Keep your hands off journalists

Reporters are used to criticism but are more frequently facing violence

September 19, 2022 10:51 am

Mason City television news anchor Jodi Huisentruit was reported missing on June 27, 1995. She has never been found. (Photo collage by Iowa Capital Dispatch with images from Iowa Department of Public Safety and Canva)

Reporters need a thick skin. Hard-hitting stories can generate a lot of complaints, including abusive language and the occasional threat.

It got out of hand this month in Las Vegas where a reporter was stabbed to death in his home.  Police have arrested an elected official who had been the subject of several investigative stories the reporter had written for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The public official ran an obscure city office. The stories alleged he was a bully and had an inappropriate relationship with a co-worker.  The stories didn’t even run on the front page. But the official lost his re-election bid and now police believe he went to the reporter’s home and stabbed him to death.

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Journalists are used to taking criticism. We often are covering people at the worst moments in their lives or talking about things that people would prefer to be kept quiet. Due to the public nature of what we do, we also open ourselves to people who are unstable or just plain creepy.

I recall a photographer who was taking video outside a small-town bank that had gotten robbed several hours earlier. There was only one teller inside the bank. As police and the FBI were investigating, the teller’s husband had been inside the bank checking on his wife. When he walked outside and saw our photographer, his anger boiled over. He grabbed the photographer around the neck, pushed him and started yelling at him to leave.

As the newsroom manager, I had no tolerance for people putting their hands on our staff. We contacted the county sheriff, who immediately arrested and charged the man with assault. After things had calmed down, the man was embarrassed at what he had done and apologized profusely to our photographer. If I recall correctly, we agreed to drop charges – but I wanted to send a clear message: Keep your hands off our staff.

In the world of television news, female staff members have a particularly difficult time with creepy guys. We managers encouraged our staff to be active on social media, to let viewers into their personal lives. It helps build relationships with viewers. What do they like to do in their free time?  Maybe share some pictures of your cute kids. But that can expose women to guys who reach out and either want to have a relationship with them or just write inappropriate things about their appearance. It’s quite unfair. Male staff members rarely deal with this kind of abuse.

One male viewer went so far as to send love letters and gifts to a female anchor. This guy believed that when he watched the anchor on TV, she could hear what he was saying to her from his living room and that she would respond to him through the television. I called the guy to ask him to back off. He certainly was around the bend, insisting he was having two-way conversation with our anchor.

I said, “Sir, television is one-way, not two-way.  We can’t see what you’re doing in your living room.”

He said, “You can’t tell me she doesn’t hear me – because she responds to me!”

The local sheriff went to visit to make him stop but it didn’t work. Several weeks later, he drove to the station and followed the anchor home. Luckily, she saw him and the police came and grabbed him.

I’ve always been grateful that law enforcement took these cases seriously and did what they could to protect us. I guess that’s to be expected in a state where Mason City anchor Jodi Huisentruit has never been found.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports nine journalists have been killed in the U.S over the past three decades, four of them shot to death in the newsroom of the Annapolis Capital Gazette in 2018.  That doesn’t count Jodi Huisentruit or journalists killed abroad.

And now we have a murdered reporter in Las Vegas.  Journalists need to report suspicious activity and news consumers should find ways to express their views without targeting the messenger.

This column was first published by “Dave Busiek on Media” and is reprinted here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Dave Busiek
Dave Busiek

Dave Busiek spent 43 years working in Iowa radio and television newsrooms as a reporter, anchor and the last 30 years as news director of KCCI-TV, the CBS affiliate in Des Moines. In that role, he planned coverage of the Iowa caucuses, the floods of 1993 during which 250,000 central Iowans lost drinking water for 12 days, and organized the first national debate between Democratic candidates for president in 2015. He served as national board chair of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. In 2014, he was Broadcasting and Cable Magazine’s News Director of the Year. He was inducted into the Iowa Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2018 and is a recipient of the Iowa Broadcast News Association’s Jack Shelley award. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He retired at the end of 2018. He is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collaborative and his blog, "Dave Busiek on Media" appears on Substack.