About News

In the Middle of Protests, Reporters Find News — and Danger — on the Streets

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

Hey students: Are you interested in a career in journalism? This exciting field offers not only low pay, long hours and no job security, but also the chance to go to dangerous places where everyone hates you. Sound good?

Recent street protests in Minneapolis and other cities have illuminated the risks that journalists face when they report from the scene of civic unrest. At least six reporters have suffered physical harm in Minneapolis, primarily from getting hit with crowd control ammunition, according to reports on the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker website. One photographer was permanently blinded in one eye from a rubber bullet, according to her social media post. In an especially alarming case – because a clearly identified journalist was singled out – a police officer used a baton to strike a cameraman.

In Denver, police hit a Denver Post photojournalist with pepper balls. The photographer reported that, despite his having visible press credentials, a police officer intentionally shot at him twice. A representative of the Colorado Press Association told The Post, “There seems to be a frightening trend of restraining and targeting reporters during public protests and other civil unrest even when clearly displaying press credentials.”

That assessment was supported by yet more reports of authorities knowingly targeting journalists in multiple cities on Saturday night.

Protesters pose threats, too. They attacked at least three local journalists in Pittsburgh, according to a Saturday night tweet by Pittsburgh Public Safety. Similar reports came from other communities Saturday night. Previously they damaged the CNN Center in Atlanta and angrily chased away a Fox News reporter in Washington, D.C. (an episode that was probably more predictable than most).

On Sunday night a few protesters assaulted at least two local journalists in downtown Birmingham. One was punched in the face and another was hit in the head with a cup of ice.

TV journalists face particularly taut circumstances because cameras and lights are dead giveaways of location. You’d think that protesters would welcome TV as the best way to impactfully make their statements, but in some cases they see this most visible of media as part of their problem. The real and perceived partisanship of channels such as Fox, CNN and MSNBC helps to fuel the fire.

The overall situation is so worrisome that on Friday the Poynter Institute, a journalism education program, posted recommended safety tips for journalists. Among them: Consider hiring a bodyguard; maybe don’t take the assignment if you’re not physically fit enough to run from trouble; and don’t wear a credential lanyard around your neck because someone might use it to strangle you.

Anger toward media in such settings isn’t limited to big metro cities. My friend and former colleague Carol Robinson, the Birmingham public safety reporter for AL.com and about whom I’ve written previously, kindly interrupted her one-week furlough to recall covering a protest over the fatal police shooting of an African American man, E.J. Bradford Jr., in Hoover in 2018. Demonstrators surrounded her car and called her a racist, she said, but she was able to drive away.

Protests are not the only events that pose risks. These days, so do certain political rallies for causes or candidates. Rallies for President Trump – the purveyor of “enemy of the people” sentiment – have been the most notorious, prompting media to bring security personnel with them. In mid-May, a reporter for a Long Island TV station recorded a video of non-stop harassment and insults directed at him by demonstrators at a rally to end COVID-19 shutdown measures.

Even if conduct does not go beyond verbal threats and harassment, it produces a climate in which worse can and sometimes does happen. U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reported 34 physical attacks on journalists in 2019. But even if that is rare, that is no consolation to a reporter on the receiving end of a vehement verbal assault.

An ethical news organization would not send a reporter to an assignment if he or she believed it was too dangerous. So why, in light of alarming incidents, would a journalist go willingly? That’s a stupid question, actually. Because the conviction of good news journalists to deliver firsthand information that the public needs to know runs very, very deep, and always will.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.