Collins | More Than Ever, We Must Protect Our Journalists

Media businesses need to make sure their employees are protected, and they must find ways to build or rebuild community trust in their journalism. Here are some suggestions how to accomplish these objectives.

Mary Collins

Last week a U.N. investigation concluded that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was “the victim of a brutal and premeditated” murder, “planned and perpetrated” by Saudi officials. And while we’d like to think this behavior is something that only happens under brutal regimes, violence against journalists in the U.S. has become an epidemic.

Dan Shelley, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, says media companies must protect and advocate for their new news teams. He shares some timely ideas for doing that in his May/June “Last Word” column for MFM’s member magazine, The Financial Manager (TFM), entitled “Guarding the Messengers.”

Shelley presents data from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the archive of record for threats to journalists in the U.S. In 2017, 48 reporters and photographers were assaulted, in 2018 the number was 43, and so far, this year, 17 attacks have been reported.

It is worth noting that at the time Shelley’s report was published in early May, the number of reported attacks was nine. Reporters Without Borders, an organization that provides information about the media freedom situation worldwide, ranks the United States 48th in the world for press freedom.

In May, Alaska Dispatch News journalist Nathaniel Herz was slapped by Alaska state senator David Wilson on the main stairs of the Alaska Capitol in Juneau. Herz filed a police report after the incident, but no charges were filed against Wilson. More recently, at least two reporters were hurt as protests erupted over a fatal officer shooting in Memphis on June 12.


An increasing number of other attacks are ideologically motivated according to Shelley. This comes, he says, during a period when Americans are more politically polarized and during which elected leaders and others try to brand the press as the “enemy of the American people.”

It is for this reason that news organizations need to think about their relationship with their audiences and consider ways to provide better protection for their journalists.

Particularly precarious for journalists, Shelley says, are President Trump’s mass events. He recounts that in February of this year, at a Trump rally in El Paso, Texas, a BBC photojournalist was assaulted by an attendee wearing “one of those infamous red baseball caps.”

It was just a year ago, that a Florida man whose van was covered with pro-Trump and anti-news media bumper stickers was arrested and charged with sending several pipe bombs through the mail. At least three bombs were sent to news organizations in New York City. Fortunately, as Shelly notes, none ignited.

Shelly sees these incidents “as the most egregious symptoms of a larger disease — the public’s lack of trust with the news media.” He cites a January Pew Research Center survey showing that “a majority of Americans believe the news media does not understand people like them.”  The poll goes on to report that “nearly three-quarters of Republicans held such beliefs.”

The day before a gunman stormed into the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., killing four journalists and an administrative assistant, an Axios/Survey Monkey poll was released “showing that more than 90% of Republicans thought the ‘media intentionally reports fake news.’ ”

The fact that the shooter in Maryland had been upset with the paper for a long time and was not acting in response to a political agenda offers little comfort.

When he talks to journalists and journalism executives about the pervasive negative opinion of media, Shelley recommends a two-pronged approach to the solution. He suggests media businesses both make sure employees are protected, and that companies find ways to build or rebuild community trust in their journalism. To accomplish these objectives, he asks his audiences to consider a number of ideas:

  • It’s not enough to expose problems in the community, you need to recommend solutions.
  • Media companies must consider employees’ safety by doing things like offering self-defense training; adding “extra physical security precautions in your newsroom, your station or your office”; and never sending “one-person multimedia journalist crews into dangerous areas or insist[ing] they do live shots late at night.”
  • Company leaders need to step out and speak to the public directly, on-air, in print, using PSAs and in one-on-one conversations with community influencers. Media companies provide a public service to their communities, it’s important to let people know what you are doing.
  • Ask reporters and anchors to provide information about how they approach the stories they cover. They can include this as part of their report or via company websites and authorized social media accounts.
  • Consider pulling back the curtain to “discuss the ethical dilemmas you face when reporting particular stories and the process through which you’ve gone to resolve them.”
  • Use editorials to explain both your newsgathering philosophy and the company’s commitment to serving its community or communities.

A couple of years ago, the New York Times profiled Tony Hovater, “an avowed white nationalist.” When readers complained that the paper was “normalizing a Nazi sympathizer,” they responded with an editorial. What struck me in reading the comments to the original piece was that readers seemed to be saying that covering the story was tantamount to approving the subject’s behavior.

The message for me was a little different. I was reminded once again that it’s much easier to hate someone or something that’s one-dimensional. It is only when that person becomes human, through profiles like the one in the Times, that absolute hate becomes difficult.

Interestingly, and in keeping with one of Shelly’s recommendations, the Times also asked the author to do a follow-up piece under the title “I Interviewed a White Nationalist and Fascist. What Was I Left With?” While he couldn’t find a single defining reason (or two) for Hovater’s disconcerting views, he did try and was open about his discomfort with the process.

There is a reason that the news media is called the Fourth Estate. Our Founding Fathers believed an informed population to be crucial to framing political issues and thus protecting the rights of all citizens. Media companies owe it to their employees and their audiences to “protect and advocate for their news teams.”

You can read the complete text of Dan Shelley’s column in the May/June issue of TFM; a digital copy will be available on the MFM website for another week or so. After that, we will move it to the members-only area.

As we approach the 243rd anniversary of the United States’ Declaration of Independence, I encourage you to think about how we safeguard press freedoms. I also ask you to consider ways you can help your journalists and your management connect with the communities you serve. Building goodwill with journalists and the community has never been more important.

Mary M. Collins is president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary, the media industry’s credit association. She can be reached at [email protected] and via the association’s LinkedInTwitter or Facebook sites.

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