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Violence Against Journalists: Shooting at newspaper proves that words have power

When the news alert of the shootings at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, came across my feed, I wasn’t surprised. If anything, what surprised me was how long it took.

That it was a local newspaper in a town that houses the United States Naval Academy. That 39-year-old Jarrod Ramos had planned his alleged assault right down to the mutilated fingertips that were apparently supposed to conceal his identity.

I know that sounds rough. It felt rough to write. But I’ve been a journalist for close to 30 years, and while I spent two years covering white supremacist groups as a black woman, I’ve never felt more jumpy about doing my job than I do right now.

The reason for this is that the relationship between journalists and the people they cover here in America has become even more contentious than usual.

Much of that contentiousness has come from the person occupying our nation’s highest office.

Tagged as ‘enemies of the state’

When I was covering the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump had some really unkind things to say about his press coverage, despite the fact that it was, and in some cases still is, kind of deferential.

Anyone who asked him a tough question or demanded anything closely resembling accountability from him was called a purveyor of “fake news”, usually in front a crowd of supporters ginned up by whatever alleged grievance took place that day.

When he became President, however, the red meat given to the ramped-up crowds included the contention that reporters were “enemies of the state” for doing their constitutionally protected jobs.

It was a refrain repeated by many of the President’s fellow travelers, like for example Milo Yiannopoulis.

After spending a year out of sight — and largely out of mind — when his recalcitrant eight-year-old act got stale, Yiannopoulis came out from wherever he was hiding and responded to a request for comment from the Observer by saying that he couldn’t wait “for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight”.

Like he usually does when someone incredibly stupid comes flowing out his mouth, Yiannopoulis insisted he was “joking.”

Meanwhile, Fox News commentator Sean Hannity blamed former president Barack Obama. No, I’m not kidding.

Trump’s sentiments won’t last

To his credit, Mr Trump did send out one of the patented “thoughts and prayers” tweets he tends to send out when large numbers of people have been killed by the guns he refuses to put any restraints on.

But since I know he’ll be back siccing his base on journalists with his irresponsible rhetoric any minute now, I’m not impressed.

In the time I’ve been a reporter and columnist, I’ve taken great pains not to broadcast or write anything that I’m not 100 per cent prepared to stand behind.

That’s because I discovered a long time ago that words are powerful, and you have to accept responsibility for how they’re used. If we take nothing else from the Capital Gazette shootings, I hope we take that.

It’s the least we can do.

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