In Charlottesville and elsewhere, U.S. journalists are being assaulted while covering the news

August 21, 2017
Category: News Release

Taylor Lorenz, a reporter for The Hill, was walking down a Charlottesville sidewalk on Aug. 12 when she heard a loud thumping sound. She turned and saw a gray Dodge Charger whiz past her into a crowd of people — ultimately killing one and injuring 19 others.

While trying to document the horrific event and the subsequent response from paramedics and police, a shirtless man demanded that she stop recording. When she disregarded him, the man punched her in the face, knocking her to the ground.

“Stop the (expletive) recording!” the man could be heard shouting at Lorenz in the video as her phone clattered to the ground.

Lorenz was one of many journalists who found themselves in the line of danger during the clash between White nationalists and counter-protesters earlier this month. Saturday’s violence ultimately turned deadly when James Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio, drove the Dodge Charger into a crowd, according to police.

Lorenz, who had been knocked to the ground after a blow to the right side of her face, said she got up from the ground and followed the alleged culprit, Jacob L. Smith, 21, of Louisa, who was seen shirtless in Lorenz’s video.

Taylor Lorenz. (Photo courtesy Taylor Lorenz)

Taylor Lorenz. (Photo courtesy Taylor Lorenz)

“He started to try to walk away, and I was like, ‘Oh, hell no!’” Lorenz said. “You can’t just come up and hit a journalist or anyone.”

As Smith tried to walk away, Lorenz followed him and repeatedly shouted “Police officer! Police officer! Police officer!”

After flagging down officers, who collected eyewitness accounts, Charlottesville police charged Smith with assault and battery, a Class 1 Misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, according to Charlottesville court records.

“People were injured, but I still didn’t want him to get away with punching me then leaving. He kept threatening me, saying he would ‘beat my ass,’” Lorenz wrote in a criminal complaint filed in court. “I was so scared. This man is dangerous.”

Lorenz said that she had shown Smith her press credentials while he told her to stop recording but that she otherwise disregarded his demands. When her phone fell to the ground, the livestream on The Hill’s Facebook page ended.

Lorenz’s cheek was left red from the blow, but she otherwise had no notable injuries, she said.

Nonetheless, Lorenz said in a recent interview that she feared the shirtless man would continue into the crowd and hit someone else. Smith and another man had been swatting people’s cameras, showing aggression toward journalists and others who were recording the aftermath of the car attack, she said.

“He should be responsible for his own behavior,” Lorenz said, adding that while she’s willing to “give him the benefit of the doubt,” considering that he had likely just witnessed a tragedy, “that doesn’t change the fact that he should be responsible for his own actions.”

Lorenz said she had not been crowding any victims or getting in the way of any paramedics while recording the horrific scene. Lorenz tweeted about the incident but otherwise has not reported on it, saying that she didn’t want to make it a bigger deal than what it was.

Nonetheless, she has received perplexing pushback from people who have sent her messages on social media criticizing her for “playing the victim” or being a “snitch.”

While working on a follow-up story about the mayhem in Charlottesville on Sunday morning, a group of people approached Lorenz and started calling her a “snitch,” she said.

“And I was like, “What? I don’t even know you people,” Lorenz recalled in an interview. “I was really confused, and then it became clear (they were) referencing the thing from (Saturday).”

Lorenz noted that her encounter with Smith was far less significant than the car attack. She has covered 120 protests in the past year and has never witnessed anything like what happened Saturday when the car crashed into people, she said.

“I was basically just very shocked at what I had seen,” Lorenz said of the car attack. “I watched them try to give her CPR and save (Heather Heyer’s) life for 10 minutes and fail, and it was very emotional. And I definitely felt a lot of emotion at that time,” Lorenz said.

Lorenz was not the only journalist targeted in Charlottesville, said Peter Sterne, a senior reporter at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, who has been tracking incidents of journalists being assaulted and arrested this year. Two journalists reported being hit by water balloons filled with what smelled like urine. Others had close calls with pepper spray used by protesters. And one photojournalist said he was nearly hit by the Dodge Charger, in what was such a close encounter that an attachment on his camera was knocked off by the speeding car before it plowed into people.

“I don’t want to say that the two sides are equal in terms of capacity for violence,” Sterne said of the White nationalists and their counter-protesters. “I don’t think that’s true.”

However, he added: “I think you are seeing both White nationalists and anti-fascist, counter-protesters — some of them — upset with coverage and lashing out at journalists.”

“I think that it is bad to attack journalists or to arrest journalists … while they are doing their jobs,” Sterne said, adding that he’s trying to document all of the cases so that other press freedom organizations can use that data for advocacy work.

Among other journalists injured in the clashes was a photojournalist for CBS 6 in Richmond, who was struck in the back of the head. Reporters for the TV station posted photos on Twitter of the journalist’s head wound, which required four staples, according to the TV station.

The injury occurred while he was covering an anti-fascist march.

Sterne pointed to an unsympathetic statement released by ASH Antifa Seven Hills that incorrectly suggests journalists must get people’s consent before filming, despite journalists having a legal right to record public gatherings without the demonstrators’ consent.

“You are very often disrespectful and aggressive and … you will be met with the same behavior,” the Antifa statement says in a lengthy statement on Facebook that criticizes the CBS 6 journalist. “If you don’t want to get hit, don’t act like vultures. Ask for consent.”

No author or authors of the statement are listed on the statement.

The attack on a CBS 6 journalist was among many such attacks this year, particularly during protests, Sterne said. On Sunday, a reporter with North Carolina TV station WLOS was assaulted while live-streaming an anti-racist demonstration in Asheville, North Carolina, according to a report with the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. A demonstrator appeared to attempt to grab the reporter’s camera before pushing him, according to that report.

“I think people didn’t realize how often journalists were being assaulted or even arrested in the U.S. mostly while covering protests,” Sterne said. “Obviously, in most cases, these are not resulting in serious injuries. Nobody is being murdered while reporting, thankfully,” Sterne said specifically of journalists covering protests in the U.S.

Journalists who have been attacked or arrested while reporting can report those incidents to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker by visiting pressfreedomtracker.us/submit-incident.

As of Aug. 19, Sterne said, he had tracked 15 attacks on journalists in the U.S. thus far in 2017. He anticipates that number to climb, because he’s evaluating a few other incidents that he expects will make the list.

There are also 20 known incidents of journalists being arrested while reporting, in addition to 12 searches and seizures of equipment and four incidents in which journalists were stopped at the border, according to the Press Freedom Tracker.

Brandon Shulleeta is a freelance journalist based in Richmond, Va., who covered the Charlottesville protest turned deadly for Reuters. He can be reached by email at news@shulleeta.com.

Correction: Taylor Lorenz was punched in the right side of her face, not her left.

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