Being a journalist comes with risk. That’s pretty much been the deal. Granted, for many years the danger was minimal within the borders of the United States. For this conversation we’re talking specifically about reporters in this country.
It seemed appropriate that for the first episode of The Reporter’s Studio I needed to talk with the group that has devoted itself to educating and protecting American journalists. Meet Kirstin McCudden of Freedom of the Press Foundation. She is also the managing editor of the US Press Freedom Tracker.
She talked about the increased risks and dangers that reporters have faced these last five years, especially in 2020 and 2021. We started by discussing the reasons behind the launch of the foundation and the tracker.
Kirstin: So FPF (Freedom of the Press Foundation) is about eight years old and the tracker itself was launched in 2017. A lot was happening in 2017. Before that, groups, advocacy groups, news orgs were getting together and realizing there was no one place to track what was happening to US journalists. If a journalist was arrested, that person’s news org might write about it or an advocacy group might write about it. But there was no way to say how many journalists have been assaulted in 2016? We don’t know, because there wasn’t one place that kept it all and did what we do, which is also work to verify that information and put it all together in a way that’s really easy to digest for the public. In 2017, the U.S. press freedom tracker launched. That was the start of then-President Donald Trump’s heated rhetoric around press freedom. We’re now in our fifth year of documentation, we’ll hit our five year anniversary this August.
TRS: When the tracker came out the first year, what did you find and what surprised you?
Kirstin: I always say about the tracker is that it mimics what’s going on in the world. I’m going to explain. The first year and into 2018, we captured a lot of border stops of journalists, and that’s a category we track because we want to see when journalists are traveling outside of the US or back in, are they stopped for secondary questioning or are their devices searched? If you remember back then, there was a lot of talk about the migrant caravan, so we were tracking a lot of journalists who were being stopped at the border. In 2017 we also, at the time, was tracking – one at a time – every time President Trump said something negative or threatening against a journalist. We realized that that was a much larger project. And actually, our senior reporter, Stephanie Sugars, had started when Trump was a candidate and went all the way through to 2020. And through January of 2021, actually, tracking every negative tweet about the press that Trump put out on his account.
TRS: What have you seen over the last five years (according to the tracker)?
Kirstin: In 2020, seeing it from the lens of the tracker, we saw more assaults of journalists than all the years of our history combined. We saw more arrests of journalists than all the years of our history combined just at the end of 2020, really that into May, into June and July, and from cities and states across the entire U.S.. There was a very strong law enforcement reaction, not just to the protests themselves, but to the journalists covering them. And that’s why I say journalists really are that mirror of society, from covering the migrant caravan dimension in 2017, 2018, into 2020 with the massive national protests. You also talk about the coronavirus pandemic when there are protests for that, either for lockdown measures or against lockdown measures. Journalists are covering it and we cover what’s happening to them covering it. It’s almost meta, but it really is this mirror of society. So what we’re seeing right now is 2022 has been a, I really hesitate to say, quieter year, but from the viewpoint of the tracker versus what we saw in 2020 and 2021 for those national protests.
TRS: Is the training the same for journalists in the United States in dealing with danger compared to a reporter who is out reporting a war?
Kirstin: The U.S. still has some of the broadest and most comprehensive safety measures for the press. It’s written into our constitution, but there definitely has been this feeling of what we are hearing, what the tracker hears from journalists on the ground of – well I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect to cover a protest in the United States of America and be targeted with crowd control ammunition. When you’re asking me about comparison, Mexico has lost six to eight journalists already this year (2022), we’re in March, but there are other countries and our great partners, reporters without borders to protect journalists, they have really robust data to compare across the world. While we see an uptick, you do still have to compare it to the rest of the world. But those feelings of being able to go out and not being worried about your safety, I think they have been eroded and I’ll use an example. During the inauguration, I was asked, what are organizations doing to keep journalists safe? And we have to remember that that inauguration was rolling right off of the very tense presidential election, contested, a continuation of Black Lives Matter protests, and the coronavirus pandemic. A major photography outlet said, we’re sending our journalists differently prepared than before with bulletproof vests, with helmets. On the other hand, you have journalists who tell us now they prefer not to wear ID when possible because they don’t want to be a target. So you’re really seeing two different reactions and both valid reactions to this. Portland had protests for more than 100 days straight, and journalists covering it nightly would be in the goggles, vest, helmet, knowing that so much munition, crowd control, tear gas was being used. That was the only way they’d be able to stay out and keep covering it.
TRS: If you’re talking to a group of average ordinary citizens, how do you define for them what we (journalists) do?
Kirstin: It’s OK to have differing opinions on it. But one thing I always say is you have to remember journalists aren’t card-carrying professionals in the sense it can be likened more to a calling than a profession. I was editor of my high school newspaper. I did my undergrad in journalism, I did my master’s work in journalism, and then I spent the last couple of decades at newspapers, magazines, digital news outlets, and so I’ve created my journalists bona fides that way through what would be considered a very straightforward path. I have always loved journalism. I’ve always wanted to do it. But the truth is, it’s for everybody and anybody who wants to do it. You do not need an undergraduate degree in journalism to want to follow a code of ethics and show people what’s happening, which is how I think of the base of journalism, like I want to show you what’s happening and I want to disseminate that information and I want to do that purposefully and I want to do it with through any means. What’s difficult about calling somebody a journalist and trying to define it is that it has evolved. I’m probably as card-carrying of a journalist because I did my undergrad and my master’s. But we also consider those who completely use the medium of social media. You can still be a journalist that way. We’re on a podcast. It’s about disseminating information, following a code of ethics, and bringing it to a wider subset is how I see one working definition of who is a journalist.
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