For the second time in just five months, the Society of Professional Journalists — which represents thousands of print, broadcast, and online news writers, opinion writers, photojournalists, editors, directors, and managers — has felt the need to pen an open letter asking law enforcement “to refrain from arresting journalists” while out covering breaking news and while out “making sure that Americans stay informed.”
The first such letter was put out in June during the unrest and mayhem that followed the tragic death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. Journalists identifying themselves as working were hit with tear gas, rubber bullets, and handcuffs “at an alarming rate,” the society stated. In some instances, reporters and photographers were clearly targeted.
As just a couple of examples, in Detroit, a newspaper reporter "was withdrawing from a confrontational protest … when police began chasing him and several demonstrators with pepper spray. He lifted up his media badge but still got hit fully in the face," USA Today reported. "Police slapped a phone from a hand of a (Detroit) Free Press photographer as she streamed the scene live." In Minneapolis, a photojournalist from WCCO-TV was struck by a rubber bullet, forced to the ground, and taken into custody, despite identifying himself as a member of the local media, his station said. Also in Minneapolis, a clearly credentialed and clearly working crew from CNN was arrested — while live on the air; the cable network's camera was left on the ground, still broadcasting.
"Please let us do our jobs," the Society of Professional Journalists’ June letter pleaded. "Treat us with the same respect and dignity that you would want. These are very volatile situations and we do our best to cover these stories under the same conditions (as law enforcement). ... We should not be put in any danger for doing our jobs."
In the chaos of violence and threats, the inability or unwillingness of police to differentiate between rioters and working news crews can be understandable. However, “It is troubling that … charges against (journalists) aren’t dropped as quickly as possible once the facts are sorted out,” the society argued in its second letter, which was released Friday.
The new letter, with its renewed plea, was sent to “law enforcement leaders” and was signed also by 24 other media-supporting groups, institutions, and organizations. It was prepared in anticipation of possible unrest related to Tuesday’s election, particularly the presidential vote.
“Our request is not politically motivated in any way,” however, the signers insisted. “For centuries under the First Amendment, law enforcement officers and journalists have both been able to do their respective jobs without fear of conflict or harassment. … You must persuade your colleagues, commanders and chiefs, and the mayors and governors who direct them, to halt the deliberate and devastating targeting of journalists in the field. We urge you to speak out against the arrests of journalists in the field.”
The pandemic, social justice demonstrations, and other unrest are making 2020 a particularly challenging era for journalists and law enforcement alike. One’s mission is to protect, the other’s is to inform. Media members are the public’s eyes and ears on the truth. The role is so important, it is constitutionally protected by the First Amendment.
“Reporters and photographers are there to record the truth, as peaceful or as violent as it may be. We are considered public servants in this role, not part of the protests but there to document it for the American people," a USA Today column stated in June. "When police target us as we stand off to the side or back from the action, reporting, recording, interviewing, that is not an accident.”
Nor is it acceptable, as open letter after open letter has pointed out.