I’ve worked in six newsrooms across central and eastern Pennsylvania – The Daily Collegian, The (Honesdale) Weekly Almanac, The (Towanda) Daily Review, The (Hanover) Evening Sun, the York Daily Record and The (Wilkes-Barre) Citizens’ Voice – and in every one of those newsrooms, I’ve overheard a coworker worry or joke about someone coming in and shooting up the newsroom.
I remember a particularly funny coworker in York who once joked to the people around him that if someone hated him enough, but had bad aim, those coworkers would be the ones killed.
The fact of the matter is that what we do angers people. Often, the people we anger are targeted purposefully by us. The corrupt politician, the criminal whose charges are publicized in our paper. Sometimes it’s the family members of the people we write about who get really angry. Other times, it’s parents of athletes who take their kid’s games too seriously. Then there are the conspiracy theorists, who are their own off-kilter breed.
But sometimes, the anger at what we do surprises us. I can’t tell you how often someone has taken offense at something I or a coworker wrote and that offense was in no way intended.
And, when you deal with the public, you also deal with some people who, well, need a lot of help and likely don’t realize it or don’t know how to get it.
I’ve had coworkers who’ve been spit on. I’ve had co-workers who’ve been threatened with everything from lawsuits to physical violence. I had dogs sicced on me. But sometimes the attacks or insults just make you laugh. I was practically accosted in a grocery store by a parent of a high school basketball player because I hadn’t promoted her son’s soccer career enough.
But that’s nothing, compared to what happened today in Roanoke, Virginia, where a deranged disgruntled former coworker gunned down two human beings in cold blood.
Thankfully, this level of violence is still rare, but journalists die because of their job. Go to the Newseum in Washington DC. Among the many powerful exhibits, such as one on Sept. 11, you’ll find the story of Don Bolles, who was killed with a carbomb for uncovering mob dealings. Journalists die in the crossfire of war, or rushing to the scene of a tragedy like Sept. 11.
And I’d be willing to bet every journalist has worried that they could be the victim of a deranged lunatic, particularly in these days when it would seem many Americans think their only solution to any problem from a parking dispute to religious angst is to pick up a gun and blow some people away.
Alison Parker and Adam Ward weren’t killed by an aggrieved subject or reader, but that doesn’t make their murders any less tragic, harrowing and revolting. In no way did they deserve this.
There can be no doubt journalists around the country will be a little wary in the coming days of a copycat’s actions. We know how often we’re vilified by everyone from The Right and The Left, from police officers to police brutality protesters, from the religious to the non-religious. We’re everyone’s favorite punching bag.
Public acts of violence have moved from the mailroom to the classroom and the church to the movie theater. They’ve gone on at police barracks and military bases. We’ve all thought newsrooms would make their way onto the list at some point.
But the real point is violence just shouldn’t be accepted in any of those places.
This is America; we’re better than this and it’s time we started saying it more loudly and more often to those too cowardly to change the culture.