Campaign of Fear
Country/area: United States
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 11/6/2021
Credit: Linda So, Jason Szep, Peter Eisler, John Shiffman, Aram Rostam, Brad Heath, Sam Hart
Biography: Linda So, Jason Szep, Peter Eisler, John Shiffman, Aram Roston, Brad Heath and Sam Hart are journalists at Reuters.
In a series of agenda-setting investigations, Reuters chronicles the campaign of intimidation carried out by supporters of former President Donald Trump against U.S. election workers, stressing the foundation of American democracy.
Federal legislators have drafted new legislation to protect election workers, while lawmakers in Vermont are crafting similar changes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation opened two investigations directly tied to our reports, according to federal law enforcement sources: one into Gjurgi Juncaj, who threatened a Nevada state election official featured in our September story, and another into the anonymous man spotlighted in November who threatened Vermont officials. Later, staff of the U.S. Senate Rules Committee said our coverage helped prompt its leaders to urge the Federal Election Assistance Commission on Nov. 22 to assist election officials around the U.S. in tapping federal money to strengthen security. “Reuters’ ongoing reporting on this issue has helped expose the extent and nature of threats against election workers and officials,” a senior Rules Committee staffer said.
Through scores of public records requests, nearly 100 interviews and a review of thousands of social media posts, Reuters reporters meticulously documented more than 850 threatening, harassing and menacing messages directed against election workers and officials in 16 states.
We built an original database of hundreds of threats to election workers and officials. We divided the threats into two main categories. The first was threats that, while menacing, are protected as free speech by the First Amendment of the Constitution. A second category consisted of threats that were serious enough to be prosecutable as a criminal threat. We used spreadsheets to track responses to our records requests, record responses to surveys of election officials, and build timelines that helped us link threatening messages to specific events or media coverage
Some states and counties failed to respond to our records requests; others declined to provide the requested documents based on privacy concerns or potential interference with ongoing investigations. In cases where records were unavailable or insufficient, Reuters overcame those hurdles by persuading election officials and staff to divulge the information.
Much of the data also required extensive work before the information could be added to our database. Audio files needed to be transcribed for threats that were left as voice messages for election workers. Personal information needed to be redacted before publication. Some threats arrived in unique forms, including postcards or notes left on doors.
What was the hardest part of this project?
In their reporting for the Nov. 9 story, two Reuters reporters — Linda So and Jason Szep — faced weeks of violent threats from one of the subjects of the story. “We are going to have to go f—— medieval on you c———s,” the suspect said in one of several voicemails he left the reporters. “You are all done. You are all going to f—— burn.” Over 30 days, he texted them 137 times. On Oct. 17, he threatened that the reporters and election staffers in the Vermont Secretary of State’s office would all get “popped.” The threats didn’t stop their reporting. The two journalists also overcame significant hurdles tracking down other people who made threats, many of whom launched their attacks anonymously. In what were often tense and hostile interviews, the reporters convinced the harassers to open up and do so on the record. In several cases, the reporters got the individuals to admit to threats so severe that they could be criminally prosecuted. The project presented some other notable reporting challenges. Many of the local officials were not used to dealing with the news media and reluctant to share the threats they’d received, fearing it would expose them to further attacks. It required reporting finesse and, in some cases, months of trust-building to get those people to share their experiences with us.
What can others learn from this project?
We hope to inspire journalists to press on with their reporting in the face of threats. We hope our coverage can be seen as a model for carefully assessing risks and staying focused on exposing people who believe they will remain anonymous while intimidating the workers who help run elections. We hope journalists will learn from our unrelenting effort to uncover the motivations of people who make threats. On a practical level, we hope other journalists can learn from our dogged pursuit of records — from internal government emails that revealed the impact of threats on election workers to the various records held by local officials and law enforcement that helped us document hundreds of threatening communications inspired by former President Donald Trump’s false assertions of a rigged American election.
Our project also demonstrates the importance of collecting raw data — in our case threats — and parsing that information carefully to build findings that reveal the full scale of a problem in ways that have impact. After our stories, federal legislators drafted new legislation to protect election workers, while lawmakers in Vermont are crafting similar changes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation opened two investigations directly tied to our reports, according to federal law enforcement sources. Staff of the U.S. Senate Rules Committee said the Reuters coverage helped prompt its leaders to urge the Federal Election Assistance Commission on Nov. 22 to assist election officials around the country in tapping federal money to strengthen security. The stories have also stoked a national discussion. Opinion and analysis columns in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Vox, among others, cited the Reuters findings. The Reuters coverage featured prominently in seven episodes of the MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show, and was often cited on CNN, Fox and other networks.