The Capital Gazette shootings in Annapolis in June, in which a gunman killed five staff, forced many newsrooms across the U.S. to reassess the security of their offices. While journalists acknowledged that threats come with the job, the shooting comes in a year of increased hostility toward the press, including pipe bombs being sent care of CNN’s New York City studio in October and threatening calls and messages sent to the Boston Globe in August.
Since the start of the year, CPJ has tracked over 20 incidents including three intruders entering studios; 15 cases of threatening letters or calls, four of which resulted in arrests; and six attacks including a man ramming his truck into the station of a Fox affiliate in Texas and an unidentified person firing multiple shots at mail carriers for The Lewiston Tribune in Idaho.
CPJ spoke with three journalists and a newroom security expert about how attacks and threats have affected their approach to work.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Molly Stentz, news and public affairs director, WORT 89.9 in Madison, WI:
At about 3 a.m. on August 5, a masked intruder opened fire on three workers at the community radio station, injuring one. To date, no one has been arrested.
I think every broadcaster I know has received some kind of threats or some communication from the public that’s not quite right. I think broadcasters receive more because it’s so personal: we’re speaking to people in their homes, in their living rooms, in their cars.
When a threat comes in, we ask ourselves, Is this a known quantity? Is it somebody who calls our call-in shows a lot? Do we know them and can kind of understand where they’re coming from? Is there something actionable, something specific like a date or time or place?
We have a pretty open building, we’re open 24/7, and we have hundreds of people coming in and out on a weekly basis. But it’s hard to balance wanting to keep this openness and keeping our people safe.
We’ve been looking into heightened security systems, but they come with price tags that are beyond what anyone would imagine spending. That would be the difference between hiring a whole other person. It’s hard to justify spending tens of thousands of dollars without having a very clear incident to point to.
We’re definitely erring on the side of caution, so anything that in the past we might not have worried too much about is now on the side of relaying anything to the police department to be safe. But it’s hard to know whether any of those things at any point in time will turn into something bigger. It is in the back of my mind now in a way it wasn’t necessarily before.
Ben Olson, publisher and reporter, The Sandpoint Reader in Sandpoint, Idaho:
In September 2018, robocalls went out to Sandpoint residents calling Olson a “cancer” and accusing him of blackmail and pushing a “destructive leftist agenda.” Threatening letters were also sent to Olson and his business partner.
When we receive a threat like that robocall one, we take it seriously. Do I feel threatened personally? No, I think it’s just another cowardly individual, but as we’ve seen with the mail bomber guy and with any number of issues that have come up lately, you can’t just ignore it: it has to be taken to the police and they need to be aware of it.
We put in security cameras, I have a firearm under my desk now, and I carried a firearm for about two or three weeks. I still carry it when I feel something’s wrong. We’re a little bit more vigilant about our newsroom. We want to make sure that we’re safe because we’ve always had an open door policy, people can just walk in, and we don’t want to change that. But we also have to understand that somebody crazy could just walk in.
We’re dealing with some interesting new territory right now. You have what I would perceive and what a reasonable person would perceive as a threat. Yet, the police look at it and say, “Legally, this technically isn’t a threat because it doesn’t meet these requirements.” So, they’re limited on their actions because this isn’t a criminal act, and I understand that. But I think the law needs to not necessarily change, but to address the line between hate speech and violent speech.
I tell the staff that if they feel unsafe, of course they can work from home or do whatever they need to do to make themselves safe.
I have a folder behind my desk full of hate mail, and that’s just the stuff that gets sent to me. I get two or three emails a week on average that are fairly nasty, and we’re a small, small town. I don’t think it should be part of the job but it is.
The cause of journalism is stronger than one idiot out there sending out cowardly threats.
Craig Kopp, general manager, WMNF 88.5 in Tampa, Florida:
A frequent caller to the station entered the studio during a live broadcast in June to complain about not being put on air, but returned to public property before the police arrived. One day after the Capital Gazette shooting, the broadcaster tweeted that the man was outside their offices, shouting at the station through a bullhorn.
So, 98 percent of my programmers on the air are volunteers, and they change over every two hours, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is a security nightmare.
We recently replaced our security system—luckily, we had the money to do this—so we have a keypad system with everyone assigned a number. We also received a grant from the state of Florida to update our security cameras and lighting.
We have a decent relationship with the police department, but they really try to dissuade you from hitting the panic button. But, in this time, I have told my staff if it doesn’t look right, you hit the panic button. I don’t think we really have a choice at this point. I don’t think the police truly understand the threat to the media that the current atmosphere has generated.
We’ve really been an open door place with a lot of community events here, so I’m trying to convince my staff that we can remain wide open, but we have to change our sense of vigilance.
I’ve had a detective in here listening to my phone messages, and most of these guys are fairly smart and talk right up to sounding violent, but say, “I’m not threatening you.” And when they say that, it short circuits the prosecutors here from picking it up and pursuing anything.
Most of the threats, like the breach, were people we were already familiar with. What will really freak me out is if we start receiving things from people we don’t know.
Jason Reich, global security director, BuzzFeed, New York, NY:
Working in media means you’re working in a place where there is a threat. And that includes the facilities staff and office services side of things.
There needs to be a cultural shift in newsrooms: We don’t piggy back, we swipe in every time. We don’t leave the door open for someone we don’t know. And if a random person is wandering around in the lobby, we might flag that or tell facilities people to keep an eye out. Things of that nature don’t cost money, but they do require a cultural reorientation.
I think that preparation is a lot more valuable than response, and so by communicating these things to employees before a given threat as opposed to after, you’re actually building a resilient newsroom. We’re going to receive threats—it’s a given—and we want our newsroom to be able to assess and acknowledge them for their legitimacy, but also understand that most of them are not real threats and go about their business and not self-censor.
The thing I think is most important is that we should not be turning our newsrooms into fortresses, journalists should not be withdrawing from the public. Now more than ever we need to be engaging with the public. So, I am all about making sure that reporters feel safe and comfortable while at the same time still being accessible and feeling like they can get out there and do their jobs.