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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

When sound news reporting fuels deadly fury

The sun rises over the Capital Gazette building

The sun rises over the Capital Gazette building in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 29. Credit: The Washington Post / Calla Kessler

In the late 1990s, the Aiken Standard newspaper’s best-selling edition each week, by a huge margin, was Saturday’s. On that day, this mid-sized South Carolina daily published the names of every person in the county arrested in the prior seven days, and the charges against them. Nothing fascinates people in a tight-knit community more than formal accusations against neighbors.

So each Saturday, the Standard’s switchboard would blow up with calls from the accused claiming innocence, demanding retractions and threatening lawsuits and broken legs. For two years, I was the crime reporter those furious calls were transferred to, and they ranged from hilarious to chilling.

Threats go with the job. Most journalists have faced them.

Jarrod Ramos is accused of killing five people Thursday at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. He conducted a long-running, one-sided feud with the newspaper on Twitter and in court. Ramos’ anger was spurred by a 2011 column about his conviction for relentlessly stalking on Facebook a woman he went to high school with. His defamation suit against the newspaper, for which he acted as his own lawyer, was dismissed as groundless.

The column Ramos sued over, by a journalist named Eric Hartley, was good journalism. Hartley, who later moved on to another paper, saw the case as an opportunity to discuss the pitfalls of life on the Internet. He read the case transcript, spoke to Ramos’ victim, her lawyer and police, and attempted to talk to Ramos.

Hartley’s piece included exactly what it needed to tell a meaningful story to readers about a real danger. But in doing his job just right, he publicly embarrassed a troubled man, which led Ramos to fixate his hatred on Hartley, his co-workers and his paper.

Many jobs generate grudges, of course. People become furious with bars that bounced them, doctors who did not heal them, car dealerships that sold lemons, cops who arrested them and insurance companies that denied benefits.

But there is a different danger in telling the stories people want and need to read. For journalists, the better we do the job, the more truth we find and expose, the angrier subjects often get.

Sometimes we joke about it, marveling at a caller’s meltdown, or forwarding deranged emails to coworkers. Sometimes we call lawyers or police.

Then we go back to the job, back to digging and sharing, knowing that if nobody gets angry about what we write, we likely haven’t written anything worth reading.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.