Uptick in attacks on US media likely to continue in 2021
Deeba Shadnia, Analyst
Journalists in the US will continue to face significant risks to their operational safety in 2021, including physical harm to personnel, damage to equipment, and harassment campaigns.
2020 saw a significant uptick in the number of reported attacks against journalists in the US and, as political polarisation and the demonisation of the media continues, this trend is likely to persist. The most significant threats to journalists will stem from excessive force by law enforcement officials and attacks from private citizens who are anti-mainstream media.
US Press Freedom Tracker reported 300 attacks on media personnel in 2020, up from just 34 reported attacks the previous year. Most incidents occurred during coverage of national protests, suggesting a growing risk of harm to journalists by security forces. Examples of law enforcement using excessive force on the media include the use of tear gas, pepper spray, damage to equipment and not acknowledging press passes. Reports of excessive force were not specific to particular cities, suggesting the recorded incidents in 2020 were not isolated, and are likely to persist.
Last year also saw an uptick in reported harassment and assault of journalists by private citizens. Prominent instances include the storming of CNN headquarters in Atlanta in June 2020, and the 6 January 2021 Storming of the Capitol in Washington DC, that resulted in news crews being assaulted and equipment being damaged. In the coming year, coverage of political events in particular, are likely to be potential flashpoints of violence.
As far-right figures continue to demonise the mainstream media and exacerbate existing tensions around purported “biased” reporting, some people may be incited into acts of violence against journalists and news crews. The creation of alternative media and new social media sites will only further deepen mistrust of mainstream news outlets and may further radicalise extremist supporters of the far-right. Through social media monitoring, PGI has identified that some far-right groups, such as the Proud Boys, have created their own media ecosystems that seek to widen their audience and exploit potential financial benefits.
The trend of increasing threats to journalists in the US is unlikely to subside in the short term, despite the departure of President Donald Trump, who espoused anti-media narratives. The targeting of media crews during civil unrest is unlikely to change under a new president, as law enforcement tactics are managed at a state-level. Furthermore, a new administration is unlikely to immediately solve the widening mistrust of mainstream news outlets by some of the population. Long-term strategies are necessary to restore public faith in news and broadcasting, which in turn may help reverse these growing trends.
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