The State of Protest Journalism

Former President Donald Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric has negatively contorted the image of journalism at large and caused news consumers to either shun news outlets the president openly discredits or shun the ones he openly supports — a lose-lose scenario for all news outlets. For instance, a CNN reporter was verbally harassed while reporting on an anti-lockdown protest in mid-May. Two weeks later, a Fox reporter was reporting on a protest outside of the White House when he and his crew were physically forced out and heckled by protesters.

This mixture of anti-press rhetoric that extends from both sides of the political spectrum has manifested itself in the violence and obstructions journalists are currently enduring. In addition to the harassment journalists have endured from police since late May, widespread media distrust has caused journalists to be an unwelcome presence in any given protest.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, led by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists, documents reports of press freedom violations. The tracker reported that from May 28, there were more reports of press freedom violations than there have been in the last three years combined.

At this pivotal point in time for journalism, what is being done to help journalists complete their jobs unhindered? Perhaps more importantly, are the solutions even viable?

Police and the Double-Edged Sword of Current Press Freedom Legislation

In July, California State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, introduced Senate Bill 629 (the Press Freedom Act) in response to journalists who had been arrested and injured in this year’s civil unrest. The bill would make it a misdemeanor for law enforcement officers to obstruct, detain, assault or otherwise prevent the press from reporting on demonstrations.

The bill would also allow the press to enter or pass police lines, command posts and rolling closures at demonstrations. Press who are in closed areas would be exempt from “being cited for the failure to disperse, a violation of a curfew, or a violation of other, specified law.”

The bill comes at a time when a number of the press freedom violations reported to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker are related to detainments, arrests or charges for curfew violations, failure to disperse and obstructing police.

On Sept. 12, KPCC Reporter Josie Huang was detained and arrested for allegedly interfering with the arrest of a protester,an action that would not be tolerated under McGuire’s new bill. In a tweet, Huang likened the incident to “being tossed around in the ocean and then slammed into a rock.” The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department charged Huang with obstructing a police officer, but the county district attorney’s office determined that she would not face criminal charges. Prosecutors said that it did not appear that Huang was intentionally trying to interfere with the arrest and that she was given “little if any time,” to comply.

Though the bill would protect journalists during demonstrations and protests, it has potential flaws. Poynter’s Al Tompkins said that legislators' hearts are in the right place, but the devil is in the details.

“I want journalists to be able to go out after curfew and witness what’s going on. What I’m worried about is how we reach the definition of who we grant that permission to,” Tompkins said. “What is the reasonable proof that you’re going to have to have that you are in fact a serious journalist?”

Under the bill, someone who falls under its protections would be “a person who appears to be engaged in gathering, receiving, or processing information, who produces a business card, press badge, other similar credential, or who is carrying professional broadcasting or recording equipment.”

Tompkins said that though it is an unsatisfactory answer to most people, one solution to journalists' current predicament with law enforcement starts with police being able to acknowledge the importance of journalism. He explained it must be stressed to police that journalists are not the enemy.

Just as, if not more, important than the relationship between journalists and law enforcement, is how journalists navigate civil unrest during a time when they are not generally trusted by the public.

A protester speaks to a crowd during the 2017 inauguration day protests. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Pequeño IV).
A protester speaks to a crowd during the 2017 inauguration day protests. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Pequeño IV).
The General Public and Rebuilding Trust From Within

Whether it takes the form of aggression, contempt or defensive behavior, the public does not have the best relationship with the press during demonstrations or in high-conflict areas. “I hear from a lot of journalists that their larger concern at this moment is not from police but instead from protesters themselves,” Tompkins said. He added that he has heard stories from reporters of protesters aiming lasers at cameras, obstructing views with umbrellas and threatening reporters to not record protests or instances of violence and destruction.

One concern from protesters in June was the idea that demonstration photos or videos published by journalists could be used as a means for law enforcement to identify a given individual.

Mark Guarino, a freelancer for The Washington Post, said that if journalists are to face fewer hurdles when reporting on protests, solutions must be geared toward fixing the public’s perception of the press. Specifically, journalists must find a way to battle demonization of the press and also counter what he called a “flood” of advocacy media groups.

According to Guarino, the presence of advocacy media groups at demonstrations that do not follow traditional press protocols and actively seek particular images for their organizational goals are muddying the waters. “The advocacy groups depend on the protest,” Guarino said. “So it could be a union organization like the Chicago Teachers Union or BLM or Refuse Fascism. In Chicago, there are dozens of anti-fascism and pro-police reform groups...” Guarino said that for law enforcement, it becomes difficult to determine who and what a journalist truly is with so many different groups involved.

Speaking on the president’s effect on press-consumer relations, Guarino said that, “There’s much more antagonism towards the journalist today than there’s ever been in my career… it doesn’t just come from the right, it definitely comes from the left as well.”

Guarino stressed that to address the matters of press demonization and advocacy media groups, members of the press must be knowledgeable about what their role is. Otherwise, they risk the public not understanding the value and purpose of their work.

“Once journalists stop becoming abstract... the mistrust kinda goes away.”
— Mark Guarino

“I think there is a recent trend of journalists who are clearly advocating for one side of things and pretending that they’re not or pretending that their life experience matters about something when it doesn’t,” Guarino said.

Guarino would also like to see greater media literacy among the public that breaks down partisan news viewing and aids people in understanding the work and standards of most journalists. “Once journalists stop becoming abstract, something to hate and [instead] become something very real for [people] to interact with, the mistrust kinda goes away immediately,” Guarino said.

Christina Bellantoni, the director of the Annenberg Media Center at USC, echoed Guarino’s sentiment that the press must do more to rebuild trust. She also acknowledged that the press does not at times hold up their end of the bargain.

To truly fulfill their duty, Bellantoni said that objective and unbiased reporting from the press is not the key to increasing their trustworthiness.

“It’s about being transparent. You should be able to report on something, report on it fairly and say, ‘Yes I still vote or yes I still feel this way but you’re not going to be able to tell that in my work because I have attacked the facts with vigor,’” Bellantoni said. “That is what our profession has to do to survive.”

“You can’t have it both ways.”
— Christina Bellantoni

Bellantoni said news consumers need to be allowed to demand higher standards of media, which could come in the form of improved reporting and greater transparency with those news consumers. However, she also said responsibility rests on the consumers' shoulders.

Bellantoni once served as the political editor at PBS Newshour. She said that although the show was highly trusted, it had some of the lowest ratings of any television network. “They were bored by it because it’s an hour long and it’s more substantive,” Bellantoni said. “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain [that] the media is sensational and then click on the sensational stuff all the time, you have to be a discerning consumer too.”

Bellantoni said that some of the solutions for journalists moving forward may come from the government, but that the remedies for press and news consumer relationships must start with the press earning trust and establishing clear goals, all while conducting themselves to high standards of work.

“It’s kind of on all of us to step up and do better to earn that trust back,” she said.

Demonstrators march during the 2018 protests against the separation of migrant families. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Pequeño IV).
Demonstrators march during the 2018 protests against the separation of migrant families. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Pequeño IV).
The Way It Is

Despite the obstacles that journalists are facing while reporting on civil unrest, it is entirely reasonable to understand protest journalism as something that carries an inherent risk of danger.

News consumers who have not given up on journalism can rest easy knowing that journalists want a more copacetic reporting experience not just for their own safety, but for the best interest of people everywhere.

Tompkins said: “The best defense for police and the best defense for protesters is for journalists to be able to do their job unfettered.”