By Larry Kilman
Associate Director of Communications
Institute for Media Strategies
The late American columnist Tom Wicker once said that journalists working for small town newspapers always know the people they write about could walk in and punch them in the nose.
As we’ve seen in the killing of five journalists at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, the danger can be a lot worse.
In all that has been written about the June 28 attack, what emerges is the perception those in the news business have of their profession: that we are a family, that an attack on one is an attack on all, that community newspapers provide an essential but underappreciated role in society.
But nothing is more eloquent than the words and deeds of the survivors, who responded to the carnage by going back to work. They covered the attack in their newsroom in real time and published as usual the following day.
“I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper,” tweeted Chase Cook, a reporter at the newspaper, succinctly capturing the defiance and persistence that defines our profession.
But these empathetic stories, written in condolence and respect by colleagues and friends of the slain, contrast with the disparaging, dismissive and sometimes violent rhetoric that dominates discussions about news media today.
The newspaper men and women who work at small town papers are not “the enemy of the people”. They are the people, at the beating heart of their communities, covering school sports and graduations, town council meetings and the police blotter. They also hold to account those in power, and those who are uncomfortable with inconvenient truth.
Which, of course, is what the profession is about: To hold up a mirror to the community, not matter what it reflects.
The shootings in Maryland have focused public attention on this role, but that is likely to fade. It is up to the profession itself to keep the debate alive, and to take proactive measures to protect journalists and to ensure the public recognises the value of their work and the essential contribution of independent media to democratic society.
Industry-wide initiatives to share best safety practices have taken hold, but more is needed, particularly in countries where individual news outlets don’t have resources, and where the basic human right of freedom of expression is withheld by those who fear the truth.
In the wake of the shootings, the American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors have put out a two-page tip sheet on newsroom security (And my report for UNESCO, “An Attack on One is an Attack on All,” offers an overview of initiatives to protect journalists).
In addition, a massive media literacy education program is needed in schools and elsewhere. The rise of digital and social media has allowed widespread dissemination of false information and propaganda, and citizens’ ability to differentiate fact from fiction has not kept up.
But it all comes down to understanding the essential role a free press plays in democratic society, and news media must not be reticent in promoting it so that readers do not take it for granted. Recognition of this role shouldn’t be something we reflect on only when there is an attack. Journalists aren’t perfect, but like anyone else who performs a public service, they should be thanked sincerely and often.
Before joining the Institute for Media Strategies, Larry Kilman was Secretary General of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers and was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Radio Free Europe. He learned to be a journalist at community newspapers around Atlanta, Georgia.
The Institute for Media Strategies designs and helps implement digital transformation strategies for newsrooms of all sizes and cultures. More can be found at https://www.instituteformediastrategies.com.
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