My first threat came in college.
I had written an article about a student group who was in trouble with the administration, and possibly, by the end of it, the police department.
The response was swift and brutal the day the issue landed. The phone calls were nasty. The e-mails nastier. I was told they knew where I lived, knew my schedule, and I should watch my back.
I wrote it off as college kids being college kids.
I shouldn’t have.
This is what journalists deal with all the time. It’s a pattern that would repeat itself.
As we’ve followed the story about the rage-filled gunman who walked into a Maryland newsroom and killed five, that pattern kept coming back to me.
It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, or where you’re working. The New York Times and the one reporter at tiny weekly in a one-stoplight town both see it.
There are people who think they own you.
They believe the typical rules of civility and kindness die at the newspaper’s door. That our job description requires us to take all the ugly and vile words their lips can form. If that doesn’t give them satisfaction they escalate.
There’s the threats on your job. They’ll get you fired. They’ve gotten a lot of people fired. Who’s your boss? They’ll call corporate. You’ll see. They’ve ruined more important people than you.
There’s the threats of physical violence. They’re going to come up to the office and give you a beating. They rarely show. Those that do suddenly find themselves far less brave when having to stare into the face of the person they threatened to assault.
There are the people who let you know they have weapons. That they know how to use them. They stop just short of the kind of statement that can get law enforcement involved. But it’s left hanging out there. A dark if.
I’ve had reporters swung on at breaking news scenes. I’ve had female reporters stalked and harassed.
All of it part of that disturbing pattern that goes all the way back to college.
It is different now. Darker. It’s far easier for people online to hide their identities — to disguise their vitriol and their hatred — and escape any responsibility for it.
It is also different since public officials have increasingly turned their cannons on the press. Branding us as “enemies of the people” or “fake news” has emboldened the nastiest, most dangerous part of that already cancerous group than ever before.
They don’t just feel entitled to their actions, their words. They feel like they’re part of a larger mission.
I remember the dark joke I heard when I started at the Seguin Gazette way back in 1998.
“Sure, we work long hours for little money, but in the end, everyone hates you.”
It shouldn’t be that way. Journalists shouldn’t be targets. Break the pattern.
Chris Lykins is editor of the Seguin Gazette. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org