It happened first on Friday night. CNN reporter Omar Jimenez and his crew were arrested, live, on television, while reporting from Minneapolis.
Soon it occurred again, when local TV news reporters Kaitlin Rust and James Dobson, working for WAVE 3 in Louisville, Kentucky, were targeted and shot by a policeman wielding “pepper bullets” (balls that resemble paintballs but filled with pepper spray). Then more and more reports of journalists being attacked began piling up: Outside the White House, a mob attacked a Fox News television crew, and another group of protestors attacked and beat KDKA cameraman Ian Smith in Pittsburgh.
By Sunday, police attacks on reporters from MSNBC, CNN, WCCO in Minneapolis, the Los Angeles Times and other news media began flooding social media. Imagery of law enforcement assaulting journalists — even when reporters clearly identified themselves and complied fully — could be shocking, such as the attack on Vice News correspondent Michael Anthony Adams.
According to U.S. Press Tracker statistics, as of May 31, more than 100 journalists had been attacked, assaulted, or arrested in less than two days. That number is certain to rise, as civil unrest continues and journalists keep reporting from chaotic locales.
Every attack on a working journalist is an attempt to hide something shameful, unlawful, or embarrassing. For the police, and for some of the protestors, journalists are dangerous and must be confronted — for simply doing their jobs.
“Killing the messenger” isn’t a new idea. That journalists are especially vulnerable in emotionally volatile situations has a long history. During the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the police attacked and arrested journalists. And, as Margaret Sullivan recently pointed out in the Washington Post, the current president has spent years exploiting this vulnerability by insulting and defaming the press in ways guaranteed to rile up his supporters.
The president knows the press won’t fight back, because most professional reporters continue to adhere to some version of “objective” reporting. He shrewdly exploits this professional norm — with its components of neutrality, balance, and fairness — because he understands how it restrains journalists from defending themselves. To answer back — to return fire, as it were — is to become part of the story. When a reporter becomes the subject of any storyline, the perception of their professional neutrality may be compromised. In this sense, “objectivity” becomes so constricting as to become inhumane. “Inhumane” in its most basic sense — to deny the humanity of the journalist.
But journalists are human — not news-delivery automatons — and in moments when they are attacked, assaulted, and arrested, that simple fact requires recognition.
When journalists are beaten, shot with rubber bullets, pepper-sprayed, and arrested without cause, they suffer the same pain and indignity endured by the subjects of their reporting. This should make them appropriately empathetic — and even sympathetic. Yet — oddly — to maintain distance and a heroic stoicism in these circumstances remains the professional ideal, following in the journalistic tradition of all those courageous reporters killed or severely wounded in the service of bringing vital reportage to the American people.
When we talk of “the media” we lose sight of the individual people comprising the myriad entities jumbled together under that misleading moniker. It’s easy to attack something as diffuse and indefinite as “the media.” “The media” makes an efficient boogeyman, useful for dumping all sorts of frustration and anger.
And it’s not just Donald Trump; for the disenfranchised and victims of structural inequities such as racism and poverty, “the media” can also be a pervasive and on-going part of their problem. That’s why it’s so easy for everyone to see enmity in the distanced stance and neutrality of the independent observer during these polarized, emotional times. Everyone has to choose a side — but journalists won’t.
This problem is amplified by the inherent structure of journalism. It is invasive and antagonistic. It asks questions. It invades privacy. It plays both naive and skeptical at the same time. It often privileges conflict over accuracy, simply by assuming every story has at least “two sides.” Thus, by simply observing professional norms, journalists can be perceived — by law enforcement, and protestors alike — as provoking their own victimization.
This is, of course, only one small component of the larger tragedy we’re all watching. But as the son of a journalist, as a former journalist, and as teacher and mentor to journalists, I’m finding it particularly painful to watch reporters being arrested and assaulted for simply doing their job professionally. Too often we forget that it’s honorable work done in service to the citizenry, and without these sacrifices we would be far less well-informed.
And too often we forget that journalists are human, too.
Michael J. Socolow, an associate professor of journalism and communication, will become the director of the University of Maine’s McGillicuddy Humanities Center in July. This column was originally posted on the Living in a Media World blog.