Updated June 2, 2020, 4:15pm EDT
I am sickened by the death of George Floyd while under arrest. As he pleaded with an officer “I can’t breathe,” I was reminded the 2014 deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in a St. Louis suburb, and the 2016 death of Philando Castile near Minneapolis – among many others.
All were killed by police. All of their deaths went viral on social media and then were broadcast by news organizations around the globe. All led to civil unrest.
And, as journalists in each of these communities sought to cover the news on behalf of the public, they found themselves injured or arrested for doing their jobs.
I am also sickened by that.
In cities large and small, and particularly but not exclusively in Minneapolis, dozens of journalists have been deliberately targeted by protestors and police. Before the weekend was even over, RTDNA, other press freedom associations and the US Press Freedom Tracker – of which we are a founding partner – were following at least five dozen incidents of violence and arrests targeting journalists.
A group of TV and print journalists was shot by police using crowd-control irritants, despite clearly identifying themselves and asking police where they should go;
At least two network TV news crews were fired upon with crowd-control irritants and projectiles, despite the fact they were clearly identifiable as journalists and were nowhere near protestors.
A freelance photographer says she was shot in the face at point-blank range by police using a crowd-control projectile, leaving her blind in one eye.
An award-winning veteran Twin Cities photojournalist was chased down by police and arrested, even after identifying himself and repeatedly asking the trooper “where should I go?”
It all seemed not only surreal, but at direct odds with statements made by Gov. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) on Friday, who apologized for that morning’s arrests of CNN reporter Omar Jimenez, producer Bill Kirkos and photojournalist Leonel Mendez. They were taken into custody by state police seemingly just for doing their jobs.
“The protection and security and safety of the journalists covering this is a top priority,” Walz said then. "The issue here is trust. The community that's down there that's terrorized by this, if they see a reporter being arrested, their assumption is it's because something's going to happen that they don't want to be seen. And so that is unacceptable."
Less than 36 hours later, though, as a curfew was imposed and law enforcement launched an aggressive effort to clear the streets of protestors, many more journalists were not just arrested, but attacked by forces of the state of Minnesota.
To his credit, Gov. Walz again apologized to journalists on Sunday.
“I take full responsibility. …In restoring public order and adhering to democratic principles and having a history as governor and welcoming openness, it is certainly not our intention, nor is it helpful to … have [arrests and assaults on journalists] happen,” Walz said. “It’s critically important that I am able to maintain or restore their trust.”
Tuesday, RTDNA joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and more than 100 local, state, national media & news organizations in sending a letter urging Minnesota officials to take immediate, concrete steps to end the series of police arrests and attacks on clearly identifiable members of the news media.
As a former journalist, a viewer and the leader of an organization focused on making it safe for journalists to seek and report the truth on behalf of the public, the arrests and law enforcement assaults on journalists make absolutely no sense.
Or, as Scott Libin, Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, a past RTDNA chairman put it:
“The news professionals who've been injured in the field, whether by ‘less lethal’ police weapons or by mob violence, take their place on a long list of people punished unjustly. Like those who own, work for or shop at the businesses damaged and destroyed over the past several days, they did nothing to deserve this. Our leaders promise us that the violent death of George Floyd will be thoroughly investigated, and that those responsible will be fully prosecuted. That and the restoration of public safety must be their priority. But I hope the unacceptable aggression toward those covering this critical story will also get the scrutiny it deserves.”
The arrests and assaults of journalists we have documented in other parts of the country this past weekend include:
A Pittsburgh photojournalist was attacked by protestors, his camera destroyed.
A Phoenix TV reporter was assaulted by a protestor live on the air.
A digital news agency journalist was deliberately hit with a police baton as he documented the arrest of a protestor in Philadelphia, and a Salt Lake City photojournalist was struck by what he said was a rubber bullet.
A Fox News crew was attacked by protestors outside the White House.
A reporter and cameraman from WAVE-TV in Louisville were struck with pepper balls while live on the air by a law enforcement officer who appeared to target the crew, though they were behind police barricades.
“There is simply no justification for the Louisville police to wantonly open fire, even with pepper balls, on any journalists under any circumstances,” said WAVE 3 News General Manager Ken Selvaggi.
Multiple news vehicles were vandalized. A reporter in Denver was gassed and a photojournalist shot with non-lethal rounds. A journalist on air in Phoenix was tackled by a bystander. And reports are still coming in of journalists on the ground covering protests being subject to harassment and violence.
Most, if not all, news operations covering the unrest in Minneapolis and elsewhere are taking steps to help ensure their journalists’ safety. Several networks are providing security guards to protect journalists.
Several news organizations, including TEGNA-owned KARE-TV in Minneapolis, is giving reporters and photojournalists permission to get out of any area where they perceive risk.
“It’s total chaos,” RTDNA Region 4 Director and KARE head of digital content Lauren Olson tells me. She says her station’s news managers have told crews, “If you feel unsafe, you do not have to seek permission. Just get out of there. Safety is number one.”
Olson says the station has “had to pull people back” from protest areas occasionally and has also made “a concerted effort to use user-generated content on the air, online and on social media.” Such use occurs only after posts are “strongly vetted” by her team.
RTDNA has published coverage guidelines on a host of subjects, including covering civil unrest and journalist arrests. They are on our website and have been distributed to the Minnesota Broadcasters Association and Minnesota Newspaper Association, which shared them with their members.
We have joined the National Press Club and 17 other journalism associations in calling on law enforcement to halt the use of violence against journalists covering protests.
This is not the first and it is not the last time you will find yourself in danger while doing your jobs. Your work covering civil unrest is important. And, like the right to protest peacefully, is constitutionally protected because it is your role to keep the public informed.
It is also important to note that the real story here is the death of a Black man at the hands of police and the underlying systemic social structures that led to the deaths of Floyd, Garner, Brown, Castile and so many others. The story isn’t, and shouldn’t be, about journalists. Reporters are simply a community's eyes and ears. But when journalists are attacked, stories go unheard. Events go unwitnessed. Officials go unaccountable.
As we continue through this summer and into the future, I urge you to stay safe, know your rights and report responsibly. We need you now more than ever and we are here to back you up so you don’t have to back down.
Know your rights, report responsibly and stay safe with these resources:
Know your rights
National Press Photographers Association guidance on rights and safety
Poynter guide to journalists' rights and safety in covering protests
RTDNA Know Your Rights video discussion and PDF guide
RTDNA's guidelines for covering civil unrest
Words Matter: The Language of Unrest
Ethical questions for journalists covering protests
RTDNA's guidelines for balancing privacy
RTDNA's guidelines for live coverage
Journalist's Toolbox resources for race and reporting
Committee to Protect Journalists safety guidance for civil matters and disturbances
Committee to Protect Journalists safety advisory for covering US protests
Al Tompkins' civil unrest safety and coverage guide
RTDNA's guidance for journalist arrests