Writing in the face of fear: Re-evaluating the role of journalists after the Capital Gazette shooting

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I first truly realized the vulnerability of publicly stating my opinion in a thankfully mild manner — a flurry of negative feedback for a concert review I had written.

Shortly after the article was published, the responses started rolling in — nasty emails clogging my inbox, sneering comments on The Daily Californian’s website, threads of tweets belittling the review. “Please reconsider a career or hobby in the field of journalism,” a stranger advised me in one email. “Honest truth is that you’re wasting your time. I bet you are better suited to some other field.”

Though initially taken aback by the comment, I bit my tongue and figured it was part of the gig. Any frustration I experienced as a result of the messages was outweighed by support from the Daily Cal staff — my wonderful editors, Caroline Smith and Olivia Jerram, as well as the managing editor, Ketki Samel, all messaged me with kind words. I felt lucky to be part of such a remarkable and kind group of fellow writers.

A few weeks later, I found myself confronted with an infinitely larger and more frightening notice — “5 People Dead in Shooting at Maryland’s Capital Gazette Newsroom,” the New York Times informed me via a phone notification.

I sucked in a breath, felt the pressure build in my lungs and closed my eyes for a moment. Then I swiped open the article.

The details, of course, were chilling, horrific. Journalists present during the attack gave first-person accounts of the atrocity, and family members of the victims spoke out in memory of the deceased. The suspected gunman, Jarrod W. Ramos, had been a longtime critic of the Capital Gazette, suing the paper multiple times for defamation, most notably with regard to a piece the Capital Gazette ran detailing harassment charges against Ramos.

It was the deadliest day for American journalists since 9/11.

The news felt especially jolting because it obliterated any illusion of safety I still believed applied to journalists. What is the risk, I wondered, associated with publishing a piece in a newspaper, or even simply being affiliated with a newspaper? Is it one’s very life?

The hate mail I received in response to my concert review taught me the susceptibility of writers to verbal attacks. The Capital Gazette shooting, boundlessly more terrifying and heart-wrenching, urged me to believe that today, journalists are not even safe from bodily harm in response to their writing.

And yet, for all the horror of this tragedy, for all the lives lost and tears shed and families shattered, the Capital Gazette has refused to shrink away in the ugly face of fear. “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow,” tweeted Capital Gazette writer Chase Cook the day of the shooting. Indeed, the very next day, the Capital Gazette papers rolled off the press as per usual. From this, I understand that journalism requires not only a fierce dedication to one’s profession but also a certain boldness, a willingness to speak and be heard even when risks present themselves.

Less than a week later, Capital Gazette staff made a public demonstration of community and hope by marching in Annapolis’ annual Fourth of July parade.“We’ll be on West Street and Main Street because we want our readers and our community to see that we believe things will, eventually, be OK again,”  they asserted in a Capital opinion piece.  “Eventually.”

In this public act of resilience in the face of terror, I see fortitude, a light in the storm. Even in the midst of great loss, Capital Gazette reporters have demonstrated faith — faith in the healing potential of the written word, faith in the restorative nature of coming together, faith in the rightness of persevering against the hungry jaws of fear and suppression, no matter how exhausting.

The position of journalist does not render one immune from snotty comments — it does not even allow a writer to have peace of mind in knowing they are safe from physical attack. This I have come to realize in the past month. But I think that what the staff of the Capital Gazette would like journalists across the nation to understand is this — right now, journalism may feel like a bumpy, even frightening road, but that does not excuse writers to throw down their pens and scrap their drafts. Our vulnerability as journalists, in an age of ideological and literal attacks on the profession, means that we must keep in mind the essential nature of journalism to sustain us through the times when publishing an opinion or simply reporting the facts feels treacherous. And in trudging forward, in continuing on, journalists must uplift and support one another in the shared mission of communicating facts and critically analyzing the world in which we live.

Though I cannot fathom the debilitating grief clinging to the members of the Capital Gazette community as they work to recover, I know that they will persevere. And in doing so, they set an example not just for Capital Gazette reporters to come, but for journalists across the nation — to be a journalist is to continue forward, they show us. And so we must.

Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].