Until relatively recently, outside of war zones, journalists usually didn’t have to worry too much about their safety. But journalists today are facing a whole new set of occupational hazards, from relentless harassment, to mass arrests, or even assassination. Though the US media generally enjoy the most robust protections in the world for press freedom, Trump’s daily screeds against the mainstream media are making things worse for journalists. With his near hourly fits of rage against the liberal media as the “enemy of the people,” free press advocates worry that Trump’s vitriol toward journalists is sanctioning, if not outright encouraging, violence against media institutions at home and abroad.
Trump’s hatred for the media was recently amplified by one of his many recent foreign-policy messes, with his pronounced shrug at the savage murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), described the controversy as a new, but hardly shocking, low: “We now have a statement from the president…that they’re clearly balancing arms deals, economic considerations and oil deals, with the weight of a life, and that they are prioritizing these allied relationships over holding those responsible for a murder accountable.”
The United States has often had friendly dealings with regimes that suppress the media, Radsch acknowledged, but under Trump, “what is different is, we’ve never had the president come out and say so blatantly that human rights is apparently not even a priority.”
According to CPJ, which tracks attacks on the press worldwide, 324 reporters in the past decade have been killed in the line of duty, and in “85 percent of these cases no perpetrators have been convicted.” The deadliest countries for journalists are the usual suspects: Somalia, Syria and Mexico. But the United States stands out as one of the few wealthy democracies to have shifted down in the overall press freedom rankings, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). And the birthplace of the First Amendment saw the murder of five journalists in 2018 alone—including four murdered in a shooting massacre at the headquarters of the DC-area daily Capital Gazette. Since 1992, only 11 journalists in total have been killed on the job in the United States—eight of those were the result of murders.
Despite the historical reputation of the American media as the gold standard in press freedom, reporters seem more willing today to draw analogies between the state of journalism in the United States and under other governments that actively stifle the press. The administration’s unprecedented seizure of the communications records of a New York Times journalist last June as part of a leak investigation also signaled the White House’s aggressive intimidation and direct suppression of media workers. Journalists have also warned of growing threats of arrests when covering protests amid chaotic and heavily policed crowds. In their day-to-day work, reporters face stiffening barriers to public information, often getting stonewalled by secrecy policies when investigating government records.
Many reporters have complained that under the Trump administration, they face not only angry readers but constant, often direct threats of violence. This year, CPJ has documented
over 20 incidents including three intruders entering studios; 15 cases of threatening letters or calls, four of which resulted in arrests; and six attacks including a man ramming his truck into the station of a Fox affiliate in Texas and an unidentified person firing multiple shots at mail carriers for The Lewiston Tribune in Idaho.
Noting that Trump’s ferocity toward the press might goad other politicians to pile on, Radsch warned of a cascade of anti-media rage that “trickles down” from social media into newsroom corridors. “No one knows when or if that rhetoric is going to turn into action,” she said, but in light of recent attacks on the press, “there’s a lot more fear, there’s a lot more concern, journalists and media outlets alike are committed to taking security more seriously…than they have ever in the past.”
In addition to beefing up newsroom security and staff safety training, there’s growing subsurface pressure to self-censor. On social media, especially, vicious trolling has driven some reporters to limit their Twitter exposure.
Molly Stentz, news and public affairs director of WORT 89.9 in Madison (which was recently the target of a shooting) told CPJ in an interview:
We’re definitely erring on the side of caution, so anything that in the past we might not have worried too much about is now on the side of relaying anything to the police department to be safe. But it’s hard to know whether any of those things at any point in time will turn into something bigger. It is in the back of my mind now in a way it wasn’t necessarily before.
Reporters have also found themselves in the cross-hairs of another Trump minefield—the US-Mexico Border. CPJ’s recent study of reporter safety at the border revealed a stunning degree of privacy violation, surveillance, and invasive searches, leading to degradation of basic free-speech protections in an area largely outside the purview of the public and official oversight.
In the nine-month study, based on field interviews by CPJ and RSF, many reporters “said that the searches impacted the way they approach their work and travel, that invasive searches affect their ability to protect sources or do their job,” and that they had virtually no legal recourse.
CPJ’s campaigns parallel a global struggle to defend the right to free expression. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is campaigning for a United Nations Convention on the protection of journalists and ending impunity for persecution of the press. The IFJ, which advocates for fair contracts and other workers’ rights, frames the culture of safety and press freedom as a question of both human rights and fair labor: Policy-makers have a special obligation to protect the press, they argue, because attacks on journalists, “especially when perpetrated with impunity, have a chilling effect on all media professionals and the right of all persons to enjoy their right to freedom of opinion and expression.”
The unnerving sense of insecurity surrounding the field of journalism is more intense, of course, in places like Somalia and Saudi Arabia. But US journalists are increasingly finding solidarity with colleagues struggling to expose the truth in other countries. In an era of soft oppression and anti-media demagoguery, no journalist anywhere can afford to let their guard down.