French Lessons: The best way for journalists to honor those lost in Charlie Hebdo massacre: become better journalists | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

French Lessons: The best way for journalists to honor those lost in Charlie Hebdo massacre: become better journalists

"Je Suis Charlie" should be more than a hashtag that will likely burn out by the end of next week

Last year, as a professional journalist, I wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 110 stories for this paper.

Some, I think, were important — highlighting the need for legislation criminalizing revenge porn and legalizing medical marijuana, for instance. Others were fun — an interview with Henry "The Fonz" Winkler and a story about how 2014 could be Josh Harrison's breakout year.

But regardless of topic, there wasn't one time that I thought, "This story could get me killed." In fact, in a career that began in 1992, I don't know that I've ever felt that way. I've been hit, pushed, cursed at, threatened with a Taser and publicly referred to as "Deitch the Douche" by an infamous local agitator. But still, I never believed that something I wrote could ultimately lead to my death.

Then on Jan. 7, two masked gunmen entered the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, and opened fire with automatic weapons. They targeted and killed 12 people at the paper, including the editor, Stephane Charbonnier, and several cartoonists. A total of 21 people would die at the hands of the gunmen before they were killed by police on Jan. 9.

The killers were Muslim extremists who targeted the newspaper because of its decision to print cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. At Charlie Hebdo, those journalists made their bones by using unflinching satire to illustrate the insanity of extremism, and because of that, extremists took their lives.

In response, many have honored these journalists for their work by printing and posting the simple phrase Je Suis Charlie ("I am Charlie"). And they should be honored, especially by other journalists, not just today but every time we come to that crossroads with a story, column or cartoon and wonder, "Should I write that? Is it worth the trouble?"

Free speech is a wonderful thing, and it's easy to put into practice when the stakes are low. But these journalists did it in the face of threats and very real violence.

In 2011, the office was firebombed after it printed an issue that claimed Mohammed as "guest editor." "A thousand lashes if you don't die laughing," a caricature of the prophet said on the cover. But despite that, Charlie Hebdo continued to publish and take equally hard-hitting shots with the idea that open and free expression can bring about change.

And those journalists were not alone. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 61 journalists were killed in 2014 for doing their job. Some were caught in the crossfire of combat, but some were murdered because they reported on something that someone else didn't like. The types of stories that reporters write everyday.

In August, for example, Octavio Rojas Hernández, a reporter for just two months with El Buen Tono, a newspaper in Vera Cruz, Mexico, was murdered after publishing a story linking a police official to "a ring of gas thieves."

As American journalists working in the United States, it's easy not to be worried about dying for something we write or report. According to the CPJ, since 1992, five journalists were killed in this country simply for doing their jobs. That's three fewer than were killed in France last week.

When you're covering things like city councils, state governments and judicial elections from an office in Pittsburgh, you probably don't feel like your life is in danger, even if what you write pisses someone off. For a lot of us, the worst thing we face is a phone call from someone who didn't like what we wrote, and a few choice obscenities.

But if we as journalists truly want to honor those that died last week in France, or Octavio Rojas Hernandez, or the dozens of other journalists who die every year, we need to step up our games. There are important issues in this country, in this state, in this city that deserve coverage by journalists who aren't afraid to speak up and inform the public. Some issues are well documented and others have yet to be covered.

Regardless, if we truly believe that "Je Suis Charlie" should be more than a hashtag that will likely burn out by the end of next week, the best thing we can do is become better journalists by telling stories and making statements that will make a difference regardless of the consequences.

Don't get me wrong. I am proud of my career, and believe I have done some good work. But I am not "Charlie."

At least not yet.