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Reporters take heat in Canada, U.S. for reaching out to donors who supported protests

WASHINGTON — Journalists in Canada and the United States, veterans of a daily grind that entails tracking down and chatting up newsmakers, politicians and ordinary citizens by whatever means necessary, are encountering a very different — and hostile
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., speaks Tuesday, April 20, 2021, in Brooklyn Center, Minn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Morry Gash

WASHINGTON — Journalists in Canada and the United States, veterans of a daily grind that entails tracking down and chatting up newsmakers, politicians and ordinary citizens by whatever means necessary, are encountering a very different — and hostile — world as they work to learn more about supporters of the protests in Ottawa. 

Reporters are being harassed, spammed, "doxxed" and even threatened for reaching out to donors to an online crowdfunding campaign that was targeted last week by hackers who disclosed the contact details of thousands of pro-trucker contributors. 

"I actually had someone come to my door and leave a threatening note," said Bryan Schott, a political reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune who used the list to send emails to donors with Utah zip codes. 

In Schott's case, along with countless others, people have been using social media to post screen shots of emails they've received from reporters — usually innocuous queries asking for confirmation that they had donated to the protesters and whether they'd agree to an interview. 

"I've been getting phone calls from pretty much all across the globe. I've been getting death threats, text messages with death threats, Facebook messages with death threats, Twitter (messages) with death threats," he said. 

The bulk of those calls have come from the U.S. and Canada, he added, with a handful coming from further afield, including Australia and the United Kingdom. 

Since the publication of the first phone book, it's been standard operating procedure for reporters to use publicly available information to reach out to ordinary citizens in an effort to glean facts, confirm or debunk details, or often simply to inject a grassroots perspective into their work. 

The Canadian Press was among countless media outlets in both countries that reported on the leaked data, contacted people on the list and published the names of those who agreed to confirm on the record that they had made donations. 

In the internet age, however, even the most basic newsgathering steps seem to carry a measure of peril. 

"Anonymity emboldens a lot of people to do things — and that's been true since the dawn of the internet," Schott said. "It's becoming a profession that is not for the faint of heart, and I suspect it's going to get worse." 

Even reporters who cover incidents of harassment — or merely tweet links to such stories — have become targets themselves in the superheated online atmosphere surrounding the protests, which have been ongoing in Ottawa for nearly a month. 

The Ottawa Citizen published a seemingly straightforward story Tuesday about a local business owner whose employees were harassed and storefronts vandalized after the leaked data showed she had made a $250 contribution to the pro-trucker cause.

But when one of the Citizen's reporters tweeted a link to the piece, it caught the eye of Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota congresswoman and one of the most fiery progressive Democrats on Capitol Hill.  

Omar called the report "unconscionable," suggesting it was the reason the business owner had been harassed in the first place. A firestorm ensued among the three million followers of Omar's personal account, some of them pointing out that the harassment preceded the reporting. Countless others cheered her on. 

Omar — whose office did not respond to media queries Friday — remained defiant. 

"I wish journalists wrote the articles they think they are writing," she tweeted, adding that mainstream media stories in general "aren't always balanced and often have a clear political bias." 

"You all are entitled to your opinions, but my opinion remains the same. These kinds of stories ruin people's lives and are uncalled for."

Citizen editor-in-chief Nicole MacAdam described the uproar as "absolutely unbelievable."

"To have a journalist (become) the target of an attack for doing her job is disheartening, it's very angering, it's frustrating for people. And I think it's just so completely irresponsible to single out individual journalists who are just doing their jobs."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization more closely associated with defending press freedom and safety in far-off lands than on North American soil, is actively engaged in learning more about abuses associated with the protests, said Katherine Jacobsen, who co-ordinates the group's U.S. and Canada program. 

"There are important discussions that need to be had within the industry about what the public interest is and how to safely report on hot-button issues," Jacobsen said. 

"But what I find incredibly concerning, and what CPJ finds incredibly concerning, is the way in which certain topics — I would say just standard, run-of-the-mill stories that you would publish on different things — have really become flashpoints a lot of times, and the reporters receive incredible backlash unexpectedly for their work."  

The Citizen incident "has shaken my faith," MacAdam acknowledged, although not in how the paper reported the story or in the importance of ensuring that journalists can do their jobs without fearing for their personal safety. 

"I struggle to see where we put a foot wrong here," she said. 

"There's just so little education about what journalists actually do, how we actually collect news and what processes and checks and balances are already in place. I think there's an onus on news organizations maybe just to kind of open the curtain a little more and let people in, in order to build trust, which is obviously so clearly damaged." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2022.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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