“I was sitting there, choking. I couldn’t breathe.”
Davis Winborne, a freelance photojournalist, remembers the night he and several other journalists were forcefully loaded into a van by police while covering a protest in St. Louis last September.
“All of a sudden, there were no cops around us,” he said. “It was dark, and we were running with these protesters as they were breaking things. Then, two dozen cops came out from around a corner and started firing beanbag shots.”
This was his third night covering the protests that followed the acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley in the shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith. This night felt different he said; the police were more on edge, and the protesters had been growing more aggressive.
He had a feeling the night was not going to end well.
After the beanbag shots, Winborne said, a Jeep roared toward the group, which at this point was 70 percent protesters, 30 percent journalists. Fresh on their minds was the death of Heather D. Heyer, who was killed after a car plowed into a crowd of protesters a month earlier in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“We all jumped out of the way, and then the windows rolled down and it was full of cops,” he said.
The police ran toward the group, screaming for them to get down on the ground after firing pepper spray in the air. Winborne said all the protesters, who for the most part were shirtless and wearing black masks, ran away, but the journalists, wearing khakis and carrying camera bags, froze and threw their hands in the air.
“We assumed it was obvious we were journalists,” he said. “They (police) would go after the rioters, not let them run away and leave us alone.”
Instead, Winborne said, an officer grabbed him and threw him against a wall where there were three other journalists forced into the same position.
“I was wearing a helmet and a gas mask, and the police tried to rip it off, but the strap was choking me,” he said. “Another journalist saw what was happening and told the cops I couldn’t breathe. But all he said was, ‘Shut the f— up,’ and then walked away.”
With zip-tied hands, Winborne was able to lean back and shimmy his helmet off. A photojournalist for less than a year, he said he expected something like this to happen to him at some point.
“I see how police treat journalists,” he said. “A similar thing happened, in D.C., to a friend, but I got so caught up following the protesters, I did not pay attention. And then it happened to me.”
Not isolated incidents
“These attacks happen surprisingly often,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. “Unfortunately, many of us (journalists) at one point or another are going to have something like that happen.”
Since January 2017, 46 journalists have been physically attacked or had equipment damaged in targeted incidents or while working in the United States, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the website launched by the Freedom of the Press Foundation in August.
Peter Sterne, a senior reporter at the foundation and managing editor of the Press Freedom Tracker, said the website was launched to help the public better understand the risks journalists in the United States face every day.
“They are not being imprisoned for long periods of time or killed, but they are facing physical attacks and arrests,” Sterne said.
David Minsky, a freelance journalist who was beaten by masked protesters in August while covering protests in Berkeley, California, said being a journalist can be dangerous, especially if you are covering a protest.
“Just because you have a camera and notepad and a jacket that says press, that doesn’t mean you are safe,” he said.
“Demonstrators are suspect of anyone they do not know who is photographing or recording them,” he said. “Between police interfering and people telling journalists not to record them, it has become difficult for journalists to do their job, particularly visual journalists.”
These days, physical attacks against journalists seem to be coming more from citizens than police, something he attributes to people not understanding the First Amendment.
“They do not understand they do not have a right to privacy in a public place,” Osterreicher said. “You cannot order someone to stop recording you. You cannot demand that. You can ask anything, but there is no such thing as privacy when in public.”
Part of being a journalist sometimes means going places the public cannot, including war zones, protests and natural disasters. Covering these events can bring their own challenges, such as potential violence and threats to personal safety, but it also allows information to be shared with the public, Osterreicher said.
“This is how the public remains informed,” he said. “That is why there are conflict photographers. If it gets to the point that journalists only worry about their safety, the news coming to the public diminishes.”
Minsky said when he arrived around 1:30 p.m. to Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, it was already a chaotic scene. He was expecting to cover a white nationalist protest, but it had been cancelled and instead turned into an anti-fascist demonstration.
With two iPhones, a reporter’s notebook and a DSLR camera around his neck, Minsky began taking photos and livestreaming what he was seeing. Shortly after, he said, he was approached by a protester with a scarf over his face.
“He tried to swat the iPhone out of my hand,” Minsky said. “Then he started pushing me, and I did not want it to escalate, so I started trying to get away from the group. Someone tried to trip me, and I fell. He followed me. Then about four to six people joined him, and they started whaling on me — punching me, kicking me in the face and torso.”
Minsky said all he could do was try to protect his camera and his phones. At one point, the protesters stopped attacking him. That’s when, he said, a woman, wearing a sports bra and cutoff jeans, came up to him, and the beating continued. Then another woman, clad in black, hit him with a metal pipe. Minsky said he tried to keep backing away and was worried someone might stab him.
“I started yelling for help, and eventually people scattered,” he said. “I was pulled up by some unknown people and Oakland PD.”
A U.S. Navy veteran, Minsky has been working as a journalist for 12 years. He said he has covered many protests like this and is angry about how everything unfolded that day.
“I did not do anything to provoke these guys,” he said. “I might have gotten too close, but I never said anything that could have provoked them.”
“In the U.S., the most dangerous place to be a journalist is at a protest,” Sterne said.
A protest on campus
Chase Karacostas, a reporter for The Daily Texan, the newspaper at the University of Texas, Austin, said he has covered a half-dozen protests since the fall of 2016, but had never been physically attacked. That changed Sept. 1, when he was covering an immigration protest on campus.
Karacostas said he arrived at the protest and began interviewing people with his iPhone and sharing content on social media. Twenty minutes into his reporting, while he was in the middle of an interview, he said, a protester came up to him and pushed his phone into his face.
“I was really confused,” Karacostas said. “At first I thought it was just a bruise, then I saw the blood and thought it was just a cut. Then the people around me looked a little concerned.”
When the phone was pushed into his face, it left a 1-inch cut near his eyebrow. Karacostas had to get six stitches for the injury.
“One of the things I was really frustrated about was that someone else could permanently leave a mark on my face,” he said. “It disrupted my life. I did not like having to slow down reporting because of this, but you do have to deal with this stuff. You are still a human being.”
“As reporters we tend to brush off attacks because we don’t want to be the story or see ourselves as the story,” Shapiro said.
A reporter and her camera
Maria Leal, a reporter at KAPP-KVEW outside Yakima, Washington, never wanted to become the story. But on Oct. 30, while setting up her camera to interview a local candidate for city council, she and another reporter were chased and threatened by a man with a knife.
“We noticed a guy yelling about a block away,” Leal said. “He started getting closer. We were shooting straight, and he was coming toward our left side, so we ignored it. He kept coming closer, and then he got really close. He asked us what we were doing and then started yelling at us, telling us to ‘Get the “F” out of here.’”
When the candidate showed up, the man yelling at them walked away. Leal said she and the other reporter set up the mic and began the interview. After they began asking questions, the man came back and this time seemed more aggressive, Leal said, at one point throwing a beer bottle.
“He said he was going to kill us. He was yelling louder and louder, and then he put his hand inside his pocket,” Leal said. “I did not know what to expect. He pulls out the knife and started running toward us. We just ran, left the equipment. We were not sure what he was capable of.”
The man eventually stopped chasing them and barricaded himself in a nearby house, resulting in a standoff with police.
Leal called her manager, who, she said, was shocked by what he heard and asked if she wanted to stay to cover the story unfolding or go home. She decided to stay.
“I think if I went home I would have been thinking about it and wondering what happened,” she said. “I wanted to make sure they got him. I wanted to know why he did this.”
After the story
Continuing to cover a story after being attacked is exactly what veteran journalist Randy Turner did. He worked as a newspaper reporter for 22 years, before becoming a teacher and starting the website, The Turner Report, an online publication focusing on local news in the Joplin, Missouri, area.
On Sept. 11, 2017, as Turner was preparing his annual post reflecting on the 9/11 attacks, he heard a knock on his door. When he answered the door, he said, the man outside asked if he was Randy Turner. When Turner told him he was, the man punched him in the face, knocking him to the ground.
“I do not remember feeling any pain in my face where I was hit,” Turner said. “But the pain in my leg was immediate.”
When he could finally pull himself up, Turner said, he went to Facebook to look up the profile of the person he thought was his assailant. Two to three days before the attack, Turner said, he published a story about a former supervisor at a local fast food restaurant that focused on allegations of sexual misconduct and DUI charges.
“I learned a valuable lesson: Look through a peephole,” Turner said.
He said being on his own, without a major newsroom behind him, may have made him more of a target.
“If you are a reporter at a newspaper, you are not out there on your own,” he said. “If someone is going to go to your workplace, they are going to find other people that would get in their way of doing something like this.”
Victims of attacks against journalists tend to be freelancers, Sterne said.
“I think people, including the police and protesters, are less likely to view them as real journalists and are more likely to rough them up,” Sterne said.
Turner said he has been threatened many times throughout his 20-plus year career, where he primarily produced investigative stories. But had never been physically attacked. The internet and online publishing bring a different dynamic to how users respond to news stories, he said.
“I can post something on my blog or on Facebook, and people go ballistic,” he said.
As verbal attacks against journalists continue to mount, experts expect physical attacks to rise as well.
“The general political climate, stirred up by ‘fake news,’ and this undermining of a free and independent press is all coming together in another perfect storm,” Osterreicher said.
Lynn Walsh is a project manager at Trusting News Project and a past president of the Society of Professional Journalists.