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Demonizing journalists to spread disinformation is dangerous and undemocratic

Updated October 6, 2023 - 2:00 am

Correction: A previous version of this story said a reporter had instructed a source on how to send a video to police. This information subsequently could not be corroborated and has been retracted, as has a statement that suggested these instructions were connected to prosecutors’ decision to pursue a murder charge.

I’ve never seen more dehumanizing vitriol and hostility directed at journalists at any time in my career.

And that was before this weekend.

Before an unspeakably awful video of a heinous crime went viral on social media. Before the Las Vegas Review-Journal and one of its reporters were somehow caught up in the story based on a completely false narrative about month-old coverage. Before conspiracy theorists, agenda-driven ideologues and even Elon Musk decided to engage in an unfounded media criticism dogpile to keep the outrage roaring.

Over the past three days, Review-Journal employees’ social media and email accounts have been filled with accusations of every bias you can imagine, obscenities, racist tirades and wishes of personal suffering and death.

Such sentiments are, unfortunately, not new. But the volume of filth we’re seeing right now is unprecedented in my tenure. It’s like a fire hose of hatred to the face.

What you need to know: The outrage machine has it all wrong. The trolls are spreading distrust and disdain of the press through fabrication. They’ve falsely claimed an old RJ story that lacks today’s context is a new story that’s intentionally hiding new facts.

Talk about fake news.

It all started with something that should make everyone angry: a video that shows the driver of a speeding stolen car intentionally striking a bicyclist in Las Vegas on Aug. 14. The victim in the hit-and-run, Andreas Probst, a 64-year-old retired police chief, was killed.

The footage, which went viral Saturday, is horrifying and depraved. Two people in the car — the driver was masked — callously laugh about running down a good man. The video was shot by the front-seat passenger, showing the crash impact and the aftermath. It’s a snuff film.

The video is the reason the driver, a 17-year-old boy, now faces a charge of open murder, and not merely auto theft, and other counts. Although the video is new to the public, police had seen it weeks prior. The Review-Journal reported the existence of the video and the resulting murder charge on Aug. 31.

But somehow, someone who watched the video this weekend found one of the Review-Journal’s first reports on Probst’s killing — the Aug. 18 obituary that identified Probst as the victim — and made the false assumption that the story was reported after the video was discovered and after the driver was charged with murder. A social media post was created, accusing the Review-Journal of deliberately characterizing the murder of a retired lawman as a “bike crash,” words from the obituary’s headline.

As the post quickly circulated through the feeds and groups of like-minded media bashers, the narrative worsened. Assumptions were made about the race of the two people in the car. We were far-left, anti-cop, anti-white liars. And a whole lot of other things I can’t write here.

Of course, we didn’t know about the video at the time this particular story was written. Neither did police. But untold thousands of angry readers didn’t want the facts to get in the way of this frenzy. Many of them couldn’t be troubled to check the publication date, much less read the story.

Among them, apparently, was new Twitter/X owner Elon Musk, who has 157 million followers on his platform. At 3:08 a.m. Sunday, he retweeted a screen grab from the Review-Journal app with the misunderstood story, and wrote, “An innocent man was murdered in cold blood while riding his bicycle. The killers joked about it on social media. Yet, where is the media outrage? Now you begin to understand the lie.” As of Sunday night, it had about 55 million views and 70,500 reposts.

We changed the headline, even though it hadn’t raised a single concern among our local readers in a month, hoping to calm the mob. Replacing “bike crash” with “hit-and-run” didn’t work.

It’s one thing to eviscerate an institution. But it’s entirely another to attack individuals — and push the boundaries of language that constitutes a criminal threat. Social media users identified Review-Journal reporter Sabrina Schnur as the author of the story they were attacking. They filled Twitter/X with comments and tags that ranged from antisemitic to death wishes for her and her dog. She had more than 700 notifications of malevolence as of Sunday, and they’re still coming.

A few things to know about Schnur:

■ She didn’t write the words in the headline that launched this whole mess.

■ She was the first reporter to go to the scene of Probst’s killing.

■ She was the first local reporter to talk to Probst’s family, ensuring he didn’t become just another nameless victim without a story.

■ She’s the only local reporter who regularly covers juvenile court, paying special attention to minors who are moved into the adult criminal justice system. (Guess where the suspect in Probst’s killing will be appearing next?)

■ She has maintained and updated the Review-Journal’s Homicide Tracker since it first uploaded in January 2022, making sure more than 1,400 Southern Nevada victims have photos and family stories shared.

■ She doesn’t deserve what she has experienced the past few days. No one does.

Other staff members who had nothing to do with any of this have been targeted by trolls. One poster told an RJ employee in a public X post, “your time will come soon, you hack POS.” Another reporter was told “you left-wing media maggots have no f——— credibility.”

Everyone at the Review-Journal has a heightened sensitivity to this kind of anger. It was just over a year ago that Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German was stabbed to death at his home. An elected official who was the subject of German’s reporting is charged with his murder. The suspect first targeted German with social media attacks.

We don’t want to be the story. We expect criticism, especially when we get it wrong. And the story here should be the ongoing criminal case against a teenager, the pursuit of the person who recorded this grisly video, and the loss of a man who spent his life caring for his family and keeping his community safe — a story we have covered thoroughly.

Social media platforms are bunkers of ignorance and nastiness, but millions of people use these spaces to access information produced by journalists. When journalists are effectively driven or drowned out by disinformation attacks, by manufactured mistrust, fewer people can be sure about what’s really true.

Reporters increasingly are navigating heightened risks and hostility everywhere. Americans must understand that unrelenting intimidation, cyber harassment and threats to journalists have dire consequences for a free press and a functioning republic — especially when they are based on lies.

Glenn Cook is executive editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Email him at gcook@reviewjournal.com.

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