Copycats and Reporters

A guy sent an email to Senate leader Rob Mayer this week warning that “s–t may hit the fan. Hey! How is GIFFORDS?”  The email also named fellow Republican Jack Goodman and three Democrats — Robin Wright Jones, Jolie Justus, and minority leader Victor Callahan.

A month ago some other character pasted what were taken to be gun sight stickers on the office doorway nameplates of a half dozen senators and a state representative.  Wright-Jones, Justus, and Callahan were among that group.

Police tracked the email back to the guy who sent it.  When the guy was confronted by police, he decided to apologize. “No harm intended,” he wrote.

There are a lot of things that can be said about the climate our political system has created with its own bomb-throwing rhetoric that has replaced passionate but respectful debate, and the narrow, polarizing proposals that seek to divide more than to serve the general population — things that might kindle this kind of scary public action.

But we want to talk about this kind of story from a reporter’s viewpoint for a minute or two because we sometimes have to ask if reporting incidents like this leads more people to think it’s okay to act this way and might eventually lead somebody to think it’s okay to cross the thin line between unthinking anger and frustration and into violence.   Is it better to tell the public this stuff is going on and risk encouraging copycat behavior or is it better to avoid reporting it so others will not be encouraged to emulate it?

We’ve faced that question several times in various ways.  In the 60s, the press was blamed for ongoing civil rights demonstrations because we reported on them.  As we moved into the 70s,the press was accused of encouraging anti-Vietnam war demonstrations because we reported on them.  Of late, some of us have been criticized for reporting on the Occupy Movement, thus encouraging more people to pitch their tents in public places to criticize whatever it is they’re criticizing.

Reporting on terrorism is ticklish stuff.  Terrorists want us to report on what they do because they want the public to be scared and therefore easier to influence.  Others don’t want us to encourage their behavior by reporting on it.

There is an aphorism that seems to fit in this circumstance and it is often in the background of a reporter’s thinking when dealing with this kind of issue: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.”

A free people deserve to know about those who think by threat or intimidation that they can alter or control that freedom.  Exposure of the terrorist, whether it is one who tries to blow up airliners and buildings or one who decides emails and stickers will frighten public servants into acting differently, has a preferable position in this reporter’s mind.

Should we report his name so you and his neighbors know that he’s done?  Generally we don’t unless charges are filed.  But sometimes it’s a close call.

Are there times when reporters should exercise discretion in passing along incidents like the email to Senator Mayer?  Yes, there are, especially when reporting too much at the wrong time can hurt an investigation.  But threats to public figures and to public order are almost always too despicable to be kept secret.

The public needs to know when the public welfare is threatened.

No harm intended, he said.

But only after police showed up.

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