According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 40 journalists were assaulted while working in 2022. Organizations such as the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Society of Professional Journalists are trying to combat this by pushing for the Journalistic Protection Act, which would make it a federal crime to knowingly assault a journalist on duty.
“We’re not seeking special treatment for journalists,” said Dan Shelley, CEO and president of the Radio Television Digital News Association. “Anytime a journalist is attacked, anytime a journalist is assaulted, certainly, anytime unfortunately, when a journalist is killed, the ultimate victims are really the members of the public who are then deprived of the work of that journalist, and deprived of the information that the journalist was seeking and attempting to report.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the act in 2018, and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) has introduced it in the House three times. RTDNA and SPJ have supported and lobbied for the act since its first introduction.
“The strength is in our numbers and our coalition,” said Claire Regan, national president of SPJ. “A lot of times, we come together to call for something and that really creates urgency and attention for that cause.”
Over the past decade, ten journalists have been murdered while working in the United States. The most recent death was in February 2023, when 24-year-old Dylan Lyons, a Spectrum News13 reporter, was on the scene of an ongoing investigation in Orlando, and was shot by the suspect.
“That is just horrible,” said Shelley. “It upends lives, it sends terror throughout the community. It’s unacceptable, it should be condemned, and to go full circle, that’s one reason we need the Journalist Protection Act.”
As the journalism industry develops, journalists are taking on multiple roles, meaning they are sometimes going out alone to film. SPJ released a set of safety guidelines for multimedia journalists, including tips on how to increase safety precautions in newsrooms.
In 2020, 133 journalists were arrested while covering the Black Lives Matter protests, and 16 were hurt or arrested during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Dr. Sallie Hughes, associate dean at Global Initiatives at the University of Miami, said: “We know about journalists covering political events getting pushed around and attacked, they could often be caught in the middle and became targets. Sometimes law enforcement would target them, other times protestors would.”
She attributes the increase of hate towards the media to the political environment, and hopes that journalists can “pressure politicians to tone down their violent rhetoric.”
“The attacks on the press have become much more frequent,” Dr. Hughes said. “The political environment and polarization in the country, and the intentional framing of journalists being the enemy is, in some cases, normalizing attacks on the press.”
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has been attacking the landmark Supreme Court case, New York Times v. Sullivan, which protects journalists in defamation claims.
“There is a movement of political movement right now in America, led in part by Governor DeSantis, but many other elected and public officials are also falling in this camp in this movement, to try to damage independent journalism, to try to make it more difficult for journalists to serve the public by seeking and reporting the truth,” said Shelley.
Since the Journalist Protection Act would make it a federal crime to assault a journalist while newsgathering, it would go past local authorities and would make sure perpetrators are properly charged.
“There is a high level of impunity at the local level,” said Hughes. “There’s not enough to investigate and punish those who attack journalists, and their investigative work can upset authorities at the local level.”
RTDNA’s Shelly added that the act “would add a layer of federal protection so that if a local district attorney or state’s attorney or prosecuting attorney decided not to charge or undercharged a defendant accused of assaulting a journalist, then the federal government would have the right to step in. The Department of Justice would have the right to step in and prosecute the attacker on the federal level.”
The act, which has been introduced in 2018, 2019, and 2020, is supported by Democrats, so it may again fail to pass the House, which has a Republican majority.