Journalists Face Unprecedented Challenges Covering U.S. Civil Unrest
Photo via Elijah Schaffer
Journalists on the frontlines of civil unrest––from Black Lives Matter protests and riots to the attack on the U.S. Capitol––are experiencing a new wave of obstacles hindering their ability to report freely.
Jorge Ventura, a reporter for the Daily Caller, described his night in a jail cell after covering Breonna Taylor protests in Louisville, KY. Ventura originally shared a cell with five people, but that number quickly increased to nearly 40 men in one cell as more protesters were processed throughout the night.
“If you walk to go to the bathroom, you have to watch your step because you might be stepping on a body,” Ventura told Scriberr News.
He was released 12 hours later, and his charges were dropped.
Three hundred and fifty-five journalists were assaulted in 2020 and 15 journalists have already been assaulted in 2021 alone, according to U.S. press freedom tracker. One hundred twenty-three journalists were arrested in 2020 and three journalists have already been assaulted in 2021.
These attacks have come from all sides of protests, between both protesters and the police.
The Committee to Protect Journalists released a montage of some of the attacks journalists faced over the summer while covering the Black Lives Matter Protests.
Journalists covering civil unrest encounter so much more than what is solely seen in this footage.
Ventura believes these arrests and harassments journalists face on the frontlines of civil unrest is changing the news landscape. Local reporters don’t have the financial capacity to be attacked and pay for new equipment if theirs is damaged at a protest. The harassment journalists undergo while doing their jobs is altering the capacity of news agencies to provide reliable coverage.
Amanda Andrade-Rhoades, a freelance photojournalist on assignment for The Washington Post, described her experience covering the Capitol insurrection.
“Oh yes, I had three different people threaten to shoot me over the course of the day… At one point, a guy leaned over to me and said, ‘I’m coming back with a gun tomorrow and I’m coming for you.’”
The idea of being detained or attacked for upholding the first amendment is now a common reality that reporters – on the right and the left – face when documenting the first draft of history.
When asked about why protesters attack journalists, Blaze TV correspondent Elijah Schaffer told Scriber News that the political leanings of different media companies influence their presence at protests and riots.
“[If] you have the wrong politics you deserve the violence,” he said. “The only people that can report on stories are people that agree with them. And so if you disagree with them politically, you don’t have the right to be there.”
Ventura also confirmed this change in the media landscape.
“Everything changed as of 2016,” he said.
“You know, like I said, probably [in] like, 2014, if you were the New York Times, and you went to go cover, you know, like a republican rally, voters there… they’re not gonna give you a hard time, they’re not going to scream fake news at you.”
Both Ventura and Schaffer emphasized this search for confirmation in the narrative an individual supports. Reporting isn’t about facts anymore – every news company is contributing to a different narrative. When there’s opposition to that published narrative, it provokes those who are only searching for information that confirms their biases.
Both the Daily Caller and Blaze TV are conservative-leaning outlets, so Ventura and Schaffer generally experienced harassment while covering Black Lives Matter protests and riots last summer.
It’s not only the physical health journalists are worried about, but also their emotional and mental wellbeing.
Schaffer opened up about processing some of the violence he faced at these protests.
“I’m not doing too well mentally or emotionally in terms of stability, with just the amount of traumatic things that I’ve had to go through I think I’m suffering with a bit, maybe have some form of post-traumatic stress although I have not been diagnosed,” Schaffer said.
“You know I’ve been held up at gunpoint a couple times, I’ve been jumped, [I’ve had] concussions and you know, in the midst of all this, my mom died traumatically.”
Journalists are constantly adapting to these protests to protect themselves from being harassed. Ventura said his team stopped bringing their wallets and forms of identification out of fear that it would be stolen and people would track them.
Schaffer also described a similar need to go undercover. He explained that he’s noticed reporters who switched from bulky cameras to iPhones and dressed-up clothing to dark incognito apparel to ensure anonymity. He recommended that every journalist wear a staff vest or a bulletproof jacket and have access to medical kits to protect themselves.
Ron Haviv, a photographer covering the U.S. presidential inauguration for the Intercept, discussed the precautions he and his editors needed to go over before he went to Washington D.C. to report.
“We realized that we had the same conversations about what to do during the uprisings in Libya or Cairo or fighting in Baghdad or coup attempts here or there,” Haviv said.
“All of a sudden, you take a deep breath and realize you’re actually talking about covering the inauguration of the president in Washington, D.C.”
The media landscape in the U.S. is changing. Understanding how this will affect accurate and reliable news coverage is unknown yet, but journalists will continue to put their lives at risk to share their reporting.
“And I don’t think it’s safe to be a reporter anymore. If you have any sort of public recognition for your work, I think that you are in grave danger of being severely hurt and myself [is] as an example of that,” Schaffer said.