The Las Vegas Review-Journal published a short story on Aug. 18 about a retired police chief who had been killed by a hit-and-run driver while bicycling four days earlier. The headline was, “Retired police chief killed in bike crash remembered for laugh, love of coffee.”
The story, the sort of bread-and-butter journalism that local newspapers produce every day, hardly seemed the kind to ignite brutal online harassment, threats and antisemitism directed at the reporter and The Review-Journal.
But that’s what happened this month — weeks after the story was published — when some social media users seized on the words “bike crash” in the headline to falsely accuse The Review-Journal and the reporter, Sabrina Schnur, of lying about the intentional killing of the retired chief, Andreas Probst, 64.
The attacks were set off by a video that began circulating widely on social media around Sept. 16. The video, recorded by a passenger in the car, showed that the teenage driver had intentionally hit Mr. Probst and had then driven off, laughing, the police said.
Those attacking Ms. Schnur and The Review-Journal were either unaware of or were deliberately ignoring that the police did not know about the video and had not charged the driver and passenger with murder when Ms. Schnur reported her story on Aug. 18. Both teenagers have since been charged with that crime.
Elon Musk amplified the outrage on his social media platform, X, formerly Twitter. On Sept. 17, he reposted a screenshot of the outdated headline from Ms. Schnur’s story, with the words “bike crash” highlighted.
“An innocent man was murdered in cold blood while riding his bicycle,” Mr. Musk wrote to his 157 million followers. “The killers joked about it on social media Yet, where is the media outrage? Now you begin to understand the lie.”
Ms. Schnur and others who work at The Review-Journal were inundated with “obscenities, racist tirades and wishes of personal suffering and death,” Glenn Cook, the executive editor, wrote in a column on Sept. 18.
“Such sentiments are, unfortunately, not new,” Mr. Cook wrote. “But the volume of filth we’re seeing right now is unprecedented in my tenure. It’s like a fire hose of hatred to the face.”
Ms. Schnur told the media news site Poynter that she spent much of Sept. 17 crying and then moved out of her apartment, unsure when she would return. She was worried that people were digging through her social media posts from as far back as 2015, when she was a teenager.
“I started to feel genuinely unsafe at that point,” she told Poynter.
Ms. Schnur declined to comment to The New York Times. Mr. Cook did not respond to a request for comment.
The harassment is part of a climate of online hate that is often directed at reporters, particularly those who are not white men, said Katherine Jacobsen, the United States and Canada program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. The harassment can intimidate and silence reporters, she said.
The Review-Journal is also painfully aware that social media rage may portend real-world danger.
Just over a year ago, an investigative reporter at the paper, Jeff German, 69, was found fatally stabbed outside his house. A county official who was the subject of Mr. German’s reporting has been charged with the murder. The official first targeted Mr. German with social media attacks, Mr. Cook said.
But Ms. Schnur was not investigating wrongdoing.
She was telling readers about Mr. Probst, a former police chief in Bell, Calif., and was the first reporter to visit the crash site and interview his family, Mr. Cook said. Mr. Probst’s daughter, Taylor Probst, told her that her father was “always laughing, always smiling, offering you support, life advice, career advice.”
The harassment that followed shows “risks can come out of nowhere, they’re really hard to predict and you don’t know which story is going to be explosive,” said Joel Simon, founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.
The Review-Journal has tried to protect Ms. Schnur. At her request, the paper went through her email and phone messages, Poynter reported. Editors also changed the headline on her story to “Retired police chief killed in hit-and-run remembered for laugh, love of coffee.” It didn’t “calm the mob,” Mr. Cook wrote.
In his column, Mr. Cook noted that Ms. Schnur had not written the words “bike crash,” which “launched this whole mess.” And when she was given evidence of the video last month, she gave a source instructions on how to send it to the police, Mr. Cook wrote. The murder charges soon followed.
Ms. Schnur and the Review-Journal have continued to cover the killing, reporting on Sept. 20 that the teenagers, who are 16 and 17, would be tried as adults. The police have said the teenagers, who were driving stolen cars, not only killed Mr. Probst but also intentionally hit and injured another bicyclist and rammed a car that day.
“I’ve put in 110 percent on this case because the family has asked for it, because the family has been brave enough to come forward, because it’s a ruthless case — but also because it’s a case on my beat,” Ms. Schnur told Poynter.
“I’m not going to stop writing,” she added, “because some people on Twitter are upset.”