Student journalists covering protests face unprecedented violence from police

Daily Lobo photographer Liam DeBonis works in the field during protests in Albuquerque, New Mexico / Photo by Sharon Chischilly

Student journalists covering nationwide demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism are being met with unprecedented pushback from law enforcement.

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there have been more than 440 reported aggressions against the press — including high school and college journalists — covering public protests in at least 140 cities across the country following the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25. Reporters and photographers have been detained, tear gassed, pepper sprayed and struck by less lethal projectiles during the national Black Lives Matter protests. On some occasions, they have been attacked by protestors.

“We’re seeing law enforcement go after the press on a scale we’ve not witnessed in this country before,” said SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand. “It is essential that such encounters be documented and all parties be held accountable.”

Andrew Ringle, executive editor of Virginia Commonwealth University’s student newspaper, The Commonwealth Times, was covering an attempt by protestors to topple the statue of Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart on June 21 in Richmond, Virginia. Law enforcement moved to disperse protesters around 10 p.m. after the city declared it an unlawful gathering.

Even while shouting “I’m press!” at police descending on demonstrators, Ringle was pepper sprayed on video. Ringle wrote on Twitter he showed his press badge to an officer shortly after but was still thrown to the ground. 

The Commonwealth Times executive editor Andrew Ringle (left) and managing editor Hannah Eason stand in front of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia / Photo by Iman Mekonen

Three days before this incident, Interim Chief Jody Blackwell said Richmond Police would soon regain control of the city after three weeks of dispersing protests after curfew.

“We as a community have to step up and take our city back because too many sit in silence and fear. I’m afraid,” he said. “… We’re going to get the city back.”

Julia Lerner, a University of Maryland student journalist, said she was chased by officers and maced three times while covering protests in Columbus, Ohio.

Lerner tweeted around 1 a.m. on May 30 she was confronted by police following protests.

“I’m a journalist, I’m just trying to go to my car,” Lerner said to the officer, according to the press freedom tracker.

Lerner tweeted that night that one officer responded by saying it was “too fucking late” to leave.

Make sure you always present as a reporter, not a protestor

Three journalists from Ohio State University’s student newspaper, The Lantern, were pepper sprayed by Columbus Police on May 31 after repeatedly identifying themselves as media. 

Columbus’ chief legal counsel Zach Klein later announced there would be “concrete calls for action” to address how Columbus police officers handled that weekend’s protests, the Lantern reported.

Law enforcement fired foam-tipped rounds at staff of the Daily Lobo, the University of New Mexico’s student newspaper, during demonstrations on May 31. 

All reporters had visible press credentials — photographer Liam DeBonis even wore a bicycle helmet with an enlarged “PRESS” sticker — but that didn’t deter police.

The police lie … that’s why I think it’s important to be on the scene

Police nationwide have defended tactics used to disperse protestors. Albuquerque Police Department Chief Mike Geier said what officers were dealing with that night should have not been considered a protest.

“I think it’s important to remember and understand that we do prepare for all gatherings and all protests the same way. Our officers last night were deployed because we were no longer dealing with a protest,” Geier said.

Know your rights 

“We’ve put together a solid list of tips for student journalists covering protests and I encourage folks to look those over,” Hiestand said. “If I was to pick out my top suggestions, the first would be to make sure you always present as a reporter, not a protestor. Remember your role as an observer and dress and act accordingly. Second, if it looks like a confrontation is imminent, use your camera to document the encounter.”

The SPLC’s guide to covering protests includes a number of tips that can go a long a way in emergency situations:

  • Make an emergency plan before you go into the field including which hospital is closest, who you’d call if arrested and who they can call for legal or other help.
  • Turn off your phone’s fingerprint scanner and facial recognition
  • Always work with a “buddy”
  • Wear conspicuous press credentials
  • If you are stopped by law enforcement, ask immediately if you are under arrest
  • Immediately ask for legal representation if you are arrested 
  • If you are detained and released, immediately contact the SPLC 

Journalists do have legal protections while covering protests. 

Most curfew orders included an exemption for news media, and journalists (just like everyone else) have every right to record what’s happening in public spaces. 

But as recent protests have shown, journalists’ First Amendment rights can be the last thing on law enforcement’s mind.

“The protections that we always thought we had as journalists don’t seem to apply when police are deciding to disperse a crowd,” Ringle said.

None of us are getting paid to go out and do some of the most intense reporting we’ve ever done

Daily Lobo senior reporter Bella Davis said when writing stories after reporting in the field, journalists should call out inaccuracies in police reports for incidents they’ve witnessed and documented.

“When the police are being violent, and they’re in the wrong, we’re not obligated as journalists to present both sides as valid,” Davis said. “The police lie … that’s why I think it’s important to be on the scene.”

All interactions with law enforcement should be recorded so misleading reports can be fact-checked, Ringle said.

“We’ve seen firsthand that police reports released after the days that we’re out reporting often tell us very different stories than the ones we do with our phones and our recorders,” Ringle said. 

The Daily Lobo is also reporting on the New Mexico Legislature’s special session, and is highlighting inactions by lawmakers to address root problems that lead to systemic racism. Davis said some GOP lawmakers argued against a police body camera bill on the grounds it would lead to an increase in lawsuits. 

Giving readers accurate on-the-ground protest coverage while also guiding them through complicated government procedures has resonated well with the community, Davis said.

“Most people are not going to be watching the [Legislature] livestream, and it’s important that they know what these lawmakers are saying,” Davis said. “ … I think our coverage is unique in the way that we’re choosing to tell these stories. It’s not how a lot of other local news outlets have chosen to go about it.”

The Commonwealth Times reporters, like many student journalists, don’t get paid for this dangerous work.

“None of us are getting paid to go out and do some of the most intense reporting we’ve ever done for the CT,” Ringle said. “It’s a lot to ask of students, especially to take their summer hours and go out and do this kind of work.” 

Student newsrooms have taken a significant financial hit because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and things are only expected to get worse as budget cuts, decreased advertising revenue and unpredictable enrollment await in the fall.

Ringle said the CT has raised funds during protest coverage with a donation link on the newspaper’s home page. The Daily Lobo also has a donation link on its home page.

Ringle encouraged other student media outlets to do the same, as communities are looking to support in-depth local coverage of demonstrations and police brutality.

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