Editorial: Don’t kill the messengers

Last Thursday, a gunman attacked the newsroom of the Capital Gazette, a small daily newspaper in central Maryland in a charming harbor community on the Chesapeake Bay. The shooter barricaded the rear exit of the building. Five were killed and several others were wounded. This wasn’t the first shooting at an American newspaper, but according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, this was one of only two incidents in the U.S. where multiple journalists were killed.

The gunman in the latest shooting, Jarrod Ramos, was involved in a defamation lawsuit with the paper over a 2011 article reporting his criminal harassment guilty plea. The case was dismissed by the courts after multiple appeals. One judge even said that Ramos did not understand defamation.

Newspapers have taken a lot of criticism in recent years, with articles dismissed as “fake news” when someone disagrees. Perhaps it’s because news outlets sometimes wear their political opinions on their sleeves, confusing news stories with columns and editorials. This type of blind journalism can, of course, lead to “fake news,” but we hope that most journalists are committed to a nobler cause.

Fake news, however, was not the cause in the Capital Gazette shooting. It was a situation where police blotter and court reporting seemed to anger a reader. It’s a fairly common complaint that usually doesn’t lead to gun violence.

We do print police blotters in the Southington Observer, along with press releases and news involving police. The good news is that local police cooperate with reporters to ensure that stories are accurate. We take no joy when these reports cause embarrassment, but it’s an important service that newspapers have provided since the first printing press. There are still places in the world where people just disappear off the streets. Police raids, directed by political tyrants, go unreported. People go missing. Families may not find out for years—if ever—what happened. Thus, the need for police blotters.

Our country’s forefathers understood the need for a free press as a check and balance against despots and corrupt police or government officials. That’s why they protected the press in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Freedom of the press is a cornerstone in any democracy, a counter against a government’s absolute power.

Good journalism is more important than ever in this social media era. Propaganda, disguised as “news,” goes viral in seconds. People can sift through online news outlets and blogs to read only those facts that support their own opinions. This only leads to more misunderstanding, divisiveness, and fake news.

There is a misconception that news must be unbiased to be classified as journalism. There is a misconception that a news story must be written “down the middle.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth. True journalism is committed to the truth. “Objectivity” refers to the methods for testing and vetting information to ensure that facts are true.

When it comes to blogs, chat rooms, and social media, it’s often hard to determine the author, let alone the procedures used to vet their “facts.” This is why newspapers are so important. They are not anonymous. Journalists are members of the community, neighbors, voters, and sometimes—as shown by the tragic shooting in Maryland—they become targets.

Even in Southington, journalists have been demeaned by politicians, but the ensuing truths have actually swung the balance in elections. Observer reporters have been yelled at and threatened. We were even recently physically and verbally assaulted by a town employee while pursuing a first amendment story, so it’s not just Maryland where violence is the reaction.

We still think that most people in the Southington community, most politicians, most school officials, and most journalists are honest, well-meaning, and committed. We still feel that every voice should be heard, whether we agree or not. We still feel that gun violence is never the answer, and we will continue to stay committed to our role as a public forum.

To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@southingtonobserver.com.

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