Covering elections as a foreign correspondent in the United States has traditionally meant press conferences, long days at political rallies, and road trips through rural America.
This year, however, amid the spread of COVID-19, curtailed campaigns, civil unrest, visa issues, and an unpredictable political environment, the elections beat has been particularly challenging for foreign reporters.
CPJ spoke with three foreign journalists about the challenges of covering the United States in 2020. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Since protests broke out in May, CPJ’s partner organization, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, has received over 850 reports of press freedom violations committed by police and civilians. For more information, see CPJ’s safety kits for covering U.S. elections and protests.
Nina Svanberg, New York City-based correspondent for the Swedish newspaper Expressen
Have you changed the way you cover protests in the United States in light of recent violence against journalists?
I always take precautionary measures before I go on each trip, but my editors and I have more security talks now when I go on reporting trips. I don’t think we would have the same security measures if there wasn’t so much civil unrest like what we’ve seen since the summer. I’m in constant contact with my editors and the news desk when I’m out reporting.
I’ve gone through several days of military training for emergency situations and had taken safety courses before I began working in the United States.
Now it’s not just civil unrest and people throwing fireworks and all of that. You also have to be more vigilant around police. As a journalist you don’t trust anyone, but I’m even more cautious about trusting people now. You really have to stay vigilant.
I was in Kenosha, Wisconsin, recently to cover protests there and police didn’t believe I was a journalist even though I showed them my Swedish press pass. They made me get out of the car I was in and held me for several minutes. They had sirens on and walked toward me with their guns in their hands.
It was a really stressful situation and, of course, I have some training on how to handle these types of situations, but it’s still a very stressful. When you’re covering these protests you don’t really think you’d be questioned that way.
[Editors’ note: Svanberg spoke with the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker after she was hit with projectiles while covering protests in Minneapolis in May.]
How have you dealt with covering events in smaller U.S. cities for a Swedish audience?
It’s been difficult to try and explain exactly how volatile, or on-edge things have been this last summer and these last few months. There’s been so much emotion and people are so agitated when they are out on the streets. That’s why it was so important for me to be there to see what was going on and speak to people at the scene.
I wanted to be able to explain all of this when I wrote my articles about Kenosha. It’s hard to explain that it’s a small city, and then all of a sudden it’s one of the scenes for all of this civil unrest in the U.S.
What concerns did you have while covering the protests in Portland?
I wasn’t there when the federal agents were out on the streets. I kind of missed all that action; I was there like a week after they had drawn back from the streets.
But it was still really important for me to get both sides of what was happening. I don’t want to just show the activists or rioters being thrown to the ground, I also want to get the police perspective. I think that I managed to get that, because I talked to police officers about the situation and how they see it.
One thing that I felt was really worrisome covering the protests in Portland were all of the people who had press badges and had press written all over them, but I wasn’t really sure if they were press. That’s a really worrisome development because I’ve seen in Portland where the police are targeting a group of who have [press] stickers on them, and saying that they aren’t press. It’s difficult situation for the police to determine who is media and who are activists and agitators. It’s also a very unsafe environment for us as real journalists, if people are posing as press and it becomes part of activists’ and rioters’ strategy to be labelled as press, because then they know they are untouchable.
What we’ve also seen in Portland is that antifa and those organizations that are targeting individual journalists and saying, you know, “Don’t let these photographers take these pictures and that will lead to you getting arrested.” I encountered that, too, from protesters who could get aggressive when they felt they were getting filmed or videotaped or interviewed the same way that police would do. I think it’s really important for us to not take sides and to remain neutral and to always stay neutral.
Do you think being a foreign national affords a certain protection when reporting on protests and politics in the United States?
Yes, I think it has a lot to do with me coming from Sweden. I can always say that I’m from Swedish media and I’m not part of the established American media, so I think that helps me a lot. And of course I’m blonde and with a heavy accent, so that has helped me in a lot of situations as well.
What are you plans for covering the elections?
We always have our helmets, our flak jackets, and I’m constantly in touch with the newsroom for security reasons.
Marta del Vado, Washington D.C. bureau chief for Spain’s La Cadena SER radio station
How have recent months of protests shaped your thinking on security issues for journalists in the United States?
Since I’m from Spain, it’s a bit different. There’s a certain protection that you have as a foreign journalist, but I am very concerned for my local colleagues who do not have the same protections.
I don’t have security concerns for myself around the election or the recent civil unrest, but I do have doubts about how this administration will respond to protests in the future. If the president was able to show such a display of force in the country’s capital when he cleared out Lafayette Park, what is he capable of in the future? It seems he has no limit.
I never thought I would see teargas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets being used during a peaceful protest in Washington, D.C.
How does covering the United States now compare to your past experience as a journalist in other countries?
One thing I’ve noticed is that the police are more militarized than in Spain, for example, but civil society is also more militarized. Private citizens can own weapons—this is something that you will never see in other societies. I did not see armed individuals around protests in D.C., but I did in other places. I think this could definitely lead to violent clashes around the election.
Here you also have armed militias that are dressed with uniforms that are exactly the same as what authorities are wearing. This is what struck me about the protests in D.C. There were unidentified armed men in military garb who said they worked for the federal government, but you wouldn’t know for which agency or which department or who they responded to.
I think that’s pretty scary. This didn’t happen to me, but it’s not inconceivable to think that you would confuse some kind of militia members or private security guys with law enforcement.
This is something I haven’t seen in other countries. In Mexico, for example, you would see people working for drug cartels and you knew that they worked for the cartels and not police. Even in Western Sahara and Palestine, you could clearly differentiate between various groups.
Then you add the helicopters chasing after protesters, like what happened in D.C. around the Lafayette Square protests—there just doesn’t seem to be any accountability for these actions.
Do you feel safe reporting in the United States?
Yes, I do, when I’m out reporting and talking to people at protests. I am blonde and have blue eyes and, even though I have a Spanish accent, people make the difference between Europe and Latin America. I know some other colleagues face racist challenges that I don’t, or that I don’t feel while reporting. I think it’s also because of how I look and where I come from.
Being from another country, I haven’t seen the harassment that colleagues from U.S. media face. I didn’t feel it toward me. I don’t feel unsafe reporting here. I have been traveling by car to cities around the country.
As far as COVID-19 precautions go, I use my common sense. I don’t go to massive rallies and I try to travel by car.
Are you worried about visa issues, given the rapidly shifting geopolitical climate and recent proposed restrictions from the Department of Homeland Security?
Yes, of course. Most of my colleagues, myself included, didn’t leave the country during the summer because we couldn’t come back due to restrictions [relating to the COVID-19 pandemic]. Whereas European Union countries have exceptions for journalists and diplomats, the United States did not make it clear whether or not journalists would be considered essential workers and would be allowed to re-enter the country if we left.
Now there is a proposal to limit stays for journalists on the I-visa that would limit our stay to 240 days. I think the main objective is to discourage journalists from coming here.
Now, just to cover the elections, foreign journalists from Europe have to ask the U.S. Embassy for a waiver to come to the United States, even if they have already received an I-visa.
The U.S. response in both of these cases has been disproportionate to the European restrictions on travel during the pandemic. There is a clear objective to make it harder for international journalists to come to the U.S.
Valeria Robecco, New York City-based U.N. correspondent for the Italian news agency ANSA, and U.S. politics reporter for the daily newspaper Il Giornale
As president of the United Nations Correspondent Association, do you get the impression that your colleagues are increasingly concerned about safety issues in the United States?
When you imagine a journalist being targeted, you don’t imagine the United States, of course. You image some other places around the world where the press is under attack on basically a daily basis, and there is a sense of impunity in behaviour toward journalists.
There is a tense political climate right now, and of course that polarization is reflected in the streets. I personally don’t have any safety concerns in the sense that I have not experienced any sort of harassment while reporting, despite the large number of press freedom violations that we see during the Black Lives Matter protests.
Of course, we think twice before we go places, but there hasn’t been any specialized training like when you go to a war zone or places where you have wide-spread civil unrest.
How has this presidential election season differed from that of 2016?
In 2015, I travelled a lot ahead of the elections. Right now with COVID-19 it’s different. My editors in Italy are very worried about me traveling too much, so I’ve tapered back on trips.
It’s a very tough moment here in the United States, for more than one reason. The political climate is very tense and COVID-19 has created more anger and made life very difficult for many people.
In the debate between Trump and Biden [several weeks ago], it was basically all attacks, one after the other, and no content on programs or ideas at all. This of course is mirrored in regular conversations between people: you see people that are more aggressive than before when you talk about politics.
What has it been like trying to explain America’s increasingly polarized political and social environment to readers in Italy?
You just explain it. We have a radical left, far right, and other extremists in Italy, too. It’s not happening all in the U.S. Maybe it’s more tense in the U.S. now than it was before. The problem with racism is not new. I’m not surprised with the extremist groups from the left or from the right.
What’s shocked me recently is the way that members of the Orthodox community in Brooklyn recently assaulted a reporter and photographer. You don’t expect people beating or assaulting a photographer just because he is taking a picture of a huge protest by some community. I’ve never seen something like this. This demonstrates what a really tough moment this is in the United States, when these kinds of events occur.
There’s a broader sense that people can get away with things because there have been so many actions taken against the media.