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January 6 Riot Changes Conversation About Media Safety in US 

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks to reporters in a hallway on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 7,2021.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks to reporters in a hallway on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 7,2021.

News crews attacked, equipment set on fire, ‘Murder the media’ scrawled on a Capitol door. Journalists as well as lawmakers were targeted during the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

So far, federal prosecutors have charged about 10 individuals with assaulting the media or destroying equipment during the attack last January.

Last month, a Californian man who had refused to accept the presidential election result was sentenced to three years in prison for sending threatening messages to CNN news anchors Brian Stelter and Don Lemon and their families.

And at least 17 journalists were assaulted while covering the January 6 riot, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a coalition that collects data on press freedom aggressions.

“We know that members of the media along with Congress were targeted during that time,” Kirstin McCudden, the Tracker’s managing editor, told VOA. “ ‘Murder the Media’ was scrawled on (a) Capitol door. Members of the news media were attacked. Camera equipment from the Associated Press and foreign press outlets was gathered up and set on fire.”

The assaults represent trends building for years: a distrust of the media that can result in physical attacks as well as threats and harassment over social media, McCudden said.

In 2021, 142 journalists were assaulted while reporting in the United States, according to the Tracker. That’s not as bad as 2020, when it documented over 600 violations against the media as Americans became divided over pandemic regulations, protests over racial injustice and a heated presidential campaign.

Protesters and others started taking their anger out on the press in what McCudden said is “a shooting-the-messenger situation.”

Focus on safety

Journalism hasn’t been seen as a dangerous job in the U.S. but that has changed, according to Angela Greiling Keane, president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute.

“I think many of us, of my generation, went into journalism not thinking that it was a career where you might risk your safety,” said Greiling Keane, who is also a managing editor at the news website Politico. “But now journalists do face a lot of threats.”

A decline in local news coverage over the past two decades has exacerbated that loss of trust, Greiling Keane and other media experts say.

“Now there are a lot fewer outlets and therefore a lot fewer people who are out there reporting on local communities, and that means there’s less access to information in those communities, but it also means that individuals are probably less likely to know a journalist,” she said.

The changing environment is affecting how some news organizations, including Politico, approach assignments.

“What we and other news organizations weigh is do we want a reporter to cover a protest. Is that a situation that might escalate? This is the kind of conversation that editors have now that they didn’t have a few years ago,” she said.

Some news organizations are training journalists on how to work in conflict situations.

“Journalists have long undergone combat training if they are going to head over and cover the war in Iraq or if they are going to a conflict area overseas,” Greiling Keane said. “What’s different is that some journalists are getting that sort of training now to just report their regular jobs in the United States.”

Colin Pereira of HP Risk Management doesn’t compare the working environment in the U.S. to that of a war zone. But, he said, one problem is “domestic journalists don’t understand that there’s a threat.”

“The sort of street craft that journalists who cover conflict know, domestic journalists sometimes don’t know,” Pereira said. His firm provides hostile environment training to journalists at more than a dozen news organizations, including Britain’s ITV, which had a crew at the Capitol on January 6.

Newsroom editors and journalists need to do a risk assessment, Pereira said, including asking who the protesters are, whether they have been violent previously, and how police may react if a situation turns chaotic.

Legal threats

Covering events like the Capitol riot sometimes brings an unexpected additional threat to press freedom: having reporter records subpoenaed by government entities.

The First Amendment group Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) is advocating against the subpoena of Amy Harris, a freelance photojournalist who was in Washington on the day of the riots.

Harris was taking photos as part of a profile of Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, a leader of the Proud Boys extremist group.

A special committee of the U.S. House of Representatives now wants Harris’ phone records as part of its investigation into how the events of January 6 unfolded.

It has also subpoenaed Tarrio, who when he arrived in Washington was arrested on charges related to a separate rally and ordered to leave the capital two days before January 6.

When it comes to press freedom, it’s a dangerous request, said Grayson Clary, the Stanton Foundation national security free press fellow with the RCFP.

“This kind of investigation can have a chilling effect on journalists’ relationships with their sources. People are not going to want to talk to reporters if they fear that the person may get (conscripted) into helping out law enforcement down the line,” he said.

Such requests, while rare, can also put journalists at risk.

“Harris is someone who spent a long time earning the trust of the Proud Boys who have been willing to speak to her. It puts her in jeopardy if they suddenly see her as somebody who is on the other side,” Clary said.

President Joe Biden announced earlier this year an end to subpoenas for journalist records — a move welcomed by press freedom advocates.

But, said Katherine Jacobsen, the U.S. program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, “This change in policy still needs to be codified and we are hoping that the administration will support a federal shield law that will help codify protections of journalists’ material.”

Distrust in media has been growing for a long time, and former President Donald Trump “play(ed) into a lot of the anti-media sentiment,” Jacobsen said.

“Now that he is out of office it would be easy to say that things will get better just because of the change in tone from the White House, but a lot of the problems that were present during his administration and existed before continue to this day,” she said.

Jacobsen and others believe this includes a growth of misinformation online that encourages people to not trust traditional media institutions.