One journalist killed 182 years ago, 66 killed last year.

By any measure, that is an alarming, dangerous and terrifying trend that connects Elijah Parish Lovejoy – murdered at his abolitionist press in 1837 – to this week’s one-year anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s horrific death and so many other journalists killed last year.

While one hope was that the Khashoggi murder would raise awareness of the dangers that so many journalists face and help mitigate this trend, there’s a strong sense that the situation is not improving.

The 66 journalists who lost their lives last year include those at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, where a gunman opened fire. Many newsrooms have been forced to increase security in the months since that tragedy.

For decades young people going into journalism have known that their field pays low wages but rewards its practitioners with a sense of purpose and a feeling of mission. They have known that the hours were unyielding, the work conditions unpleasant, the deadlines unforgiving. But until now few journalists thought their work was dangerous.

However, times have changed dramatically, and today journalism is, in fact, a very dangerous business. It is risky in the dusty corners of the globe where tyranny and ignorance, hunger and disease, reign. It is risky in despotic industrial nations where the criminals are the ones who hold power. It is risky in the Istanbul consulate of a wealthy nation where a courageous columnist was slain.

To help counter this trend, a handful of individuals, media outlets and organizations are working hard to raise awareness about the media’s important yet dangerous work. For example, Colby College is dedicating its annual Lovejoy Award for Courage in Journalism to the many men and women who are the tragic martyrs to the freedom of the press in a sad parade that began with one of its most courageous alumni.

Lovejoy was born on a pioneer farm outside Waterville. After graduating from Colby College, he headed west to become a schoolteacher, prepared for the ministry and drifted into journalism. Fired by idealism about the divine mission of the young country and full of revulsion over its stain of slavery, Lovejoy became an outspoken abolitionist.

Lovejoy’s life was uplifting and his death brutal. His abolitionism transformed Alton, Illinois, into a fiery center of the slavery debate, and his paper emerged as a booming voice against bondage. Despite his press being destroyed three times by his opponents, Lovejoy refused to acquiesce and arranged for a fourth press to be transported stealthily to Alton.

But word leaked out. A mob appeared. Epithets and rocks were hurled and shots rang out. Lovejoy was dead two days short of his 35th birthday.

Members of the mob then rushed into the warehouse to dismantle the object of their fear, the press itself. They dropped its parts from windows and smashed what remained.

But they could not smash what Lovejoy believed, nor the fervor in the way he believed – a belief and a fervor, I can say in my 50th year in journalism, that is shared by every man and woman who was ever issued a press card, who ever rushed to file a story, who ever looked at injustice and tried to expose it.

By honoring Lovejoy and his heirs in martyrdom, we honor the work they did, the courage they showed, the commitment they had to the fundamental principles of their land and culture and, most especially, their unrelenting focus on a simple but indispensable value: the truth.

“There is no way to escape the mob but to abandon the path of duty,” Lovejoy said, “and that, God helping me, I will never do.”

He never did. Nor did the 66 award recipients. Nor, I am certain, will the men and women who inhabit newsrooms, write columns and blogs, file for web publications, broadcast their findings or record their podcasts. And for the rest of us, we should be sobered by their sacrifice, but also fired with passion by their devotion.


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