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Social media haters threatened a reporter’s life. And a post by Elon Musk didn’t help.

Viral video of a Las Vegas teenaged driver intentionally hitting and killing a cyclist has sparked a firestorm of social media outrage – but not all the criticism is directed where it should be -- at the killer and his passenger. Much of it is directed at a journalist who has reported the story with as much compassion as I’ve ever seen in coverage of a tragedy such as this.


The story is horrifying from moment one until now. It demonstrates how hate has been empowered –two people in a stolen car thought it would be cool to intentionally hit a man riding a bike, leave him by the side of the road to die, and videotape it. It also shows just how hungry too many people are to use a disinformation campaign to attack the media – a dangerous trend that picked up steam during the Trump presidency and has gained speed the farther downhill it’s rolled since then.


Here's what happened.

On August 14, a 64-year-old man, Andreas Probst, was struck by a car while riding his bicycle. Police initially said the car that struck Probst had been stolen and was driven by a teenager. The death was reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal with the limited information law enforcement was able to share at the time. It would not be known until later that the killing wasn’t just a hit-and-run but was intentional and that it had been videotaped.


On the 18th, the Review-Journal ran a follow up story in which Probst’s wife and daughter shared their memories of their loved one, a retired police chief. The headline at the time referenced he’d died in a bike crash. It still wasn’t known that he’d been intentionally hit. According to the R-J, no one objected to the headline that day.


Later in August, a source contacted the R-J’s Sabrina Schnur to tell her the killing had been videotaped by the perpetrators. She encouraged the source to immediately share the video with law enforcement and gave the source instructions on how to do so. Within hours, the driver who’d been arrested for car theft and hit-and-run, was also charged with murder. The R-J reported that development.


Then this past weekend, the video made its way to social media and went viral. A screengrab of the R-J’s month-old story with the “bike crash” headline was posted online, accusing the news outlet of covering up the intentional homicide. No one who shared the post bothered to note the date of that story or to read up on what has happened since. Thus erupted the firestorm. And after a tweet – I’m sorry – should I call it an X now? – by Elon Musk, it escalated to conflagration.


“An innocent man was murdered in cold blood while riding his bicycle. The killers joked about it on social media. Yet, where is the media outrage? Now you begin to understand the lie,” Musk posted.


This was irresponsible because Musk knows the power of his platform. It has more than 150 million users. In fact, the other day he tweeted – sorry, X’ed—that Tucker Carlson’s show on FOX had “single digit million viewers” but that viewers for his episodes on X “now exceed the population of the United States.”


His post with the R-J screengrab was shared more than 70,000 times, and according to the R-J, at least 700 hateful online messages were sent to Schnur, some of them taking the tone of death threats.


This has to be frightening and chilling for the team at the R-J. Because the last time online vitriol was directed at an R-J reporter, it was deadly.

Last summer, R-J investigative reporter Jeff German reported on the abusive atmosphere in the office of then Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles. Telles raged at German in a series of angry online rants. Weeks later, German was stabbed to death, and Telles is charged with his murder.


Clearly and sadly, reporters and news outlets can hardly blow off online threats directed at them.


Seeing the impact of the poop storm all the online posts created, I wish Elon Musk would take responsibility for putting a stop to it. He should condemn the hateful posts wrongly directed at the reporter and at the R-J. And perhaps he’d like to spend some of his own money to help the Probst family and other families whose loved ones have been murdered. That would be a more authentic way of showing concern for victims of murder.


Sabrina Schnur is an excellent reporter, one who works hard to ensure murder victims’ stories are told with compassion. To learn more about her exemplary work, and the actual facts about how the murder of Andreas Probst was covered, read the editorial by the R-J’s Executive Editor, Glenn Cook.


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