Reporters are being subjected to violence, harassment and arrest in unprecedented numbers as they cover protests in over 100 cities across America, sparked by outrage over the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.
The Columbia Journalism Review, noting that a similar spate of attacks on the working press occurred during the Ferguson, Mo., protests in 2014, said police actions demanded “sharp scrutiny” by the media, even as they were subject to harassment.
“It’s hard to imagine a better reminder of our role here than the particularly widespread abuse of journalists that we witnessed this weekend,” the Review said.
MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi, hit with a rubber bullet by police on Saturday, was one of at least a dozen journalists injured this weekend—including a photographer who was blinded in one eye—as police fired rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas to quell unrest, said The Washington Post.
“Not since the 1960s, when the nation was racked by civil rights demonstrations, antiwar protests and urban riots, has the press been embroiled in so much violence on American shores,” The Washington Post said.
On Friday night, anchors with WAVE 3 News, the NBC affiliate in Louisville, Kentucky, were conversing on air with Kaitlin Rust, a reporter who was out covering protests in the city, when Rust cried out twice.
“I’m getting shot,” she shouted, as police fired pepper balls at her. WAVE’s camera zoomed in on one officer, who cocked his gun and fired multiple rounds back at the camera.
On Friday, Linda Tirado, a freelance photographer, lost her left eye after she was struck by what she believes was a rubber bullet fired by police.
African-American reporters in particular said they felt singled out. While CNN reporter Omar Jimenez was placed under arrest during the Minneapolis protests, his white colleague Josh Campbell reported he was allowed to stay on the scene. Similar incidents were reported in other cities, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
In several incidents, journalists were injured, harassed, or arrested even after identifying themselves as reporters — a violation of constitutional protections and long-standing ground rules that guide interactions between media and law enforcement officials.
Before the Minnesota protests, only 43 journalists over the past three years had been detained by police while covering demonstrations—37 of them during protests over President Trump’s 2017 inauguration, according to Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, in an interview with The Washingon Post.
The journalists invariably identified themselves as media, but that appeared to have little impact on police actions.
“We can move back to where you like,” CNN correspondent Jimenez said as police began to cuff him. “We are live on the air here. … Put us back where you want us. We are getting out of your way — wherever you want us (we’ll) get out of your way.
Jimenez was released an hour later and Minnesota Gov. Tim Waltz apologized for the arrest.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review, Michael Anthony Adams, of VICE, filmed on his phone as police raided a gas station where he was taking shelter.
Adams can be heard yelling “PRESS” at an officer advancing toward him with a gun; the officer can be heard replying, “I don’t care, get down.” A second officer then pepper-sprayed Adams in the face.
In New York, police arrested Christopher Mathias, of HuffPost, and Keith Boykin, a commentator on CNN who was documenting proceedings with his phone. In Las Vegas, police arrested photojournalists Bridget Bennett and Ellen Schmidt, who were on assignment, respectively, for Agence France-Presse and the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
In many communities these days, where economic pressures have forced media layoffs and cutbacks in coverage, “the police simply don’t know the journalists who are covering them,” Simon told The Washington Post.
Social media has undermined public trust in the news media, a development perhaps fueled by Trump’s frequent criticism of the press. This appears to be another factor in reporters being met with hostility by police or demonstrators.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” Simon said. “Many of the norms have broken down.”
Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.