- Published On
- May 31, 2023
A newsroom shooting and other deadly violence
Five years ago this month, a journalist was shot to death in Chicago. A month later, a man shot his way into the Capital Gazette newsroom in Maryland and murdered multiple people, including four journalists. Those journalists’ deaths sparked the tragic but necessary creation of a “killed” tag in the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker database.
Since then, two more journalists — one in Florida, one in Nevada — have been killed during or targeted as a result of their reporting. First-degree murder charges have been filed in each of those cases, with trials set for this year.
Those two deaths were specifically cited by Reporters Without Border in its 2023 Press Freedom Index as a determining factor for dropping the United States three places in world rankings. Killings of journalists are still rare in the U.S., according to RSF’s data, especially compared to other countries.
In documenting press freedom violations across the U.S., the Tracker also follows efforts at accountability — be it from lawsuits or demands for policy change — no matter how long after the original incident the efforts may take. Here’s more on the deaths of those seven journalists and where accountability efforts stand for their killings.
‘The Hood CNN’
Who he was: Zack Stoner — also known as “The Hood CNN” — ran the YouTube channel “Zacktv1,” where he posted interviews with local gang members and unsigned artists in the Chicago drill music scene. In a feature published by the Committee to Protect Journalists following his death, journalist Charles Preston wrote that Stoner was the first to interview major rappers including Chief Keef, Kidd Kenn and L’A Capone. Preston, who knew Stoner, wrote that Stoner remained neutral in disputes and was willing to interview anyone.
Stoner was shot and killed on May 30, 2018, shortly after leaving a rap concert at a club in downtown Chicago. As he was driving away in his Jeep, unknown assailants in a second vehicle pulled alongside him and opened fire.
Accountability for his death: In November 2022, The Associated Press obtained police records through an open records request showing the Chicago Police Department believes it solved his killing years ago when five members of the South Side’s “Perry Avenue” gang were arrested. The Cook County state’s attorney declined to prosecute the men in 2019, citing insufficient evidence and witnesses, as well as a controversial legal principle called “mutual combatants” — which hearkens back to when nobles fought in duels — because a passenger in Stoner’s car returned fire.
According to the AP, state prosecutors left open the possibility of bringing charges in Stoner’s case, saying the office would review any additional information brought to them by police.
‘We remember the calling they worked to forward’
Who they were: In a 2021 op-ed, The Capital Gazette staff named, mourned and celebrated their coworkers: Gerald Fischman wrote editorials for the Capital Gazette for more than 25 years and was a skilled copy editor with a biting sense of humor; Rob Hiaassen joined the newsroom in 2010 and is remembered as a generous mentor to young reporters; John McNamara worked for the newspaper for nearly 24 years and reported for multiple other outlets, and was an endless font of local sports knowledge; and Wendi Winters, who began as a stringer 20 years prior, became known for the way she built relationships with the community.
Exactly three years earlier, on June 28, 2018, a gunman shot his way into the Annapolis, Maryland-based Capital Gazette office, killing Fischman, Hiaassen, McNamara and Winters, as well as sales assistant Rebecca Smith.
Accountability for their murders: The gunman was sentenced in September 2021 to six life sentences — five without the possibility of parole — plus 345 years in prison, all to be served consecutively. In announcing the sentence, Judge Michael Wachs said the defendant was getting what he deserved.
“To say the defendant showed a callous and cruel disregard for the sanctity of human life is simply an understatement,” Wachs said.
In June 2021, the families of victims and some of the survivors of the attack filed two lawsuits against The Baltimore Sun and its parent company Tribune Publishing, which purchased the Capital in 2014. The suits — one for wrongful death, the other for negligence — both argued that the shooting was preventable and were consolidated in early 2022, according to the AP. The parties reached a confidential settlement agreement and filed a joint motion for dismissal on Jan. 3, 2023.
‘When you want the facts!’
Who he was: Jeff German was a powerhouse journalist in Las Vegas. The investigative reporter started at the Sun in 1978, wrote the Columbia Journalism Review in its special report after his death, where he would drink with gangsters and visit casinos at night to cultivate sources. His colleagues described him as “prickly,” and that he reveled in scooping the newspaper’s competition — the Review-Journal — until he was hired there in 2010.
In the early hours of Sept. 2, 2022, a man came to German’s home and attacked him in his side yard, stabbing the journalist multiple times. A county official, who had been the subject of a series of investigations by German, was arrested and charged with the journalist’s killing five days later. The reporter had recently filed public records requests for some of the public administrator’s emails and texts.
Accountability for his death: The suspect was denied bail, stripped of his government role, and has been held at the Clark County Detention Center since his arrest. He’s scheduled to stand trial on a murder charge on Nov. 6, 2023.
German’s murder also has far-reaching implications for reporter’s privilege, the legal principle allowing journalists to protect confidential sources. As part of the murder investigation, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department seized multiple devices — a cellphone, four computers and a hard drive — from German’s home. The Review-Journal filed for a protective order to stop the search of the reporting materials, arguing the devices contain German’s confidential source communications. When it was clear that officers searched German’s cellphone in the days following his death, the outlet petitioned for sanctions. A judge has not yet ruled on how the devices should be searched.
‘A very strong sense of justice’
Who he was: Reporter Dylan Lyons joined Florida’s Spectrum News 13 team in 2022, around the same time as photojournalist Jesse Walden, and the two often worked together.
On Feb. 22, Lyons and Walden were covering news of a shooting death in the Orlando suburb of Pine Hills. Lyons was in the passenger seat editing a video package when a man approached the news vehicle and opened fire. Walden was shot once, but survived his injuries; Lyons died at the scene.
“He had a very strong sense of justice,” Walden said of the reporter in an interview after the shooting. “He would really want everyone to follow the rules when it came to people with power.”
Accountability for his death: A man is charged with 16 counts, including three counts of first-degree murder with a firearm, for Lyons’ death, the death of a 9-year-old girl in the area, and the homicide the journalists were first on the scene to cover.
State Attorney Monique Worrell announced that prosecutors will seek the death penalty in the case, which is scheduled to go to trial on July 24.
Assaults of journalists in the U.S. by year
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented nearly 1,000 assaults of journalists — including seven who have been killed — since its launch in 2017.