Friday, August 10, 2018

Newsroom safety is an issue, but being accessible helps make you more accountable, and perhaps more accurate

By Al Cross, Director and Professor
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Part of remarks at "Journalists in the Hot Seat: Staying safe in a hostile political climate," a panel discussion at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications convention Aug. 9. To view the discussion on C-SPAN, click here.

This panel was scheduled before the recent mass shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, where a man upset with the newspaper’s coverage of his court case walked into the newsroom and shot five people to death. I once worked in newsrooms much like the Capital Gazette’s, where anyone coming in the door could spot you. In Monticello, Kentucky, where I was running the second paper in a one-paper town, my desk was right next to the front door; I was from the next town, Albany, and I wanted to meet as many people as I could.

In community journalism, you’ve got to be part of the community or you won’t succeed. Community journalism is relationship journalism; you have a closer and more continuing relationship with your subjects, your sources and your audience. So it’s good to be accessible.

In Russellville, Kentucky, where I worked for the great weekly publisher Al Smith, he liked to tell the story about how a farmer walked into his office to complain about his editorials for school consolidation, which would raise property taxes. As the farmer talked to him, Al turned to his typewriter and pecked out what the man was saying. He whipped the paper out, handed it to him and said, “You just wrote a letter to the editor. Read it, sign it and we’ll put it in the paper.”

My friend Jock Lauterer at UNC-Chapel Hill, who has also run community papers, did a study that confirmed what he suspected – that the smaller the newspaper, the more accessible its staff was to the public. The good thing about being accessible is that it makes you more accountable. And when you’re more accountable, that tends to make you more accurate. Jock calls those the Three As of community journalism. It’s one of the many community-journalism principles that work in all kinds of journalism; you’ve got to be engaged with your audience, for journalistic reasons and for business reasons.

That being said, the Capital Gazette shooting, in a town of 40,000, shows how vulnerable journalists can be – not just in newsrooms in small towns, but on the street in big towns. Journalists and their news outlets deal with just about everything and every walk of life, and that makes them targets for people like the Capital Gazette shooter.

In the wake of the shooting, one of the largest owners of community papers, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., asked their papers to have local law enforcement come in and give a training seminar for employees on what to do in such a situation. One police officer told one newsroom in Kentucky, “You’ve got to have it ingrained in your head what’s best for you at all times. Know your doors and exits. You have to know when to run, hide and fight.”

The American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Managing Editors put out a list of best newsroom safety practices, from planning to prevention to response to the aftermath.
To download it, click here.

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