By:
January 13, 2021

“Murder the media” — those were the words carved into a door in the Capitol building during the attack Wednesday.

Inside, reporters sheltered in legislative offices as President Donald Trump’s supporters ransacked the building. They covered press signs for fear of what would happen if they were found. Some did go into the mob to document the riot and were met with violence.

Meanwhile their colleagues outside the building were left exposed. With little police presence around, journalists came face-to-face with people calling for the destruction of the very institutions they worked for. The rioters spat at reporters and hurled slurs. They chased journalists down and destroyed their gear. Several reporters were physically assaulted.

Many of the reporters working Wednesday had covered dozens, if not hundreds of protests and rallies over the course of their careers. They are used to being pushed around and hearing anti-media jeers. But Wednesday was different, they said. The attacks were uniquely vicious, and it was clear they were no longer a sideline distraction, but a target.

Alice Li, a Washington Post video journalist, was out covering the rally-turned-riot when reports surfaced that someone had been shot inside the Capitol. Rioters started issuing threats, blaming the media for the person’s death. That was when she and the reporter she was with knew they had to leave the vicinity.

“It’s a horrible feeling,” Li said, describing the moment she first heard people calling to kill the media. “You’re worried for your safety, worried for the safety of your colleagues and reporters who are out there.”

Read also: Two photojournalists share what they witnessed during the Capitol building

There were at least nine physical assaults against journalists covering the insurrection at the Capitol and related rallies across the country on Wednesday, according to U.S. Press Freedom Tracker managing editor Kirstin McCudden. At least five journalists were arrested. At least four had their equipment damaged. Those numbers do not include incidents of harassment and intimidation.

When Trump took the stage Wednesday at his “Save America” rally, he started his speech with a rant against the media, calling it “the biggest problem we have as far as I’m concerned — single biggest problem” and falsely claiming “fake news” had stolen the election. Hours later, some of his supporters had taken his message to heart and went after the media members who they saw as responsible for Trump’s loss in the 2020 election.

“There was so much anger, and that anger was feeding off of itself,” Li said. “People were looking for someone to bear the brunt of that anger, and unfortunately, the media was a very obvious target.”

‘It was just like they weren’t even seeing you’

From the start, it was clear that Wednesday’s rally was “very, very different” from previous Trump events, CGTN America reporter Nathan King said.

King has been covering Trump since 2015 and said anti-media taunts from Trump supporters are not uncommon. But the insults were usually delivered with a “wink,” and some would even agree to interviews. On Wednesday, there was an anger in the air that he’d never seen before in the U.S.

“I’m used to hostility. I’ve covered Egypt, Libya, Darfur, Congo, West Africa. So I’m used to that, but not 10 blocks from my house,” King said.

At the press pen where he and several other broadcasters worked, Trump supporters verbally harassed and spat at reporters. Li, who occasionally entered the press pen to film or take breaks, said she and another Asian American reporter faced racist shouts as people accused them of being with the Chinese Communist Party and told them to “go back to China.” Some called her a slut and a whore.

“There’s sort of the standard insults you get as a reporter that you learn to expect — enemy of the state, liars, fake news,” Li said. “But I think what also makes going into those situations very difficult is when people start throwing personal insults as well, insults that are related to your sex, insults that are related to your gender, your ethnicity.”

No police officers were stationed at the media pen, which was unusual, King said. There were also no helicopters overhead, something he found strange given the size of the event. The only thing protecting the journalists were metal fences that couldn’t stop the verbal abuse.

Late in the afternoon, well after the mob had broken into the Capitol, people started to stream out and spotted their next target. They rattled the metal barriers of the media pen. When the first barrier went down, King and the broadcasters there ditched their equipment to escape.

“You know when you look at someone in the eye and you reason with them as a human being? You know? None of that. It was just like they weren’t even seeing you,” King said.

Several rioters chased King — who was on an electric scooter he’d brought in case he needed a quick escape — off the Capitol grounds, only stopping when he parked next to a D.C. police van and asked an officer for help. There, he called his office and went live on his phone.

Meanwhile, rioters destroyed the camera gear King and his colleagues had abandoned. They stomped on equipment and poured water over phone lines. One tied camera wire into a noose. Washington Post senior producer Kate Woodsome, who had seen the mob break into the pen, tucked her press badge away and watched with her colleague Joy Sharon Yi as people cheered on the destruction.

“(It was like) the press didn’t have a right to exist there, and their cameras were destroyed as a physical manifestation of the desire to snuff them out,” Woodsome said.

Woodsome had faced a torrent of verbal abuse earlier in the day. At one point, she was surrounded by a group of roughly 10 rioters who told her that they would get rid of the press and that journalists should be purged. As they harassed her, one reporter approached Woodsome and placed a hand on her shoulder while filming the confrontation.

“I realized that she was holding the space for me, that she was saying ‘You’re not alone’ in a really gentle but very steady way,” Woodsome said.

The reporter’s presence calmed Woodsome, and she was able to leave and do a live hit. Later, when she spotted the rioters smashing camera equipment, she knew she had to stay despite the danger of the situation.

“We stayed and watched because one, we wanted to capture it, and even though we didn’t get great footage, we still wanted to try. And two — and I said this to Joy after — I was like, ‘I want to hold the space for them that way that woman did for me.’”

Even before the storming of the media pen, photojournalists and broadcasters realized that the cameras they used to document history also made them targets.

One man tried to wrest Li’s camera away from her, stopping only at the instruction of a Trump supporter who had been taunting Li, saying over and over again, “This is the kind of people we are. We don’t touch you. No one is touching you.” Associated Press photographer John Minchillo was violently shoved down the Capitol steps and over a short wall by a crowd of Trump supporters.

CBC reporter Katie Nicholson was five blocks from the Capitol when she and her crew got mobbed by Trump supporters. The reporters had to stop their broadcast and walk away as a group of six to 10 people followed them for two blocks, shouting insults.

“They zeroed in on us as media, and it felt hostile,” Nicholson. “I have never actually packed up and walked away from something before.”

‘I didn’t do anything to provoke him’

Even outside of the initial chaos in Washington, D.C., Wednesday afternoon, journalists continued to face attacks.

Washington Post video journalist Zoeann Murphy was with another reporter when they were trapped in a police kettle Wednesday night. As journalists, they were exempt from the curfew Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser had put in place, but police initially refused to release them. Murphy continued to report live even as an officer grabbed her shoulder and led her to a bus with other detained rioters. There, she and her colleague were finally let go.

Outside the country, CBC reporter Ben Nelms was reporting on a Trump rally in Vancouver. He was taking photos of an argument between a few Trump supporters when one of the men involved spotted him and charged, shouting expletives. The man punched Nelms in the side of the face.

In Utah, Salt Lake Tribune photographer Rick Egan was covering a protest at the state Capitol, where the attendees’ demeanor was more serious than he’d ever seen before. He was taking photos of someone with a megaphone when another man walked up to him and shouted, “Look at you in your f—— mask, you p—-”

Egan ignored the man and moved closer to the building. But as he climbed up the steps, a different man shoved him repeatedly, pushing him down the sidewalk. The man who had yelled at him for wearing a mask ran up to him and pepper-sprayed him in the eye from five feet away.

“I didn’t take his picture. I didn’t do anything to provoke him,” Egan said. “That was kind of the shocking thing, that you can get sprayed by someone who’s not even part of what’s happening.”

Going into the rally, Egan had thought he would be relatively safe. Normally, issues at protests arise when the police arrive with riot gear, Egan said. Rallies by Trump supporters usually don’t attract a large police presence in his experience.

“We’ve all been threatened and kind of bumped around a little bit, but that wasn’t really even on my radar — that someone would come after me,” Egan said.

The Olympian (of Olympia, Washington) reporter Sara Gentzler and AP photographer Ted S. Warren also faced a completely unprovoked attack from a man armed with a gun and a knife. The journalists were walking toward the Washington state governor’s mansion when the man ran up to them, shouting obscenities. He told them he had already maced someone in the media earlier that day and that they had five minutes to leave. Spotting Gentzler’s phone, he lunged for it, but she was able to keep it away.

When he backed off, he told them, “We’re going to shoot you f—— dead in the next year.”

“It felt like a legitimate threat to my safety and other reporters’ safety,” Gentzler said. “I think going through my mind was, ‘OK, how do I change? Like, is there something I can do to avoid becoming a target here while still doing my duty as a journalist?”

Gentzler and Warren walked away to warn other journalists about the man. As they continued to report on the protest, they tried to stay out of his line of sight. Leaving was not an option, Gentzler said, even though the altercation had been “uniquely threatening.” She pointed out that if she had left, she would have missed the moment when Trump supporters broke through the governor’s mansion’s gates.

On Monday, the Washington state legislature will convene its 2021 session. Demonstrations — including an attempt to enter the closed legislative building — had been planned, though organizers have since canceled their plans after seeing what happened Wednesday. But protesters may still show up.

Both Gentzler and Warren will be there.

Warren said he worries that threats to journalists may make them too wary to talk or connect with people, which is detrimental to coverage.

“I’m going to go into (Monday) perhaps a little more aware that there may be some direct hostilities, but I’m going to probably operate much in the same way that I’ve done in the past,” Warren said. “I’m still going to try and talk to people when I’m out at these things because I think it gives me insight as to why they’re there, and it also helps me to make a positive case for journalists that we’re there to tell their story and to represent visually what is happening.”

Resources for journalists

The Committee to Protect Journalists — along with other groups including the Coalition For Women In Journalism, the NewsGuild and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — have put out statements condemning the attacks against the media Wednesday.

CPJ warned that there may be “escalating attacks on the media” in the future and urged reporters to take precautions.

With that in mind, here are a few resources for reporters:

  • CPJ has a guide on safely covering civil disorder
  • RCFP has a legal defense hotline here.
  • The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents press freedom violations. You can report an incident here.
  • The International Women’s Media Foundation has a fund for U.S.-based journalists of any gender who have been targeted while reporting during political unrest. You can apply for funds here.

“Independent journalism is under attack, and I believe that we all have a responsibility to push back and to assert that journalism is vital in a democracy,” CPJ deputy executive director Robert Mahoney told Poynter. “I would like to see journalists show more solidarity with one another to push back and counter this anti-press rhetoric, which moves from the digital realm to the real world from time to time as we saw (Wednesday).”

This article was published on Jan. 9, 2021.

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Angela Fu is a freelance reporter based in Birmingham, Ala. and a contributor to Poynter.org. She can be reached at afu@poynter.org or on Twitter @angelanfu.
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