Commentary: Journalists Are The Umpires of Society

Jul 3, 2018

The fatal shooting of five journalists last week at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., certainly has many newsrooms more mindful of security. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson shares his thoughts on the subject in this commentary.

Tommy Tomlinson
Credit Jeff Cravotta

The news business is different from most other businesses in one crucial way: Our job is to tell you things you don’t want to hear.

We are the bringers of bad news. We have to be the ones to tell you that the mayor is corrupt, or the star running back is on steroids, or the financial adviser everybody loved was stealing millions from his clients. We try to balance it with happier stories, but the darker stuff sticks. That’s human nature. We are wired to pay attention to trouble.

I’ve been in journalism for more than 30 years. My job has always been to figure out the truth the best I can and publish it. A lot of times, others have seen it differently. Some people have respectfully challenged my judgment. Others have called me fat, or cussed my family, or hoped I fell ill to some horrible disease. A few times, people have told me I better watch my back.

Most readers and listeners are loving and supportive. Even the constant letter writers and crank callers can be entertaining. When I worked at the Charlotte Observer, one guy called us for years to complain about daylight savings time. Just about every journalist I know – especially the ones who deal head-on with the public – has been threatened in one way or another. A few have called the police because somebody out there crossed a line. We hear from people with deep anger, psychological issues. They call or write with fury in their words, and it’s often aimed straight at us.

The accused shooter at the Capital Gazette had sued the newspaper for a story that described how he had stalked a former high-school classmate. For years after that, he had harassed the paper for years through email and Twitter. Finally, he showed up with a gun.

Journalists have never been popular. We’re the umpires of society, and if you’ve ever been to a ball game, you’ve heard what fans yell at the umps. But right now we happen to live in a country where you can buy a gun about as easy as you can get a prescription. And we live under a president who refers to the media as, in his words, “the enemy of the American people.”

Maybe a lot of people don’t take those words seriously. But it’s likely that some people take them literally. Journalists know that words matter. That’s why good journalists take such care with them.

None of this will keep us from doing our jobs. We’ve done stories on people who have been through much worse. They’ve survived and so will we. But we’ll be checking our locks, and scan the parking lot, and getting familiar with that phrase none of us knew until a few years ago: Active shooter training. We will feel a little less safe. That’s the price of the profession we chose. That’s also the price of living in this country right now. You might not want to hear that. But it’s our job to tell you the truth.

Tommy Tomlinson is a veteran reporter and the host of the podcast SouthBound, which features conversations with notable Southerners from all walks of life.