Security forces in Washington fired tear gas at demonstrators during a May 30, 2020 protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd. Reporters covering the nationwide protests faced attacks, mostly by law enforcement. (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

In 2020, U.S. journalists faced unprecedented attacks

As the Committee to Protect Journalists publishes its annual tally of journalists imprisoned around the world, not a single U.S. reporter is behind bars for their work. But that statistic belies the country’s marred press freedom landscape following the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in which journalists were handcuffed, shoved, and shot at with less-lethal ammunition. 

At least 110 journalists were arrested or criminally charged in relation to their reporting, and around 300 journalists were assaulted in 2020, the majority by law enforcement, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which CPJ is a founding member. The Tracker is working to verify more than 930 total incidents in 79 cities. 

Today, seven months after the protests began, and with at least 12 journalists still facing criminal charges – some of which carry jail terms and fines – members of the U.S. press continue to grapple with how the unprecedented series of attacks on the media occurred. The answer, veteran press observers told CPJ, is that an increasingly polarized political climate, militarized law enforcement, and vitriol toward the media combined during nationwide protests to create a violent, perfect storm. 

“We’re in a mess,” Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, told CPJ via phone. While the scale of police violence toward the media was unprecedented, Dalglish sees this summer’s events as part of a long-term fracturing of trust between law enforcement and journalists. 

“Thirty years ago, I think the police were willing to consider working journalists to be in a slightly special category. If they recognized you, they would let you in many places they wouldn’t let ordinary people go and they’d be friendly on the street. I don’t think they’re willing to give anybody a break anymore,” she said. “That special relationship that many reporters had with many police officials is kind of gone.” 

In Dalglish’s view, the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington marked a turning point when law enforcement began to view the general public – journalists included – with less inherent trust. At the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, Dalglish – then the executive director of the journalist legal aid group Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press – first witnessed what she described as a big shift in police behavior toward journalists. She said that the media buzz around the convention, protesters’ use of cell phone cameras, which made them hard to distinguish from journalists, and the presence of riot police combined to drive up tension at the event, resulting in the arrest of dozens of journalists. Such episodes, she said, further soured the press-police relationship. Then came Donald Trump.  

“There were embers that were glowing all over the country and he just threw gasoline on it,” she told CPJ. 

From the time he declared his candidacy in 2015 to today, Trump has tweeted negatively about the media more than 2,490 times, according to a U.S. Press Freedom Tracker database, and his verbal thrashings of the media are regular fare at his rallies. This rhetoric creates a permissive environment for physical attacks on the media, said Marty Steffens, a member of the North America Committee of the International Press Institute and a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.  

“By fomenting the idea that the press is the enemy of the people…you really put journalists in the bullseye,” said Steffens, who spoke with CPJ via phone. “Because the president pushes back against journalists and doesn’t respect them, local officials are empowered to do the same thing.” 

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany did not return CPJ’s emailed request for comment. 

For many newsrooms, the protests were a wakeup call to the vulnerability of the U.S. press. “It was always just generally understood that people who self-identify as press were considered, as they are, neutral third observers,” Jason Reich, vice president of corporate security at The New York Times Company, told CPJ via phone. That assumption, he said, no longer holds. 

“A press pass may be influential in persuading a police officer to not arrest you, but it’s not legal protection,” Dalglish said. “Protections that journalists enjoy are not codified by law and never have been.” 

While the 1980 federal Privacy Protection Act prevents police from confiscating newsgathering materials, it does not grant special privileges to reporters to gather the materials. The First Amendment also does not grant journalists any special protections or access privileges beyond what other civilians are afforded, leaving these at the discretion of local officials and police departments.   

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel with the National Press Photographers Association, conducts media training with police departments. He told CPJ via phone that he is surprised by how few departments have policies for dealing with the press – a vacuum that leads to less police accountability when problems arise. “It’s really hard to discipline anybody if you don’t have a policy and you don’t have training,” he said. 

(CPJ emailed the Police Executive Research Forum, a police research and policy group, for comment on the issue, but did not receive a response.) 

The events of the summer have some in the media rethinking their reliance on measures once considered essential to field reporting, like a well-placed press badge. Before the COVID-19 pandemic sent the 2020 Republican and Democratic National Conventions mostly online, Dalglish had planned to advise her students to think twice about wearing such identification amid convention crowds, lest they make themselves a target of police, protesters, or others. The New York Times has refined its stance on press badges, too. 

“One of the biggest changes that we’ve made is that we used to advise uniformly that press should be clearly identified as such,” said Reich. “The environment that we’re in now is different…there’s no prescriptive answer.” 

Dave Mayers, a producer for VICE News, wore a press badge the night he was arrested with three others in his film crew by Minnesota state patrol while covering protests in Minneapolis. The arrest happened on May 30, a day after the same law enforcement body arrested CNN’s Omar Jimenez, who is Black and Latino, and two crew members on live television in an incident that has come to symbolize law enforcement’s heavy hand toward the press over the summer’s demonstrations. 

Mayers’ VICE crew had walked down a side street away from the protests to put on gas masks when troopers approached them and ordered them on the ground, Mayers told CPJ via phone. The episode, he said, was harrowing on a personal and professional level.  

“It felt like we had guns pointed at us and we were yelled at to get down, not only because we had gas masks and [recording equipment] and all this gear, but because we were a bunch of Black men,” the journalist told CPJ. (His crew included two other Black men and a Latina.) 

Mayers and the three other journalists were charged with violating curfew and held for hours, losing a night of vital coverage. While the charges were eventually dropped, Mayers said the arrest left him acutely aware of the way reporting situations can quickly devolve. 

The Minnesota state patrol did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment. 

Andrea Sahouri, a reporter with the Des Moines Register in Iowa, still faces charges from her May 31 arrest. That day, she was covering protests in Des Moines when police pepper sprayed her twice and arrested her. She was charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts. The first charge carries of fine of $65 to $625 or a prison term of up to 30 days, or both; the second carries a fine of at least $250, according to her employer and Iowa state law. Sahouri’s trial was postponed from December 14 to after February 1 due to COVID-19 restrictions on courts, she said.

“I don’t think anything could have prepared me for [my arrest],” Sahouri told CPJ via phone. “I was just doing my job.” 

CPJ emailed and called Des Moines police spokesperson Sergeant Paul Parizek and emailed the Polk County prosecutor’s office for comment but did not receive responses. 

The recent breakdown in norms has wide-reaching implications for press freedom, both domestically and internationally. Long considered a defender of global press freedom, Washington has moved away from this position under the Trump administration as the president has cozied up to autocratic leaders, such as in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are near the top of CPJ’s list of the world’s worst jailers of journalists. 

“People pay attention to what we do here, how we behave [toward journalists] here and the laws that we enforce,” said Dalglish. “Anytime you discredit one journalist, you’re putting a target on the backs of journalists around the world.” 

With a new presidential administration taking office in January, CPJ has published a proposal for how the U.S. can regain global leadership in press freedom.

Media observers do expect a change of rhetoric from the White House. “I think that the tone [President-elect Joe Biden] sets will not turn things around, but perhaps help stanch the bleeding a little bit,” said Dalglish. 

Reich echoed this sentiment but added that millions of Americans still believe Trump’s harmful anti-media messaging. “I don’t know if there’s a way to put that genie back in the bottle,” he said.