“I’ve really never seen anything like this”: Reporters and news photographers describe being roughed up, arrested and shot with projectiles while covering demonstrations across the country.
Marc Tracy and
Barbara Davidson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, was covering a protest near the Grove shopping mall in Los Angeles on Saturday when a police officer ordered her to move.
She showed him her press credentials, she said in an interview. The officer said he did not care and again told her to leave the area.
After saying, “Sir, I am a journalist covering this,” Ms. Davidson turned to walk away, and the officer shoved her in the back, causing her to trip and hit her head against a fire hydrant, she said. She was not hurt, she added, because she was wearing a helmet she had bought while getting skateboarding equipment for a nephew.
Ms. Davidson, who sells her work through Redux Pictures, an agency that supplies photographs to The New York Times, Newsweek and other news organizations, was among the many journalists who had tense encounters with the police during the nationwide demonstrations against racism and police brutality that have taken place since George Floyd died in police custody on May 25 in Minneapolis.
Many reporters, photographers and press advocates said the treatment of journalists by police officers in recent days reflected an erosion of trust in the news media that has seeped into law enforcement under President Trump, who has deemed critical coverage of his administration “fake news” and has frequently labeled some news organizations and journalists with variants of the phrase “enemies of the people.”
“This story, in particular, it seems journalists are really being targeted by the police,” Ms. Davidson said. “That’s not something I have experienced before to this degree.”
It is common in autocratic countries for journalists to be arrested during demonstrations and riots, but rare in the United States, where freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment. In a sign that police officers would not follow the customary hands-off approach, Minnesota State Patrol officers arrested a CNN reporting team live on the air on Friday. That same day, a TV reporter in Louisville, Ky., was hit by a pepper ball by an officer who appeared to be aiming at her while she covered the protest on live television.
The arrest of the CNN team drew criticism from First Amendment advocates and an apology from Minnesota’s governor, but there have been dozens of other instances of journalists receiving rough treatment at the hands of police officers while covering the protests. In interviews, reporters said they had identified themselves as members of the press before police fired projectiles, drew their weapons or pepper-sprayed them.
“I’ve really never seen anything like this,” said Ellen Shearer, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a co-director of its National Security Journalism Initiative. “The president has called the news media ‘the enemy of the people.’ I think all of that has taken a toll.”
On Sunday, Mr. Trump blamed the “Lamestream Media” for the protests in a tweet, calling journalists “truly bad people with a sick agenda.”
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker and a writer for the Bellingcat website have each tracked about 100 instances of reporters being harassed or injured at the protests. Many of the reporters were effectively embedded with protesters and were likely not targeted because they were journalists. But in some instances, journalists were attacked after telling officers that they were on the job.
Tyler Blint-Welsh, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, said he was hit multiple times by police officers while covering a protest in New York on Sunday. “I was backing away as request, with my hands up,” Mr. Blint-Welsh, who is black, wrote on Twitter. “My NYPD-issued press badge was clearly visible.” (He declined to comment for this article.)
Hyoung Chang, a staff photographer for The Denver Post for 23 years, spent a few hours near the Colorado statehouse on Thursday, taking photos of demonstrators while wearing his press badge around his neck. In the evening, police officers tried to break up the crowd, and Mr. Chang heard what sounded like pepper balls being fired.
“Then one police officer started pointing at me and started to shoot,” he said.
Mr. Chang was hit with something in his chest, and then in his elbow. Part of his press card was blown off.
“I was staying in the same spot,” Mr. Chang said, emphasizing that he had been standing near the police for some time while holding cameras and equipment. “I think they know I’m a photographer.”
Carolyn Cole, a Los Angeles Times photographer, was covering a protest in Minneapolis on Saturday when the police moved to disperse a crowd, she said in a text message. A group of roughly 20 journalists standing apart from the protesters moved aside, but the police attacked them directly with pepper spray and rubber bullets, she said. A colleague, the reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske, shouted, “We’re reporters!”
Ms. Cole was wearing a press pass around her neck and a flak jacket with “TV” on it, she said. She was pepper-sprayed in her left ear and eye, and her cornea was damaged, she said.
“I’ve been covering conflict both nationally and internationally for many years, so I know the dangers involved in these situations, especially when you get between riot police and protesters,” Ms. Cole said, “but I wasn’t expecting them to attack us directly.”
Ed Ou, a video and photojournalist for NBC News who was next to Ms. Cole, was pepper-sprayed and hit with what he believes was a baton and a projectile fired by the police, he said in an interview.
Ali Velshi, an MSNBC reporter, said he was on his way back from a rally in Minneapolis that had become violent — during which he was hit in the left leg by a rubber bullet — when the police stopped him and his camera crew at an intersection. With hands raised, the reporter and his colleagues identified themselves as members of the news media, Mr. Velshi said. One police officer responded, “We don’t care,” Mr. Velshi said. A police officer fired a projectile at them, he said, but they were not injured.
Maggie Koerth, a senior science reporter for the website FiveThirtyEight, said she was covering a protest from a Minneapolis sidewalk on Saturday when a police officer drew a weapon on her and another working journalist.
“We said, ‘Press, press — we are press,’ and we held up our badges and put our hands up in the air,” she said in an interview. “They kept pointing the weapon at us while we were doing that, and one of them said, ‘Shut up.’”
Michael Anthony Adams, a correspondent at Vice News, said he identified himself as a member of the press when police arrived on Saturday night at the Minneapolis gas station where he was conducting interviews. In a video that Mr. Adams recorded of the incident, he can be heard repeatedly identifying himself as a reporter.
“I don’t care. Get down,” an officer responds.
Mr. Adams continued to take video as he lay on the ground, holding up his press badge with one hand. Then he was sprayed with what he believes was pepper spray.
The incident reminded Mr. Adams of being tackled by police officers while on assignment in Turkey this year. “That’s something that I would expect in Turkey,” he said of the country, where journalists have been jailed under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “But in America, I wouldn’t have expected this.”
Journalists have also been on the receiving end of harsh treatment from protesters. Near the White House on Saturday, demonstrators chased and threw objects at the Fox News reporter Leland Vittert and members of his crew. On Friday, protesters vandalized CNN headquarters in Atlanta.
Then there were the arrests. Andrea May Sahouri, a reporter at The Des Moines Register, was pepper-sprayed and handcuffed in zip ties after identifying herself as a journalist while covering a protest at a Des Moines mall on Sunday evening. She took livestream video from the back of a police vehicle Sunday evening. She was later released.
Christopher Mathias, a HuffPost reporter, was covering a protest on Saturday night in Brooklyn when an officer ran into him, saying, “Get out of my way!” Mr. Mathias said in an interview that he then insulted the officer, who turned around and hit Mr. Mathias in the abdomen with his baton.
Mr. Mathias was restrained and handcuffed. He said he was wearing a press pass issued by HuffPost and had repeatedly told the police he was a journalist. His case was processed at a precinct at around 1 a.m. Sunday, and he was issued a summons.
Mr. Mathias said he does not believe journalists deserve special treatment. But he added that it was unusual in his experience — he has covered protests in Baltimore, New York and Charlottesville, Va. — for the police to tangle with reporters and arrest them.
“I don’t think I was initially targeted,” he said. But, he added, “they definitely knew I was a journalist.”
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker counted five reporters arrested at protests on Sunday. Police departments in New York, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Denver did not reply to requests for comment.
“There is now a culture of impunity for attacks on the press,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, an organization at the Columbia University School of Journalism. “It’s essentially the abandonment of press freedom as an American value.”
Sarah Matthews, a staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that while the First Amendment does not exempt journalists from crowd-control orders, its emphasis on freedom of the press should offer some protection to those covering demonstrations.
“Journalists are there as representatives of the public, and if law enforcement is attacking them, they can’t do their job, and that hurts everybody,” she said.