What makes a journalist — the person or the device?
Demonstrators stand in front law enforcement who are holding a perimeter during protest on June 1, 2020 in downtown Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Reporter arrests and assaults continue to rise during ongoing George Floyd protests with more than 300 violations of First Amendment rights, according to U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
Incidents have been captured on video. This compilation includes the blinding in one eye of freelance photographer Linda Tirado.
Des Moines Register reporters Andrea Sahouri and Katie Akin also were assaulted and arrested, according to Editor Carol Hunter. Akin said “I’m press” or “I’m with the Des Moines Register” 17 times in about 30 seconds.
It didn’t help.
Huffington Post reporter Christopher Mathias was arrested covering the protest in New York. Here’s a partial transcript:
Mathias: “Can you look at my press pass? I’m a journalist. You’re arresting a journalist right now.”
Officer: “Then you should’ve gotten out of my way.
Mathias: “I did get out of your way, you ran past me. Can you please get my phone? It’s right there. Please get my phone.”
Officer: “Shut the f**k up. Get him out of here, let’s go.”
In video after video, police focus as much on the cellphone as on the person holding the device.
Technology changes media history. We have a new chapter.
In 2013, Detroit Free Press photographer Mandi Wright covered the arrest of a suspect on a public street. An officer tells her to stop taping on her iPhone. She identifies herself as a member of the press but the officer says, “I don’t care who you are” and confiscates the phone.
Wright and the officer tussle over the phone, and he arrests her. Upon release, she discovered the memory card of her phone was missing.
Outcry was huge.
The professional photographer’s blog, PDNPulse, wrote that the police had “a public relations mess on its hands” violating Wright’s First Amendment rights. It also noted “the Detroit police department has apologized to the paper’s editors, and promised to issue a directive reminding officers that they can’t interfere with anyone videotaping them in public.”
Wright still works for the Free Press and was among journalists in Detroit covering a protest when police opened up on them with tear gas and rubber bullets. A projectile struck a bystander.
A new normal is being established. Increasingly, reporters may be fair game for assaults and arrests even if they identify themselves documenting history as it happens.
The issue seems more about how history is being documented, on camera, than by whom, raising the question about what makes a journalist: the person or the device?
In 2013 when Wright was arrested, the iPhone 5 was a sixth generation cellphone with a 1.3Ghz processor with 1 GB of Ram. Its main feature was an 8 megapixel camera that was 40% faster than its predecessors.
Those features pale compared with the 2020 iPhone 11 Pro Max’s 12-megapixel ultra-wide angle, wide angle, and telephoto lens capability. It excels in live broadcast with a processor and neural engine delivering more than 1 trillion operations per second.
In other words, it can capture just about anything within a 120-degree field of view. And you can buy one for about $1,000.
Some 80% of Americans have cellphones, and 45% of those are iPhones, with its popular demographic being users ages 18-34.
Those users have in pockets a device whose main purpose is a telephone but that functions as telegraph (messaging), radio station (audio), television station (video), blogging (newspaper), live streaming (film crew) and multimedia (all of the above).
The cellphone, in particular, the iPhone, empowers citizens as well as journalists to document what happens in the street, classroom, boardroom — any room or physical space.
Increasingly, citizens tape police arrests that purportedly violate human rights as well as constitutional safeguards.
Citizens have First Amendment rights just as journalists do, and violations thereof can be actionable in federal court pursuant to 42 U.S. Code § 1983, which protects against “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution.”
One class action suit already has been filed in Minnesota. Lead plaintiff Jared Goyette reportedly told police he was a member of the press covering protests but was shot in the face with a rubber bullet.
“Without journalists there, police or other people in power can feel a sense of impunity that no one will see what’s happening anyway,” Goyette says. “Everyone needs to know people are watching.”
And the camera enables that.
Reporters are trained to document rather than doctor content, especially video and photographs. They typically have a bachelor’s degree heavily weighted in the liberal arts and sciences and skills classes involving mastery of equipment. Most important, they study media law and ethics.
Reporters also are held to professional standards and face termination and litigation themselves if they intentionally mislead the public or fabricate information.
Education is key in the debate about reporter arrests, and police need some now about free press and assembly rights.
Reporters and citizens whose cellphones are confiscated should inform police that they do not consent to searches of the device on grounds of Fourth Amendment freedom from incidental seizures.
In the past, beauty was said to be in the eye of the beholder. For better or worse, media history now is in the lens of the holder.
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