A reader became my stalker. Is this the new normal for journalists?

Image via Pixabay.

I heard the front doorbell ring once, then again, followed by a blizzard of chimes. I write from home; normally I don’t answer the door while on deadline, but this time I thought someone might be in trouble. At first I didn’t recognize the man on the other side of the glass. When I cracked open the door, he launched into an incoherent, vitriolic rage about my columns on mental illness. I recognized him then. The man who’d harassed me online and stalked me for months was on my doorstep.

In 2016 I’d published an essay in The New York Times about men and depression. In that piece, I acknowledged my own longtime diagnosis and the stigma around mental illness that had prevented me from coming forward earlier. More than a year later, one of my Facebook followers suggested I do a follow-up on mental health issues in the LGBT community. I often flesh out story ideas with potential sources, so I met with the Facebook follower at a local coffee house to talk.

ICYMI: “I realized I was not going to make enough money from my payments from the Times to cover my expenses”

Within minutes, he told me he’d been diagnosed with severe borderline personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and had been barred from the grounds of several former employers. I was deeply pained for him.

But I saw this professional meet-up had been a mistake when I realized the depth of his illness. I ended the encounter as soon as I could.

That meeting happened in Durham, North Carolina in September 2017. Over the following six months he sent me Facebook messages in which he detailed where I’d been. “Looks like you picked up some food items from the nearby stores…” he wrote once. “I love your dog. It just went so freely ahead of you right as you entered your yard at the end of your walk.” I put each message out of my mind, hoping that my lack of a response would lead him to lose interest in maintaining contact.

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After the holidays, he wrote, “Take your Christmas decorations down! Nice seeing you again. I’m in [your town] now fairly often.” At the prompting of a colleague, I spoke with a police officer, who advised me to disengage completely. I’d block the harasser on one social media account only to have him send a flurry of new messages under a different name. And then a different name.

When it became clear I was no longer responding, he sent this ominous message: “We’ll speak face-to-face…. If anyone were to shoot and kill you it would not be a loss at all!” While I knew that wasn’t a verbatim death threat, I was deeply unsettled and at a loss as to how to proceed. Then, the messages stopped. I was relieved.

In June, two months after the last Facebook missive, he was inches from my chin, pounding on the front door glass with both fists, one shatter away from being in my house. From what I could decipher and can remember, he was incensed with my USA Today column about the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. I shoved the door closed, called 911, and he fled.

 

EXACTLY ONE WEEK LATER, a different disgruntled reader entered the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis and murdered four journalists and a sales assistant.

For many journalists, threats and harassment are the new normal. Shortly after the Capital Gazette shooting, Audrey Cooper, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, posted on Twitter: “Every newsroom I know of, regardless of size or geographical area, has at least a handful of people who regularly harass its journalists. Every one.” While statistical data is hard to come by, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote soon after the Capital Gazette killings, “Journalists generally say the number of threats they receive has increased in recent years.”

Margaret Sullivan, the Post’s media columnist, said in a phone interview, “For me, and a lot of other women journalists I know, it’s completely normal business to have people saying extremely misogynistic and abusive things to you in email and in comments on social media.” She says that, in particular, women journalists, journalists of color, and Jewish, Muslim and LGBT journalists “have a lot of abuse directed at them.”

ICYMI: NYT reporter’s tweet sparks controversy among journalists

For Lisa Krieger, a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, harassment is not an abstract concept. After Krieger gave a talk on science writing, an audience member sent her romantic cards, a belated birthday present, and waves of texts “professing unrequited love,” she says via email. Many of the items were personally delivered to the newsroom. Krieger explained that management quickly moved to install secure doors and cameras; she also says she was advised by the sheriff’s department “to not come to the newsroom, because the garage couldn’t be secured.”

Brody Levesque, chief political correspondent for The New Civil Rights Movement, connects the intensified venom with the Trump presidency. “In the last 18 months, the vitriol being directed at journalists has gone from the usual stuff to ‘You are all scum’ and ‘I hope you die,’” he tells me. “Trump isn’t the problem; he’s the symptom of a disease. There’s a cheerleader in the White House who says it’s okay to say [journalists are] all liars and propagandists.”  

The danger is two-fold; the first risk, of course, is personal. I now walk my dog on different routes, go to the coffee house at more random times, and keep my window shades lowered. The second risk is that threats may influence what journalists cover, and push some reporters to curtail their reporting out of fear.

 

THE POLICE RESPONDED QUICKLY to my 9-1-1 call. My stalker was arrested that afternoon and held overnight on an outstanding warrant, which included stalking. The following morning, I made my case to a local judge and was granted a temporary order of protection, made permanent two weeks later when the stalker acknowledged his crimes. Since then, I’ve bought Mace, ordered a home security system, and installed outdoor surveillance cameras. Instead of the handgun that the police recommended, I have a “Louisville Slugger” baseball bat at the near.

Like many of my colleagues, I’m trying hard not to let it change how I work. But I do think twice before meeting a potential source and deciding how much to disclose in my first-person columns. Sullivan says she finds this new environment “very scary…. It wears on you, psychologically, emotionally. I hope it doesn’t change the way we do our work but I know that it makes it more difficult.” As for the Mercury News’s Krieger, her experience changed how she feels when she speaks in public.

“I look out on a sea of faces and am comforted by how supportive, warm and friendly everyone seems,” she says. “But then I think: You never know.”

But then I think of my murdered colleagues in Annapolis, and start work on my next column.

ICYMI: We spoke with writers, journalists, and novelists about writing on the web. One writer and one article was mentioned over and over again

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Steven Petrow is a columnist for USA Today and a contributing writer to The Washington Post. He’s a past president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. Follow him on Twitter @StevenPetrow.