U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Parallels in attacks on journalists, newsrooms across the years

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Published On
May 31, 2023
A snapshot of press freedom violations documented by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker so far this year.

A snapshot of press freedom violations documented by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker so far this year.

Friends of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker:

Welcome back to your monthly newsletter around press freedom violations in the United States. Find archived editions here, and get this newsletter direct in your inbox by signing up here.

Today we published my deep-dive into the stories of seven journalists killed since 2017 and how the pursuit of accountability for their deaths have progressed.

This summer marks anniversaries for five of these deaths, and two separate murder trials involving journalists — one in Nevada, one in Florida — are scheduled for this year.

As senior reporter for the Tracker, I document press freedom violations as well as the fights for accountability — be it lawsuits against local authorities or prosecutions of assailants. Revisiting incidents, sometimes years after the fact, is rewarding but also unsettling. Now, after more than four years with the Tracker, I increasingly see parallels across the years: It's clear that the dangers remain very real for journalists in the field and in newsrooms, which can come under attack.

In the first half of 2023, we’ve documented nearly a dozen attacks on members of the press and newsrooms, some with eerie similarities to the fatal attacks already in the Tracker. Importantly, we know our work fuels conversations in newsrooms across the U.S., about everything from bulletproof front doors to journalist safety in the field.

Threats from local politicians

The United States dropped an additional three places the the World Press Freedom Rankings released by Reporters Without Borders earlier this month, which cited “a troubling pattern of harassment, intimidation and assault on journalists in the field.”

Unfortunately, local public officials are sometimes behind harassment, intimidation and even assaults of journalists. In September 2022, a man came to the home of Las Vegas Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German and stabbed him multiple times. A local official was arrested and is set to stand trial for first-degree murder later this year. On March 6, multiple county officials in Idabel, Oklahoma, were recorded discussing how to kill father-and-son journalists Bruce and Chris Willingham of the McCurtain Gazette-News.

One official on the recording has resigned, and despite calls from the mayor and Gov. Kevin Stitt for the sheriff to do so as well, he remains in his position. Protests and efforts to remove him have continued.

Assaults at cold scenes

In February, a Spectrum 13 News crew was covering news of a shooting death when the alleged gunman returned and attacked them — photojournalist Jesse Walden was shot once, surviving his injuries, and reporter Dylan Lyons died at the scene. One month later, a man confronted a WVUE Fox8 News crew in Slidell, Louisiana, as they reported from a similar cold scene — meaning police had finished their investigation and left the area — where a standoff with police had ended with a suspected murder-suicide.

Photojournalist Steven A. Wolfram told the Tracker a man attempted to destroy the station’s camera and assaulted the journalist multiple times. When the man ran to a nearby vehicle and reached for something in the glove box. Wolfram said that’s when the journalists sped away from the scene.

“This guy wanted to hurt me if not kill me, and I saw him go run for a weapon,” Wolfram said.

Olivia Vidal, the reporter in the field with Wolfram that day, told the Tracker that the incident sparked discussions in their newsroom about how policies or procedures need to change.

“We need to have more mature conversations about responding to cold scenes,” Vidal said. “Maybe it should be that you swing by and check it out and if it’s cold go to do your live reports in front of the police department.”

Shootings at newsrooms

Five years ago this summer, a gunman shot his way into the Capital Gazette newsroom, killing four journalists and a sales associate. This month, two newsrooms were shot at.

A man attempted to shoot his way into Fox 13 News’ station in Memphis, Tennessee, on May 2. Security camera footage posted by one of the outlet’s reporters showed that the man attempted to wrench open the doors — which require a key card for entry — before resorting to shooting toward the security staff sitting at the front desk. The ballistic glass prevented the door from shattering and no one was injured. The man ultimately left, barricading himself in a nearby restaurant before police arrested and charged him with aggravated assault and reckless endangerment.

A second newsroom, The Moundville Times in Alabama, reported that someone fired a bullet through one of its windows sometime between May 3 and May 7. The office was empty at the time and no one was injured. Moundville police are investigating the incident, which would be a felony.

“It's very scary. It's very disturbing to think about what could have been,” Times Editor Travis Vaughn told a local television station. “You try to do a good job and you try to be fair, but you have to cover the news. So you wonder: Could it be somebody retaliatory, or a message of, ‘Hey, back off.’”

Assaults of journalists in the U.S. by year