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Rethinking the Press’s Relationship With Police

For too long, media outlets have treated cops with credulity and protesters with skepticism. That’s all changing.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the last week and a half, over 200 journalists have been maced, beaten with batons, teargassed, and arrested by police while covering anti-police protests. Many of these journalists clearly identified themselves as members of the media; in some instances, reporters appear to be targeted because they identify themselves. While some have been assaulted by protesters or vigilante groups, police are responsible for the overwhelming majority—over 80 percent—of attacks. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker cataloged 150 press freedom violations in 2019; it is currently investigating nearly 300 incidents from the last week alone. “It’s a scale that we have not seen before,” the organization’s managing editor, Kristin McCudden, told Time. “It’s unprecedented in scope without a doubt.”

Journalists have long covered protests with some detachment. This was often literally the case, with cameras and reporters off to the side of the action. Journalists were not to take sides. But now, because of how they have been treated by police, they have been grouped with protesters and have suffered the same violence that is being protested. Reporters have been zip-tied; a cameraman from Australia’s Channel 7 was hit with a riot shield; CNN’s Omar Jimenez was arrested on camera. These are clear violations of the First Amendment. They’re also a wake-up call for journalists who, for too long, have given too much credence to the police’s side of the story.

This implicit bias toward police narratives comes in many forms. It can be seen in grammar. As Nick Martin documented in The New Republic earlier this week, The New York Times used the active voice when describing protesters assaulting journalists (“Protesters struck a journalist with his own microphone”) but used the passive voice when describing police assaulting journalists (“A reporter was hit by a pepper ball on live television by an officer who appeared to be aiming at her”). Many journalistic organizations are inclined to be deferential to the police, while being less respectful of the rabble—a reflection of the power dynamic at work in these situations. The result is language with an air of magical realism, as if tear gas was fired without anyone pulling a trigger and batons floated through the air to hit protesters.

As Mike Laws wrote in The Columbia Journalism Review, “In news coverage of the nationwide protests against police brutality, breezy, anodyne words like deploy, disperse, and engage have served as a gloss on state-licensed aggression, papering over municipal forces’ and National Guardsmen’s frequently appalling crowd-control tactics.” The images we have seen from these protests puncture these clichés. There has been nothing organized or gentle about the way that police have treated protesters or media. People are not “dispersed,” they are charged at and shoved. Tear gas might be “deployed,” but it also burns. Far from being composed figures of order, the police are agents of chaos.

On Monday, on orders from Attorney General William Barr, police violently removed protesters in Washington, D.C., so the president could have an awkward photo op in front of a church. It was all caught on camera: Protesters and journalists alike were teargassed and beaten. Police, of course, denied all of it. A statement from the U.S. Park Police stated that the peaceful protest wasn’t actually peaceful. The tear gas, moreover, wasn’t tear gas. Reporters were told that officers fired pepper balls and canisters that released some kind of gas that just happened to irritate the eyes and cause them to tear.

This is the way the police always respond to accusations of violence and misconduct: They lie, distort, and use jargon to obfuscate what clearly happened. Police officers in Buffalo, New York, were filmed throwing a 75-year-old man to the ground on Thursday; an official report said he “tripped and fell.”

Thanks to the protests, which have been filmed by both protesters and journalists, this approach is finally starting to fail. Reporters quickly debunked the Park Police’s claims that no tear gas was used; two officers involved in shoving the elderly man in Buffalo were suspended. But police feed these narratives to reporters because it normally works. Instead of providing a record of what’s happening on the ground, too often reporters act as if they are mediating between two conflicting versions of events. Police have become masters at selectively feeding information so that their narrative, often a false one, becomes the official one.

This is a particular problem in smaller cities and rural areas, where there are fewer journalists, and where too often local newspapers and TV stations simply repeat police narratives. But it’s a problem throughout the media landscape, with police sources given space and credibility that is rarely reserved for others—including the people the police mistreat.

None of this does what journalism is supposed to do. It does not hold the powerful to account. It doesn’t amplify the truth. It turns journalism into a tool to be used in the oppression of others—often passively, but a tool nonetheless. The last 10 days have been clarifying: Police see journalists the same way they see protesters, both of whom are protected by the First Amendment. Journalists should remember that the next time they cover the cops.