Outdated headline sparks vicious online hate campaign directed at Las Vegas newspaper

Sep 20, 2023, 10:11 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — A Las Vegas newspaper is being viciously attacked online for its coverage of an alleged murder of a retired police chief, either because of a misunderstanding or a deliberate attempt to mislead.

The “firehose of hatred” has led the Las Vegas Review-Journal to sift through email directed at one of its reporters to protect her from the worst of it, the paper’s executive editor, Glenn Cook, said on Wednesday.

On Aug. 18, four days after a 64-year-old former California police chief, Andreas Probst, was killed when he was struck by a hit-and-run motorist while riding his bike in Las Vegas, Review-Journal reporter Sabrina Schnur interviewed his family for a story.

The headline: “Retired police chief killed in bike crash remembered for laugh, love of coffee.”

Then the story took a sinister turn.

Video emerged, apparently taken by a teenage passenger in the car that hit Probst, showing that it was no accident. Charges against the 17-year-old driver were upgraded to murder on Aug. 29, and judges ruled on Wednesday that the two juveniles will be tried as adults.

The video, described by Cook as a “snuff film,” began circulating online and the Review-Journal linked to an edited version of it last Saturday.

That’s when the attacks against the newspaper began. Someone created a social media post about the case, showing the headline from Schnur’s Aug. 18 article and suggesting the Review-Journal had covered up the murder of a retired law enforcement official.

Cook said he couldn’t speak to the motivations of whoever posted the insinuations, whether or not they knew the original story was published before the video surfaced.

“What I can say definitively is the internet mob took no effort to fact-check,” he said. “The internet mob was happy to spread the message, spread it and add their own animosity to the stew.”

The rush of online hate increased exponentially early Sunday when Elon Musk, owner of the former Twitter site now known as X, sent a message to his 157 million followers: “An innocent man was murdered in cold blood while riding his bicycle. The killers joke about it on social media. Yet, where is the media outrage? Now you begin to understand the lie.”

A spokesperson for Musk did not immediately return a message seeking comment on Wednesday.

Some of the attacks were lewd and antisemitic, wishing harm on the journalists. One specific threat was referred to authorities, Cook said.

It’s a particularly sensitive topic at the Review-Journal, where a year ago its investigative reporter, Jeff German, was stabbed to death. One of the people German wrote about, Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles, had attacked the reporter on social media and was later charged in the case and is awaiting trial.

At one point last weekend, to try and stop the flow of hate, Review-Journal editors changed the headline of the Aug. 18 article in its internet archive, replacing “bike crash” with “hit-and-run.”

That in itself opens up a can of worms: Should a news organization go back in history to change a story based on information that comes out after it was originally published? Cook said he reasoned that replacing “bike crash” with “hit-and-run” was not changing anything factually.

Unfortunately, he said, “that fed the trolls even more.”

Schnur declined comment on Wednesday — she was writing the story about the day’s court proceedings — but told the Poynter journalism website a day earlier that she began to feel unsafe when people online began unearthing social media posts she made as a teenager. She has briefly moved out of her apartment, and Cook said the newspaper has taken steps to protect her.

Schnur also said she worried about those around her, saying that when talking with her mother on Sunday, she overheard her telling her father in a hushed voice that someone was at the door.

“I could hear the fear in her voice,” she told Poynter. “There was no one there, but just for a moment, my heart broke. … Because of work that I did and people potentially trying to find where I live, my mom has to be scared of her front door.”

Online harassment of journalists, particularly women and minorities, is an ongoing problem that hasn’t abated, said Jeje Mohamed, senior manager for digital safety and free expression at PEN America. In a 2020 global study, 73% of women journalists said they had experienced online abuse.

Perhaps because of their experiences, editors at the Las Vegas Review-Journal are better than those at many organizations in responding to protect its journalists, she said.

Recently, harassment campaigns often expand to where journalism and news organizations themselves are the subject of attack, Mohamed said.

“This was a manufactured campaign to undermine trust in the media,” Cook said. “There’s just this increasing mass of people out there who are so angry about a lot of things, but in particular carry anger at the media, who saw this as an opportunity.”

In a column published on Tuesday, Cook publicly defended Schnur and touted her work. He said she was the first local reporter to talk to Probst’s family to tell their story, and that when a source contacted her to tell her about the then-unknown video, she instructed the person how to send it to police. Authorities already had it at that point.

“I was concerned with making sure that people understood that she was a person,” Cook told The Associated Press, “that she was not the villain they made her out to be.”

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Outdated headline sparks vicious online hate campaign directed at Las Vegas newspaper