The Media Today

Journalists are preparing for an intense summer covering politics

July 2, 2024
Arrests of journalists went up significantly in 2020, according to independent media watchdogs. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

On an unusually hot Monday in April, around a dozen journalists gathered in the slightly lopsided brick building that houses the Bronx Documentary Center for a workshop on reporting safely during the 2024 election.

The journalists, a mix of print, photo, and multimedia reporters, were seated at white foldout tables arranged in an incomplete square around the front of the room. On the walls around them was an exhibition of black-and-white photographs by the late Anja Niedringhaus, the AP photojournalist who was killed while reporting in eastern Afghanistan in 2014. In front of them stood Jeff Belzil, a former member of the Canadian military, dressed in a thin black hoodie with the sleeves rolled up, his arms covered in tattoos.

“Who here has witnessed or experienced violence while covering protests?” Belzil asked.

Most of the attendees raised their hands. Belzil didn’t seem surprised. 

Political reporting is not traditionally thought of as risky work, but in recent years, it’s become quite dangerous. Reporters have been the targets of attacks by protesters and law enforcement alike, at countless demonstrations. Nearly two dozen journalists were assaulted during the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, according to the Freedom of the Press Foundation; many of them had their equipment destroyed.

The workshop in the Bronx is part of a multistate initiative put on by the International Women’s Media Foundation, to help reporters better prepare for what’s expected to come this summer and fall, as the 2024 campaign season heats up. The IWMF has traditionally done these kinds of trainings overseas, in war-zone environments like the Middle East, but the group says there’s been growing demand to bring the safety skills and tactics to a domestic audience. 

“The US has become increasingly hostile,” said Belzil, who is IWMF’s director of security. “We’ve really seen a shift in the way journalists are treated.” The police, he added, have become particularly aggressive toward journalists. “They just don’t care anymore.” (In the days after the Bronx training, student journalists at Columbia were threatened with arrest for trying to cover the NYPD’s efforts to remove protesters from a university building.)

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Belzil pulled up a presentation on his laptop and projected it on the large white screen behind him. It was on strategies for covering “civil unrest”—specifically, the threat of police intimidation, force, and unlawful arrest. One slide offered sartorial tips: don’t wear all black, to avoid the risk of being identified as a member of antifa. Another slide showed the signs that the police are preparing to charge, like when officers have their gas masks on, visors down, and shields raised. The best way to avoid getting caught up in a sweep, Belzil said, was to stay mindful of where you are in the street: if you’re caught in an intersection, your chances of getting arrested are much higher. 

Not all the dangers discussed at the workshop were physical. Two lawyers from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a legal group that provides pro bono services to journalists, discussed the uptick in journalist arrests in 2020, during the height of pandemic and police reform protests, when there were four times as many journalists arrested as the year before. They shared a legal guide for covering elections and polling places, and described in detail what police can and can’t ask journalists to do—for one, they need a warrant to demand access to a journalist’s materials, like their phones or notebooks. One of the lawyers described the police as operating on “vampire rules”––meaning you have to invite them in.

Later, Yemile Bucay, a journalism security adviser and reporter, held a session on digital safety. She asked each of the attendees to take out their phones and attempt to dox themselves—to see just how much information about them is publicly available.

Bucay warned that there’s recently been a proliferation of online data broker sites—places where personal data, including addresses, phone numbers, and even the names of relatives, can be easily discovered. “It doesn’t cost that much money to find where you live, who your relatives are, what your personal phone number is and then post it to Instagram or Twitter and mount a harassment campaign,” she said. 

To protect from this, Bucay advised that reporters create a “layer of security” around themselves, such as using a separate work phone number, and even distinct work social media accounts with no personal posts. She pointed to sites like Venmo and dating apps as two places where reporters may overlook just how much personal information is publicly available, and encouraged the audience to comb through their old social media posts and delete anything that might constitute oversharing or that didn’t align with their work.

One of the reporters at the session, Garnet Henderson, who covers reproductive rights for Rewire News Group, said she recently had a situation where a source harassed her over email and phone for several months because of something they’d disliked in a story. “Organizationally we could’ve been a lot better prepared for that,” Henderson said. “I think it’s something where we’d do well to develop a plan around things like that.” 

During a break late in the day, a few of the reporters wandered outside into the humid air and talked about what they’d been learning. Monica Montero, a freelance reporter and visual journalist who often covers climate protests, said she was intrigued by some of the specific tactics about making contingency plans during potentially risky events, like how to map out exit routes for the area you’ll be covering and using tracking apps so an editor always knows your location. “I’ve been in situations where I was like, ‘Wow, this can get really ugly,’” Montero said. “I had never really received any training, and when I learned these trainings existed, I said, ‘I have to go’—because I want to keep reporting.”

Other notable stories:

  • Hunter Biden, the president’s son, sued Fox News and its parent company in New York, claiming that a 2022 miniseries—in which the streaming platform Fox Nation put him on “mock trial” on imagined charges—unjustly enriched the network, inflicted emotional distress, and involved the sharing of intimate images in violation of state “revenge porn” laws; Fox called the suit “politically motivated” and noted that it took the series down after Hunter complained about it earlier this year, though the latter’s lawyers claim that parts of the series are still available online. In other legal news, a judge ruled against Devin Nunes, the Republican congressman turned CEO of Trump’s media company, in a long-running defamation case related to the 2016 election; Raw Story has the details.
  • In her final story for Vanity Fair (before joining New York magazine), Charlotte Klein reports on tensions and significant layoffs at the Wall Street Journal, where Emma Tucker, the editor in chief, has overhauled the paper and alienated many of its staff in the process. The Journal under Tucker’s leadership “is, well, better—a more compelling product that a wider swath of people might pick up and read,” Klein writes. “Staff were generally on board, until she started firing a bunch of their colleagues, with the Washington DC bureau hit especially hard.” One anonymous staffer told Klein that Tucker “may be improving the journalism, while seriously hurting the journalists.”
  • Terence Samuel is out as editor in chief of USA Today after a year in charge, effective immediately. Samuel told the New York Times’ Katie Robertson that his departure was “sudden” but that he couldn’t talk about it further. “I wished that this had lasted a lot longer because it was a great year,” he added. “We did great things in that newsroom, and I wish them the very best.” USA Today, which is owned by Gannett, didn’t give a reason for Samuel’s departure either. Caren Bohan, the paper’s executive editor for politics, will succeed Samuel on an interim basis while a replacement is found.
  • And Steve Bannon reported to prison yesterday to begin serving a four-month sentence for bucking a subpoena from the congressional committee that investigated the insurrection. Before surrendering, Bannon held a news conference alongside Marjorie Taylor Greene. He told the Daily Beast that he plans to weigh in on the news from behind bars, and that his podcast, War Room, will continue with a roster of guest hosts, including Greene and her congressional colleagues Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz.

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Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.