Opinion: Reflecting on duty, violence and values

On Thursday afternoon last week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newsroom staff gathered for one of its honored rituals.

Two of our colleagues were retiring. And we were in the middle of the newsroom to send them off with gifts, memorable stories, tears – and, of course, plenty of food.

David Gibson and Rhonda Cook each spent decades at the AJC.

Gibson was known as one of our sharpest editors, a guy with a great sense of humor. His casual, friendly way never kept him from sharpening and getting at the heart of a story – and making a reporter think they’d done that on their own.

You might recognize Cook’s byline, since she’s been around here since 1989. She has a rare credential: she’s covered 28 executions in Georgia. She had endless sources in the criminal justice system – including prisoners themselves. One of her recent stories exposed the hijinks at a prison camp adjacent to Atlanta’s federal penitentiary, where prisoners were coming and going at will. Businesses and residents around the camp had complained for years about inmates leaving the camp.

I share that view inside our newsroom because at about the same time we were celebrating these two beloved fellow journalists, a gunman entered a newspaper building in Annapolis, Maryland.

He killed four journalists and another staff member at the Capital Gazette, using a shotgun.

As the story developed, reports indicated that the suspect, Jarrod W. Ramos, had ongoing disputes with the newspaper’s journalists. He apparently barricaded one of the exits.

Ramos has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder and remains in jail.

According to the Associated Press: “Ramos had a well-documented history of harassing the paper’s journalists, a feud that apparently began over a column about Ramos pleading guilty to harassing a woman. He filed a defamation suit against the paper in 2012 that was thrown out as groundless, and he often railed against its staff members in profanity-laced tweets.”

As we at the AJC learned and read about the victims, the tragedy sunk in. Of course, we cover and familiarize ourselves with horrific tragedies on a regular basis.

But it felt like we really knew these people.

The Baltimore Sun described them this way:

Gerald Fischman, an editorial writer who was the “clever and quirky voice of a community newspaper.”

Rob Hiaasen, and editor who was “a joyful stylist, a generous mentor.”

John McNamara, a former copy editor-turned-writer and “sports reporting was his dream job.”

Rebecca Smith, a recently hired sales assistant, “loved spending time with family.”

Wendi Winters, a reporter, was “a prolific writer who chronicled her community.”

They sure seem a lot like people we work with, or have worked with through the years.

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.

We live here, work here, commute in the cars and on the trains alongside you. Our kids go to school here, and we practice our faith along with you.

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

It can be a tough profession. News erupts at inconvenient times. We show up in difficult and dangerous situations, all in an effort to keep you informed. To let you know what’s really going on.

We ask questions on your behalf, often of people who’d rather not answer them.

And we make powerful people angry. Every day.

Public officials call us liars when we report something that they don’t want revealed.

For example, state and local officials were furious with us during our coverage of 2014’s ice storm that paralyzed Atlanta. We revealed poor planning and a lackadaisical response from many leaders and organizations.

But we believe our coverage forced metro Atlanta’s leaders to better prepare for ensuing storms.

And we consider it a badge of honor to face our critics, and it’s common for one of our reporters to attend a press conference called to specifically vilify their story.

Those situations breed strong bonds and a trust in each other creates an esprit de corps that’s at the heart of every newsroom.

And like you, we spend countless hours together with and get close to the people we work with.

We see this tragedy in Maryland as one that affects our extended family, a horrifying story that arrived right at our desks.

But in the end, we were also proud of something that our colleagues at the Capital Gazette did. Under incredibly trying circumstances, they performed the foremost duty of newspapering.

They published.

So even as they coped with the unspeakable tragedy of dead and injured colleagues, they didn’t take a break from their duty to the public, and Friday’s edition arrived at the appointed time.

The headline on the front page: “5 shot dead at the Capital.” They printed pictures of their dead colleagues.

They told this story to their readers, as they have told so many others. As all newspapers have told the most important stories on the most important days in the history of their communities.

God bless them.

That’s what newspaper journalists sign up for.

And during the time when civility seems at a premium, and when we are criticized and often misunderstood, we take pride in this noble profession.

And we grieve the loss of these fellow journalists, and commit ourselves to the sacred duty of the free press in our democracy.

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