a powerful reminder that private grievances are resulting in mass executions with increased frequency. Unlike school shooting victims who assumed no voluntary risk and are simply required to go to school, journalists contend with a host of dangers that form a major part of their job description. Covering hurricanes, wildfires, war zones and every other calamity (natural or otherwise) is exactly what they are expected to do. However, unless actively involved in the coverage of a dangerous story, no journalist should reasonably fear for their life based solely upon their title as a reporter.
Government leaders foment true hatred against all unflattering media coverage as “fake.” Individual journalists are erroneously saddled with blame for having made the lives of angry, disaffected, average but passionate people worse than they really are. Within the target audience of a motivated politician, celebrity or litigant, are masses that care neither to hear the truth or consider it as neutrally reported. The angrier a person becomes at his or her lot in life, journalists are increasingly characterized as the tip of the spear that actually pierced that alienated person’s unfortunate reality.
Considering this new climate of hatred of a profession that is literally and figuratively targeted by the highest office in the land, news organizations must take every reasonable step to protect journalists from a danger journalists never signed up for. If the current negative narrative from the top continues, news organizations who don’t take active steps toward protecting their reporters will begin to face negligent security lawsuits. With foreseeability operating as a pillar for a successful negligent security litigation in most cases, irresponsible news media outlets will be hard pressed to defend themselves against inaction considering the verbal and physical attacks we have seen on journalists since the 2016 election.
This new burden of cost and responsibility for an industry that is still figuring out how to remain profitable in a mobile media consumption era, social media society is certainly not welcomed. But as we often point out to defendants during our negligent security cases, your bottom line is not more important than someone’s life.
Rather than being valued universally as the best manifestation of free speech in the United States, for better and worse, every cog in the Fourth Estate now has legitimate fear for his or her very existence, should she or a coworker file a story unflattering to this group or that. We have even seen reporters targeted by some who are not even part of the story that is being covered. The symbolism of the newsroom has become as iconic a representation of both that which is right in the world, and that which ails it. When used to foment hatred and generate votes, the artificially inflamed viewers and readers begin to care less about the actual news, and rather, begin reading a preferred story into it. As our highest elected leaders actively delegitimize journalism generally, and then specifically, we begin to see the beasts among us equate the very existence of a newsroom as proof of an imminent American dystopia.
Then the guns come out. In this instance, the killer had a long-standing and public dispute with the Capital Gazette in the court system and on the modern battlefields of social media. On a mission to defend himself from news stories he perceived as slanderous, the killer’s efforts became an obsession to him in print, and ultimately, in person. Would this have happened four, five, six or 10 years ago or has the current anti-news professional narrative emboldened this shooter and others to act?
While “targeted hits” or “assassinations” happen every day across our country, the victims far too often include among the list of dead or injured those with no attachment whatsoever to the subject of the killer’s rage. “Don’t kill the messenger” is something said with a flippant wisdom to anticipatorily deflate the anger brought about from whatever fact is about to be shared. Now, however, the messengers are being killed. Since they have been significantly dehumanized by elected leaders, the level of importance attached to their well-being became less important than whether their story was favorable to one’s personal political agenda.
For both the methodical offender and the opportunist looking for an easy way to make his mark, the newsroom serves several important purposes. First, the target is most likely to be found at the office, as are his or her coworkers. Tracking down a reporter in the field is more difficult, and more work, than catching them at their computers. Symbolically, the murder of one or even five “targets” sends a broader message intended to silence all voices that are perceived as the source of unjust publications. It has become such a threat that the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTNDA) is now “urging journalists to watch their backs, but don’t back down.”
Crime prevention resources abound in every community, large and small, to assess the risks of person-on-person violence. Most police departments offer free crime assessments tailored to the needs and risks presented within that workplace. Security consultants make their livelihood on giving informed analyses to those employing these workers. And while the “lone wolf” with a solitary agenda may still slip through the cracks, it cannot be fairly stated that all reasonable steps were taken to protect life until the risks of death were studied meticulously before the shots ring out.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that “the only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” If we believe this to be true, then absent a meaningful reallocation of resources to protect our journalists, the judicial branch, through her lawyers will do so. Trial by jury against negligent news organizations who fail to protect their greatest asset will be there lead by example, holding all those who diminish the importance of personal safety over all other considerations.
Christopher Marlowe, a partner at The Haggard Law Firm handles a wide array of cases, including those involving negligent security, pool drowning, auto accident and wrongful death. His work as lead counsel on sexual assault, robbery, homicide and shooting cases, has led to security and safety improvements at commercial and residential properties throughout Florida.