Black Lives Matter, police brutality and anti-racism protests have swept the nation, sparked by the death of George Floyd by police officers in May.
In addition to covering what are now routine COVID-19 stories, journalists at every level are tasked with covering one of the largest movements in United States history.
“I’ve been talking with other journalists who covered Occupy ICE and the November 10 rallies right after Donald Trump’s election,” said Cory Elia, a PSU student and managing editor for Village Portland. “This is probably the biggest movement they have ever seen.”
As the protests grew and tensions rose, so did the use of tear gas, physical force and rubber bullets by police. Many journalists took precautions hoping to continue their work safely.
“One of our professors, Lori Shontz, covered a lot of protests early in her career, so right when the first protest began in Eugene, she gave the newsroom a free lesson.” said Francis O’Leary, editor in chief of the University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald. “We had some tips early on about how to sort of interact with protesters and police.”
O’Leary also ensured all reporters had press passes, and led backup trainings for new reporters informing them to “identify yourself early and often, because it may not stop you from being arrested or tear gassed, but if you can document it, it will give you a legal out if you get arrested.”
Even with preparation, covering these events involved risks and safety concerns for the journalists on the front lines.
“For some reason, it has been made clear to many police departments across the nation that the press and the media are also the enemies of the officers,” Elia said. “I don’t feel that that’s fair because many of us that are out there, we’re not trying to cause harm. We’re not trying to cause damage. We’re observing and we’re reporting.”
Incidents showing journalists being caught in unsafe situations have appeared across the country. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has reported over 480 press freedom incidents as of July 1. These incidents include arrests, tear gas usage and equipment damages from both police and protesters.
While covering the Portland protests, Elia was arrested on June 30 and spent over ten hours in jail.
“I just got manhandled by police after filming this one even while identifying myself as a journalist and showing my press pass,” Elia wrote on June 2 in a tweet. “They slammed me into a wall as I was choking on tear gas.”
Following the arrest, Elia and Lesly McLam, an independent journalist who was also arrested on June 30, filed a lawsuit against the city of Portland, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and state police for violations of First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The lawsuit also lists additional instances of violence Elia faced while covering the protests. These include multiple uses of tear gas and physical violence resulting in bruises, respiratory pain and two closed head injuries.
“Here locally there are a couple of lawsuits pushing back against the treatment of the journalists that have been on the ground, especially the disregard for the press pass,” Elia said. “If those don’t go anywhere, it pretty much, I feel, represents the obliteration of the Fourth Estate.”
The treatment of journalists has raised concerns about what it means for the future of the career.
“It’s very troubling because the moment they start going after the journalists, that’s the moment we don’t really know what’s going on,” Elia said.
The worries are especially high for student journalists, many of whom are working towards a future career in the field.
“Student newspapers are a place where students are preparing to become writers at other publications,” O’Leary said. “It’s important that we don’t just act as stenographers for those in power, and that we hear out these groups that are usually ignored. Hopefully, people from the Daily Emerald are going to go out and get these bigger jobs and bring this sort of core ethos.”
With recent events in mind, some hope that positive changes will come out of the current climate.
“I think there are going to be major guidelines put in place,” Elia said. “I also think there is probably going to be legislation put in place to try and protect journalists a little bit better.”
“For a long time, the view from nowhere that we learned is to kind of take the side of the powerful, this idea that if it got declared a riot then they must be doing something bad,” O’Leary said. “What I hope is that the press will allow itself more freedom to scrutinize those sorts of orders and to not automatically take the side of the powerful.”
“I really believe in the press. I believe in journalism and its ability to tell the stories of those who have been ignored, so I hope that the press grows from this experience.”