Capital Gazette tragedy hits too close to home

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By Kristin Beck

It happened more than nine hours away. But the tragedy at The Capital Gazette could have happened in any newsroom, including at The News-Democrat.

On Thursday, June 28, five employees at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., were murdered by a man who held a grudge against the newspaper. The Capital Gazette ran a story in July 2011 about a criminal harassment case he was involved in, and he unsuccessfully sued the paper for defamation.

The Baltimore Sun published an article Sunday, July 1, entitled “Capital Gazette shooting: How a quiet day in the newsroom was shattered.” I read it as I was preparing to write this column, and it brought me to tears.

Editorial writer Gerald Fischman, assistant editor Rob Hiaasen, sports reporter John McNamara, reporter Wendi Winters and sales assistant Rebecca Smith were among the Capital Gazette employees going about their usual business when their lives were cut tragically short by a heinous act.

We as journalists have all experienced the occasional angry phone call or visit because of a story that was either written or not written, a poorly-worded headline, a confusing bill or a myriad of other complaints that come from working with the general public. It took me a few years, but I’ve learned that mistakes happen and no matter how hard I try, I can’t make everyone happy.

These were journalists doing the same work that I do every day, and I couldn’t help but put myself in their shoes as I read the story.

Hiaasen was excited about giving his wife a birthday present, one that she decided to wait and open that night after they had both gotten off work and could spend time together. Now that present is the last one she will ever receive from her husband.

Winters’ co-workers walked past her slain body as they were exiting the building with police and one of her co-workers said she could only identify Winters by the Sperry Topsiders she wore on her feet. Those that see me out and about town and covering ball games know that if I’m not wearing dress clothes, there’s a 90 percent chance I’m wearing a shirt, jeans and my Sperry’s. That line made me hold my breath and read it again, as my mind connected the dots.

The Capital Gazette ran an editorial Sunday entitled “Our Say: Thank you. We will not forget.” The staff thanked its supporters for the cards, letters, emails and flowers. “The words of appreciation for our work and its importance to Annapolis and Anne Arundel County is a balm to our wounds.”

But the staff also said it will not forget the death threats and emails received from strangers “celebrating our loss,” or the people who called for one of the newspapers’ reporters to be fired because she was angry and cursed on national television after witnessing her friends getting shot.

Journalists are not the enemy. We are not “fake news,” even if the facts don’t always align with what you believe to be true. We are your family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances, and we should not be afraid to come to work every day and do our jobs. We shouldn’t have to worry that the next police report or negative story that we write could be our last. Now because of the Capital Gazette tragedy, that seed of doubt is planted in the back of my mind.

But I can’t let it stop me from doing my job.

Government meetings, school activities, sporting events, crime reports and community features–these are just some of the areas we cover every day to help keep people informed of what is going on in Carroll County.

Editorial cartoonist Marshall Ramsey published a cartoon June 29, the day after the shooting. It shows the five Capital Gazette employees standing at Heaven’s gates as angels. Another angel is holding up a copy of the front page of that morning’s Capital Gazette and says, “Yes, they got the paper out.”

Once again, my heart was ripped out of my chest, and I was filled with both pride and sadness. No matter what happens, the news never stops.

Kristin Beck is the editor of The News-Democrat and resides in Carrollton.