Barbara Davidson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, was covering a protest near The Grove shopping mall in Los Angeles on Saturday when a police officer ordered her to move.
She showed him her press credentials, she said in an interview. The officer said he did not care and again told her to leave the area.
After saying, “Sir, I am a journalist covering this,” Davidson turned to walk away, and the officer shoved her in the back, causing her to trip and hit her head against a fire hydrant, she said. She was not hurt, she added, because she was wearing a helmet she had bought while getting skateboarding equipment for a nephew.
Davidson, who sells her work through Redux Pictures, an agency that supplies photographs to The New York Times, Newsweek and other news organizations, was among the many journalists who had tense encounters with police during the nationwide demonstrations against racism and police brutality that have taken place since George Floyd died in police custody on May 25 in Minneapolis.
Many reporters, photographers, and press advocates said the treatment of journalists by police officers in recent days reflected an erosion of trust in the news media that has seeped into law enforcement under President Trump, who has deemed critical coverage of his administration “fake news” and has frequently labeled some news organizations and journalists with variants of the phrase “enemies of the people.”
“This story, in particular, it seems journalists are really being targeted by the police,” Davidson said. “That’s not something I have experienced before to this degree.”
It is common in autocratic countries for journalists to be arrested during demonstrations and riots, but rare in the United States, where freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment. In a sign that police officers would not follow the customary hands-off approach, Minnesota State Patrol officers arrested a CNN reporting team live on the air Friday. That same day, a TV reporter in Louisville, Kentucky, was hit by a pepper ball by an officer who appeared to be aiming at her while she covered the protest on live television.
The arrest of the CNN team drew criticism from First Amendment advocates and an apology from Minnesota’s governor, but there have been dozens of other instances of journalists receiving rough treatment at the hands of police officers while covering the protests. In interviews, reporters said they had identified themselves as members of the press before police fired projectiles, drew their weapons or pepper-sprayed them.
“I’ve really never seen anything like this,” said Ellen Shearer, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a co-director of its National Security Journalism Initiative. “The president has called the news media ‘the enemy of the people.’ I think all of that has taken a toll.”
On Sunday, Trump blamed the “Lamestream Media” for the protests in a tweet, calling journalists “truly bad people with a sick agenda.”
The US Press Freedom Tracker and a writer for the Bellingcat website have each tracked about 100 instances of reporters being harassed or injured at the protests. In some instances, journalists were attacked after telling officers that they were on the job.
Tyler Blint-Welsh, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, said he was hit multiple times by police officers while covering a protest in New York on Sunday. “I was backing away as request, with my hands up,” Blint-Welsh, who is black, wrote on Twitter. “My NYPD-issued press badge was clearly visible.” (He declined to comment for this article.)
Hyoung Chang, a staff photographer for the Denver Post for 23 years, spent a few hours near the Colorado Statehouse on Thursday, taking photos of demonstrators while wearing his press badge.
“Then one police officer started pointing at me and started to shoot,” he said.
Chang was hit with something in his chest, and then in his elbow. Part of his press card was blown off.
“I was staying in the same spot,” Chang said, emphasizing that he had been standing near the police for some time while holding cameras and equipment. “I think they know I’m a photographer.”
Carolyn Cole, a Los Angeles Times photographer, was covering a protest in Minneapolis on Saturday when police moved to disperse a crowd, she said in a text message. A group of roughly 20 journalists standing apart from the protesters moved aside, but the police attacked them directly with pepper spray and rubber bullets, she said. A colleague, reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske, shouted, “We’re reporters!”
Cole was wearing a press pass around her neck and a flak jacket with “TV” on it, she said. She was pepper-sprayed in her left ear and eye, and her cornea was damaged, she said.
“I’ve been covering conflict both nationally and internationally for many years, so I know the dangers involved in these situations, especially when you get between riot police and protesters,” Cole said, “but I wasn’t expecting them to attack us directly.”