SPJ Region 3 & news leadership reflects on value of journalists in wake of Capital Gazette tragedy

capital gazette journalists killed
Capital Gazette staff killed on June 28, 2018, in Annapolis, Maryland, include from the top left: Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen; bottom left: John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters. – Baltimore Sun photo

By Sharon Dunten, SPJ Region 3 Assistant Regional Director; editor, SizingUpTheSouth.com and an Atlanta-based freelance journalist

Atlanta, GEORGIA — Meredith Cummings remembers the day when her grandfather was killed by gun violence.

Meredith Cummings mug
Meredith Cummings

“I’m just a girl from Alabama who had a family member murdered. That doesn’t matter to most people on most days, but on days like today I want to believe it matters. On a day like today, maybe people will listen to what someone who has had an intimate, personal view of how gun violence feels,” writes Cummings.

She is past president of SPJ Alabama, University of Alabama journalism instructor and freelance journalist.

A date journalists will not forget

On June 28, the community of Annapolis, Maryland, had an intimate, personal view on how gun violence touched their community’s life when a gunman stormed into the Capital Gazette newspaper and killed five staff members and injuring many others. The gunman was apprehended and the motive behind the shooting is still unclear. 

Cummings continues to mourn for her grandfather and relives the day he died when she reads about yet another shooting of innocent people by a madman with a gun. This time Cummings is facing a shooting within her own profession: news journalism. 

Christiana Lilly
Christiana Lilly

“When I heard about the shooting in Annapolis, my mind immediately went to the murders of the WDBJ reporters Virginia in 2015, says Christiana Lilly, SPJ Florida president, web editor for Boca Raton Magazine and a freelance journalist. 

Lilly was speaking about how broadcast reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward from WDBJ-TV while reporting live from Moneta, Virginia, a gunman opened fire, killing them and injuring one other person. The gunman was a former reporter from that same station.

WDBJ journalists killed
In 2015 WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward were killed by a gunman while reporting live for a newscast. – Supplied photo

After pulling over on a road “in the middle of nowhere west Texas,” Cummings writes an email to SizingUpTheSouth with the message for journalists to take care of themselves, take care of each other. “Keep telling the stories of your community. Now yours is one of them. This might bend you, it might slow you down a bit, but it will not break you. Dig deep and hope will find you,” she said.

Journalists are a lot like you.

Kevin Riley
Kevin Riley

“We live in a time when plenty of people would like you to think that journalists somehow exist outside the norms of our society. But the truth is, we’re a lot like you, states Executive Editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Kevin Riley in an email to SPJ Region 3. His words came from an excerpt from his Sunday column.

Riley writes that news journalists live and work in their communities, and take the daily grind of commuting in cars or taking a train in a large city like Atlanta, Georgia. 

“We love our jobs, and consider them crucial to our society and our democracy,” says Riley, “Like so many of you, we work for what we believe is a greater good.”

Elliott C McLaughlin
Elliott C. McLaughlin

And journalists aren’t in it for the money either, posts Elliott C. McLaughlin, Senior Writer at CNN, on Facebook. “Most of us are paid squat to sit through boring-ass meetings and pore over boring-ass documents so you don’t have to. So you can go about your life, provide for your family. And when you need to be informed, you can go online or pick up a paper or turn on your TV or radio — and there we are, letting you know what we’ve found out while you were going about the callings of life.”

“We don’t do it for the money. So few of us are wealthy.

We don’t do it for fame. So few of us are know.

We don’t do it for political reasons. So few of us actually cover the Beltway [Washington, D.C.]” – Elliott C. McLaughlin

David Baxley
David Baxley

“We do it because it is a necessary function of civil society,” writes McLaughlin. 

David Baxley, SPJ South Carolina president and assistant professor of mass communication at Francis Marion University, has more than 18 years of experience working in broadcast news and in newsrooms. “Without journalists, we couldn’t make sense of the world around us,” says Baxley.   

“Without journalists, we wouldn’t understand both sides of political and social arguments.

Without journalists asking questions of those in government, we wouldn’t know where our tax dollars are going. 

Without journalists, we wouldn’t know how our leaders are responding in crisis situations.  

Without journalists, we wouldn’t receive emergency information nor would we be able to react.

Without journalists, we wouldn’t have a voice in asking city leaders when pot holes will be fixed in my neighborhood.”  – David Baxley

McLaughlin writes that he suggests people should hug a journalist today and make a promise to learn more about the journalism profession. “So many of the pejoratives hurled against us don’t withstand scrutiny,” he said.

And the beat goes on.

Mitch Pugh
Mitch Pugh

“I don’t believe this situation will have any impact on how our journalists do their jobs,” says Mitch Pugh, executive editor of the Charleston Post & Courier, in an email to SizingUpTheSouth. “Our team is deeply committed to the craft as well as the immense responsibilities that come with it.”

“We know our work is vital.” – Mitch Pugh

A 2017 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report sites that more than 38,000 individuals work in journalism in the United States including in print, online and in broadcast news.

Haisten Willis mug
Haisten Willis

“By nature, journalists are strong, dedicated and hard-working. Everyone in the industry — and nearly everyone outside of it — knows how difficult the job is and what forces conspire to make it even more difficult,” says Haisten Willis, SPJ Georgia president and Atlanta-based freelance journalist.

“Standing up to the powerful is important. Telling the truth is paramount,” says Willis.

Pugh shares that former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley left a message for his Post & Courier team on Thursday about the tragedy in Annapolis is also “reminder of the great importance of a free press and unafraid press.”

Charleston shooting
Mourners gather at the grave site of a victim of the Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church shooting in 2017. – Reuters photo

The Post & Courier team are not strangers in reporting on a mass shooting in their community. On Jan. 11, 2017, nine people were shot and killed during a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. 

Death in the profession

Michael Koretzky new
Michael Koretzky

“Journalists are threatened, hurt, and killed all the time. That’s not new. But getting shot and killed in your own newsroom certainly is,” says Michael Koretzky, SPJ Region 3 Director and Society of Professional Journalists national board member. He said he wonders if the NRA, who hates the news media, will now recommend reporters start packing.

At least 39 journalists had been killed in the United States before the June 28 shooting at the Capital Gazette newsroom with less than 10 killed during the September 11 attacks. Many journalists were murdered directly targeted because of their investigative journalism reporting. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that eight U.S. journalists have been killed as a result of cross or murder between 1992 to 2018. 

“Around the world, journalists are killed for their work. Just take a look at the Journalists Memorial at the Newseum in Washington, DC. — more than 2,300 names are etched in the glass. Now, more names will be added.” – Christiana Lilly 

The messenger of the First Amendment 

“This is not just an attack on people, but also an attack on the First Amendment and a free press,” says Lilly. She said the shooter didn’t like what was reported by the Capital Gazette, so he decided to permanently silence members of the press. “We cannot let him win.”

Debbie Van Tuyll
Debbie Reddin Van Tuyll

As the Capital Gazette‘s editorial page reads: “Today, we are speechless.” But, the madman with a gun won’t stop journalists from doing their job and impacting communities they serve, says Baxley. To stop the work of journalists would be an affront to those we lost in Thursday’s shooting, he says, and “it would also mean our democracy would be less safe.” 

“Messengers are always targets, but the brave, like those of the Capital Gazette staff who vowed to have a paper out today [June 29], are role models for us all,” said Debbie Reddin Van Tuyll, professor of communications at Augusta University in Augusta, Georgia.

“Only true professionals can put aside their personal traumas, losing friends and colleagues to a madman,to serve the public’s need for information.” – Debbie Reddin Van Tuyll 

“Journalists need to continue fighting to uncover wrongdoing. Continue fighting for real journalism in your community. And may the work of journalists everywhere be the light we need in these dark times,” said Baxley.  

McLaughlin states that journalists simply believe information is vital. “We believe you need to know. And we reconcile every day with the prospect that you might blame the messenger. But we trudge on.”

Kerri-Marie Covington and Isaiah Singleton contributed to this article.


*SPJ Florida will be donating money to the Capital Gazette Families Fund and we challenge other chapters and supporters of the First Amendment to donate and help our colleagues in Maryland.  – Christiana Lilly, SPJ Florida, president

Sharon Dunten mug
Sharon Dunten

Sharon Dunten is editor of SizingUpTheSouth.com and is the SPJ Region 3 Assistant Regional Director. She is a freelance journalist/photojournalist at Dunten Media Services LLC. sdunten.spjregion3@gmail.com


SPJ Region 3 logo

Society of Professional Journalists



Twitter  @spj_3