COLUMN: Threatening journalists will always backfire


MitchellKukulkaMug

Working as an intern reporter for the Jackson Citizen Patriot this summer gave me a lot of "firsts."

I flew in a hot-air balloon for the first time when I took a Facebook Live video from the lead flight of the Jackson Hot Air Jubilee.

I went ghost-hunting for the first time when I accompanied the Motor City Ghost Hunters as they investigated the future site of the Hackett Auto Museum.

On July 17, I worked from home for the first time after a member of a local right-wing militia group made a threat against the safety of every employee in our office.

The threat ended up being a bluff, directed at our office because a reporter at the The Ann Arbor News, also an MLive publication, wrote a story that could vaguely — and I mean it when I say "vaguely" — have been considered "anti-Trump." 

This wasn't the first time I received a death threat in my journalism career — that honor goes to the time a Kid Rock fan from Ann Arbor tried to track me down after I took a jab at the him while interning at the Detroit Metro Times. This threat was the first time it's happened in an age in this country where deadly gun violence isn't just a possibility, it's a reality that plays out in the news on an almost daily basis.

As impotent as the threat was, and as quickly as it became a dark in-joke between everyone in the office, it still came during a time when threats against members of the media are at an all-time high.

The deadly shooting that killed five and injured two at the offices of The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland had happened just two weeks earlier, and its shadow still loomed over newsrooms throughout the country.

The shooting itself came days after wannabe author and failed-provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos jokingly told a New York Observer reporter "I can't wait for vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight." 

We're living in a age where even our president regularly deflects controversies as "fake news" and refers to this nation's reporters as "the enemy of the people." Whether it's out of retaliation for what they consider unfair coverage, or because they feel empowered to shift the media's focus to where they want it, those with vendettas against journalists are becoming more likely to lash out. 

As a journalist, and as someone who has worked with journalists of all ages and experience levels, I know one thing above all else when it comes to threatening reporters: it never works.

When you're dealing with a group of people who instinctually rush toward danger when it strikes their community, and who deal with combative and uncooperative sources on a daily basis, being threatened with violence won't make journalists back down — it'll make them regroup and double down.

Hours after seven of their colleagues were gunned down, the staff of The Capital Gazette put out a paper the next day.

This isn't to say you should treat journalists as if they're immune to critical feedback. As professionals who consider the act of disseminating knowledge to our communities to be our one true calling, journalists will always depend on the opinions and reactions of our audience to guide our hands.

When reporters make mistakes, citizens should consider it their duty to ensure errors are corrected and accurate future coverage is encouraged.

Respectful, or at least constructively critical engagement is one of the most valuable gifts you can give a journalist. 

Attempts at intimidation and strong-arming won't just be ineffective-- they're one of the strongest indications you can give a journalist that they're making the right people angry.

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