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Journalists struggle to keep online threats from escalating

Unless threats are direct, law enforcement can't do much to stop it
By Tamara Lush (the Associated Press)
| www.cos-mag.com

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – After a Florida radio station's general manager told hosts they didn't have to put an obnoxious repeat caller on the air a couple of months ago, the man stood on the sidewalk outside and vented his irritation with the station through a bullhorn. 

Craig Kopp, manager of WMNF-FM in Tampa, said the guy left for a while but reappeared the day after a shooting left five Maryland newspaper employees dead. Now Kopp's stomach is twisted in knots wondering how to handle the situation. 

"I walk this fine line all the time between the most precious of things, the First Amendment, and health and safety," said Kopp, a broadcast veteran in charge of 70 volunteers who host music, news and heated political talk shows on the listener-supported station. 

The difficulties journalists face when dealing with threatening behaviour from members of the public came into stark relief in Thursday's deadly attack at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis. 

Suspect Jarrod Ramos, 38, has a well-documented history of harassing the paper's staff. He filed a defamation suit against the paper in 2012 that was thrown out as groundless and often railed against them in profanity-laced tweets. 

Ramos' ire began with an online harassment and stalking case stemming from contact with a high school classmate in late 2009 or early 2010. The woman eventually went to police, and Ramos pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour harassment charge. The newspaper's story about the case touched off a yearslong tirade from Ramos. 

A barrage of menacing tweets led to an investigation five years ago, but a detective concluded Ramos was no threat, and the paper didn't want to press charges for fear of "putting a stick in a beehive."

People who have been the victims of online discussion of physical violence, doxing (publishing private information) and rape threats aren't surprised the Capital Gazette attack started with online harassment. 

Katie Kausch said she was harassed online as an intern at MTV after writing a story about people who don't believe the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 26 at an elementary school really happened. 

Anonymous people unhappy with the story found Kausch's college grade point average and her little sister's school address and published them online. They wrote vague, menacing statements like "I hope nothing happens to you... ."

Kausch said MTV's legal team was helpful to a point, but because the harassers were anonymous and hadn't issued a specific threat against her, there wasn't much she could do. 

"Legal was an all-female team; everybody had experienced some level of doxing or threats," she said, adding that she and her mother decided not to report the harassment to police. 

Sarah Kogod, a former director of development for sports website SB Nation who has led workshops on how to deal with online harassment, said the threats are difficult to handle, both for police and the social media networks themselves. 

"The general rule is that if it's a direct threat, all jurisdictions will take that seriously," she said. "The challenge comes when the communication is vague. It's brushed off as someone being a jerk. In most cases, it is."

She encourages liberal use of the block function and thinks companies need to deal better with online harassment. 

"I truly feel that organizations have a responsibility to make sure they can guide their staff through that harassment," both online and off, she said. 

It's something Kopp, the station manager, has considered. Although he's used to sharp online words like ones they remove from the news department's Facebook page, he wonders how to handle the in-person threat of the angry man with the bullhorn. He's putting in new surveillance cameras and people must be buzzed in the front door, something that seems anathema to the station's community-oriented approach. 

"We've had potlucks with the doors wide open, for the community to come right in to see what radio station looks like. I don't want to stop that," he said. 

Several weeks ago, the man marched past a receptionist into the on-air studio. By the time police came, the man was back on public property. So far, Kopp has called police twice on the man, but there's been no arrest.

"I think some of these people are unstable, and in the current environment, I don't know what could set somebody off in the wrong direction. It's a constant worry, now more than ever before," Kopp said. 

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