Death On The Front Lines Of Community Journalism

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Just a few miles north of Benson in Pope County there is a grave marker for Carl Andreas Hiaasen. Last Thursday his grandson Rob Hiaasen, 59, was murdered in the newsroom at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. Four of his colleagues also died in the mass shooting.

Born in 1894, Carl Andreas Hiaasen spent his early years in North Dakota. His connection to our community came through his marriage to Clara Judith Landmark of Benson. They had one son before her death in 1930 at the age of only 30. Clara, who was born in Pope County, was buried in the West Zion Cemetery in Hoff Township though the couple was living in Florida by then.

 “My grandfather grew up in Devils Lake (N.D.),” grandson and well-known author Carl Hiaasen told reporter Graydon Royce of the Star Tribune in an interview in October 2016. “He almost died in a blizzard as a kid, so he got it in his mind that he was going to get out of North Dakota. He came to Fort Lauderdale in 1922 to practice law.”

Carl Andreas Hiaasen, who lived to be 100 years old, never remarried and remained in Florida for the rest of his life.  “He kept a picture of the (West Zion) graveyard and we found it and arranged to have him buried there,” Carl Hiaasen told Graydon.

Hiaasen, who is also a columnist for The Miami Herald, has written numerous novels about corruption in Florida including Stormy Weather, Nature Girl, and Bad Monkey.

His brother Rob Hiaasen has been remembered as “a rare voice in the media — warm, witty, often comforting.”

“He loved the mission of journalism and he loved the idea of working at a paper like the Gazette, doing hometown news, which is the core and the heart of our business,” Carl Hiaasen told Miami Herald reporter David Ovalle. “He was a remarkable brother and a remarkable man.”

While the Hiaasen connection to our community personalizes the story for our readers, bringing the tragedy at The Capital Gazette a little closer to our homes and hearts, we at the Monitor-News have a deeper connection in our common purpose to inform the public.

We report news of crime that is shaming, upsetting, and damaging to the reputation or future employment of individuals who have abused, used, or threatened others. Behind our reporting is the same motivation as that of the staff at The Capital Gazette – to protect the public and businesses from people who could harm them or do damage. The last words we ever want to hear from our community are, “Why didn’t you let us know?” Those words follow an act already committed; too late to warn, too late to protect.

Our reporting also tells the public about the professionalism, thoroughness, and fairness of our law enforcement agencies and courts in imposing the law. When they fail, the public has a right to know why. The knowledge we provide helps voters make informed decisions on whether or not local leaders need to be replaced to ensure our safety.

The Capital Gazette shooter was a convicted criminal about whom the newspaper had reported. He had cruelly stalked a woman on Facebook. The Gazette in reporting the details of his crime and conviction was warning, and protecting, other women from creeps on Facebook, dating websites, and other avenues of social connection. Be careful and know something about these individuals before putting yourself in harm’s way, its reporting said.

It is inevitable in the career of a community journalist that he or she is going to anger, disappoint, or embarrass many individuals through the stories, editorials, and columns that appear in their newspaper. Some of those individuals understand the press is simply doing its job; others take it personally. In mild retribution, they stop advertising, stop subscribing, or stop buying it off the counter of local businesses. Taking their resentment a step farther, some send angry, bitter anonymous letters. They post malicious comments on Facebook. They make profane, threatening phone calls.

Twice in our time as a reporter, editorial and column writer at the Monitor-News, we’ve had our life threatened – once in an anonymous letter and another time in a phone call. “Justice would be done to us,” we were told in a ominous tone. It gets you looking over your shoulder; joking about never sitting with your back to the door. It gets you to review safety steps with your staff – as we did following The Capital Gazette shooting last week.

Upsetting readers of a community newspaper goes with the territory if it has the courage to do its job. We don’t just report on crime, we report and comment on issues on which people have deep social, personal, and religious convictions. We write about equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community; we write about a path to citizenship for immigrants; we write about common sense gun control; we write about the damage of chemical runoff and the need for buffer strips; we write about global warming and many other subjects that inflame passions. We write about President Trump’s attacks on reporters and the press.

His constant assault on the press wasn’t responsible for the killings last Thursday, but he creates the atmosphere for such a tragedy.

“I would never kill them, but I do hate them,” he has said of reporters. “And some of them are such lying, disgusting people.” Scum, treasonous, “fake” news sources, and an “enemy of the people,” he calls the press. He told Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that it was “frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.” He points out the press at his rallies, deriding them, getting cheers from supporters, while reporters are jeered and get threatening looks.

A deeply polarized public is a more dangerous public. There are always unstable, angry, people at the fringes willing to act on the urges planted in their minds. They do it for imagined glory, for a slap on the back from like-minded people on their Facebook feed. They seek justification through retribution. Provide the right nudge, and they will cross the line.

Among the wounded at the Gazette was reporter Rachel Pacella. Bleeding badly and leaving a trail of blood as she crawled to cover, Pacella feared the shooter would follow that trail to her hiding place.

When asked about her future as a reporter by CNN’s Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter Sunday, Pacella replied: “I want to be a journalist; it is who I am.” And, it is who we are and will remain.
 

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