January 8, 2021

News organizations should soon expect to hear from federal law enforcement agencies. National Press Photographers Association General Counsel Mickey Osterreicher says he expects that they will ask or demand that news organizations and individual journalists who documented the siege of the U.S. Capitol turn over their unpublished images and videos. 

“Since these actions involve federal crimes, journalists will quickly realize that we have no federal shield law,” he said. 

As a result, Osterricher told Poynter, news organizations may have an unpopular fight holding on to images they did not publish, images that law enforcement may want to prosecute the rioters.

Without a doubt, the general public will not understand why a journalist would not be willing to turn over any and all evidence that might identify the rioters. Journalists who worked through the summer of 2020 know the feeling of being confronted by protesters who do not want to be photographed, even while demonstrating in public. 

As a general guideline, Osterreicher said, “Police and prosecutors do not get to see our notes or our unpublished work. We do not want to be seen as an arm of law enforcement. It puts journalists in a dangerous position when police wanted to see photos of protestors. It puts journalists in an even more dangerous position than just covering a dangerous story. If protestors think the journalists are creating evidence for the police, protestors target the journalist.”  

NPPA and the Press Freedom Defense Fund got involved in more than a dozen such cases around the country last year, Osterreicher said, and in each case, prosecutors backed down from their demands once journalists posed a legal battle.

“Typically, law enforcement will strongarm freelance photographers first,” he said, “because they do not have news organizations and legal representation behind them.” 

The Washington Post Friday published two newly surfaced videos that shed much clearer light on the shooting that killed one rioter. The video shows rioters repeatedly threatening officers, then pounding on House chamber doors. The video shows that the rioters knew that an officer with a pistol was on the other side of the door and, when the rioters began climbing through a window they broke, the officer fired a single fatal shot. 

The New York Times also published an edited collection of videos that shows the extreme violence and tension at the Capitol.

The images that journalists captured and that rioters posted themselves are leading to arrests. Federal agents arrested Richard Barnett, the man who propped his feet on a desk in the office of the Speaker of the House and did interviews about it outside.

USA Today is using images from various sources — including photojournalists, social media posts and police — to identify the rioters in the pictures and is urging members of the public to contact the news organization to help. USA Today is asking readers to contact the news organization and, in an updated post, explained why:

USA TODAY is working to identify those who stormed into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. If you were there or if you know someone who was there, please help us.

We are using this information to piece together stories about how the event unfolded, who the participants were and what their motivations were. Some people claim those who entered the federal building were not Trump supporters but members of left-leaning groups like Antifa. We seek to determine the truth on these claims.

Posted below are a small sample of publicly available photos. If you are in one of these photographs or know someone in these photographs – or if you have links to other photos you would like to share – please use the form below.

We won’t publish anything about you unless you give us permission. You’ll be helping us to report this important story.

Typically, journalists only pass along pleas from police and other law enforcement to supply information, such as the FBI’s just-published “wanted” posters asking for the public’s help. 

USA Today is also publishing a list of rioters who have been identified. “Many were from small-town America,” the article says. “Some had legal or financial troubles. Some now find themselves in trouble with employers.” 

Local news organizations and networks have also begun identifying rioters who have local ties, like a fur-wearing man who is the son of a New York Supreme Court justice, and a Boise man, Josiah Colt, who leaped from a balcony and now is saying, “I brought shame to myself.” Federal agents are still looking for him. Colt says that he is looking for a lawyer. 

Journalists who I have spoken to say it is important to identify the rioters for two reasons: to hold them accountable and to explore the allegations that they had been infiltrated by someone other than Trump supporters.

The NPPA’s board of directors posted a memo Friday calling for prosecutors to go after rioters who attacked journalists Wednesday:

To do our jobs, photojournalists must be on the front lines to record the news. The threats, violence and aggression toward visual journalists are unconscionable acts that erode our democracy and our country’s First Amendment rights. A camera cable was knotted into a noose and hung over a tree branch. The words “Murder the Media” were scratched into a door inside the Capitol. Thousands of dollars in equipment labeled “Associated Press” was stomped on and destroyed. A @gopro video posted by Associated Press photographer Julio Cortez shows his colleague John Minchillo being attacked. The actions of the angry mob who descended on the Capitol could have been avoided.

In a story by the Committee to Protect Journalists, NPPA member Amanda Andrade-Rhoades described how she was threatened by the mob.

“I had three different people threaten to shoot me over the course of the day,” Andrade-Rhoades said. “They weren’t armed as far as I could tell. I saw people with knives and pepper spray. If they had guns, I couldn’t see them. But I did see people in flak jackets and bulletproof vests, so clearly ready for armed combat.  At one point, a guy leaned over to me and said, “I’m coming back with a gun tomorrow and I’m coming for you.”

Erin Schaff, New York Times photographer, described her experience in a Times story how police found her hiding for safety after being assaulted by angry men inside the Capitol. The attackers had pushed her to the ground, broken her equipment and stolen her press credentials. Discovered by police as she hid from the mob, she told officers that she was a photojournalist and that her pass had been stolen, but they didn’t believe her.

“They drew their guns, pointed them and yelled at me to get down on my hands and knees,” said Schaff, an NPPA member. “As I lay on the ground, two other photojournalists came into the hall and started shouting ‘She’s a journalist!’”

“The officers told us it wasn’t safe to leave, and helped us find a room to barricade ourselves in. The two other photographers grabbed my hands and told me it would be OK, and to stay with them so they could vouch for me. I’ll never forget their kindness in that moment.”

This article was updated to include an update to the USA Today article asking readers to identify rioters.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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  • Normally I would agree with the premise that journalists should not help identify rioters, but this is not a normal case and this was not a riot. This was an insurrection against the federal government, a government that for the past 4 years has done nothing to protect the rights of free journalism. We need to start calling this for what it was – an act of civil war, not a riot. I believe journalists have no excuse for protecting insurrection members when it is an assault on the freedoms of our nation.