Saturday, March 23, 2019

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Words matter; journalists juggle truth & responsibility

Jarrod Warren Ramos, 38, took his 12-gauge shotgun into an Annapolis, Maryland newsroom and killed five journalists Thursday June 28.

According to a CNN news report, Ramos sued the newspaper for defamation of character six years ago for a story written by reporter Eric Hartley with the headline, “Jarrod wants to be your friend.”

Ramos has been described in various media sources as someone to be feared, and as the prime suspect, who was arrested at the scene of the crime, his actions at the Gazette seem to support those reports.

The focus across much of mainstream media is on Ramos, and reporters gather information about Ramos and Hartley’s story on Ramos being charged with stalking a woman with whom he went to high school.

Other news stories have focused on the issue of gun control in light of yet another mass shooting.

This story aims to focus on the question of journalistic responsibility to the presentation of facts, and how that presentation in different forms can lead to undesired outcomes.

According to the CNN report, Anne Arundale County police Chief Timothy Altomare investigated threatening online comments Ramos made in 2013, but in discussions with “the paper’s legal team that year, the Capital Gazette decided not to pursue charges because of fears it would exacerbate the situation,” CNN reported.

The Gazette took other precautions, making the staff aware of who Ramos was and what he looked like.

Flash forward to June, 2018. The Gazette is in another building. Eric Hartley is an editor at The Virginia Pilot, and the then-editor Thomas Marquardt, retired as publisher of the Gazette and now lives in Naples, FL.

According to reporters Jane Harper and Amy Poulter Marquardt wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday: “The Capital, like all newspapers, angered people everyday in its pursuit of the news. In my day, people protested by writing letters to the editor; today it’s through the barrel of a gun.”

The responsibility of accurate reporting weighs heavy on a journalists shoulders.

“I’ve never had a situation where I’ve been threatened, but we’ve had angry people try to intimidate us,” said Katie Zerr, editor of the Mobridge Tribune.

“Just because someone said it’s a lie, doesn’t mean it’s untrue,” said Zerr of some of the stories that are printed and upset people.

Both Zerr and Bridge City Publisher Larry Atkinson said that journalists  have a responsibility to double -check facts and find corroborating information before running a story.

Tweeted front page of the Captial Gazette,

“We don’t just say things,” Zerr said.

“One thing I value is our credibility,” Atkinson said. “If we lose our credibility, we lose everything.”

Atkinson explained that the nature of a newspaper is to accurately represent the news, and in doing that, people will subscribe to the newspaper.

The more people that subscribe to the newspaper, the more likely businesses will purchase advertising space, and advertising money is what pays the reporters, editors, printing costs, building and supply costs, and all else that makes a newsroom run.

In today’s media environment, nobody knows who to believe, Atkinson said, and so they either believe anything or they believe nothing.

Atkinson listed several reasons for this trend. One is that journalists as a whole, and in particular TV journalists, Atkinson said, are not doing a good job of protecting their credibility.

Instead many reporters are using too many adjectives in headlines and stories that lend bias to reports, and blur the line between news and opinion, he explained.

Newsrooms are hiring reporters not trained to be reporters, but trained to be lawyers or political pundits who ask interrogation questions that are leading and pointed and aimed to discredit the people interviewed rather than gather information through open ended questions.

Educating journalists and hiring qualified journalists is one issue, but also educating readers is another important issue according to Atkinson.

“We’re not teaching our young people to discern what is a reliable source,” Atkinson said.

In the Gazette case, Hartley’s article,“Jarrod wants to be your friend,” was a catchy headline, but Atkinson said that it could have been written more seriously than it was, as it was about a man charged with a misdemeanor for stalking.

Serious articles need serious headlines, Atkinson said.

In today’s climate of “fake news,” it is more important than ever for reporters to ensure accurate reporting and not succumb to sensational headlines or advocacy journalism to drive up ratings, which causes the truth to become a casualty in the fray.

“Words cause emotions; words cause actions,” Atkinson said.

Hartley presented the truth. His headline was “catchy,” and it was true, so Ramos lost his defamation case. 

“Journalism is a higher calling, and we are the ones who who ensure our democracy survives,” Atkinson said of a political time when truth-telling can be dangerous.