Fear: A threat to a free press

Community newspapers were reminded last week of a vulnerability they share with schools, universities, theaters, malls, and other public institutions. Four journalists and a sales assistant were murdered by a gunman who bore a grudge against the Annapolis Capital Gazette for a column written about his conviction for harassment of a former classmate, a charge to which he pleaded guilty in 2011. It was the worst attack on a U.S. paper in anyone’s memory.

News of the murders sent chills through newsrooms everywhere. Coverage of local crime is a staple of newspapers and TV channels, and local news offices are as open as any institution in this country. The Press office is no exception. Residents walk through our doors to renew their subscriptions, place ads, pass on a news tip, chat about local politics, or beef about a recent editorial or story. Our editors, reporters, and photographers are your neighbors. We work not for money or prizes, but in the hope our reporting helps make Harvard a better-governed, more welcoming, and safer community. On occasion we offend, but never intentionally, and no one expects violence as a consequence.

At a time when national reporters are told their work is fake news, when they are called “enemies of the people” and threatened with violence at political rallies and online, last week’s mayhem in Annapolis is a warning that even local news carries its own unique risks. Journalistic ethics require practitioners to seek the truth and report it thoroughly, accurately, and fairly. A self-censoring, timorous paper is of questionable value to anyone. But five dead news people remind us that even local reporting sometimes takes courage. Fear is as much a threat to our free press as an oppressive monarch or authoritarian government.

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