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Journalists Prep for Protests, Threats 01/16 10:19


   NEW YORK (AP) -- While monitoring online chatter about protests at state 
capitols in advance of next week's presidential inauguration, the Seattle Times 
came across a chilling description for journalists: soft targets.

   The phrase drove home the importance of safety precautions being put in 
place by news organizations across the country this weekend, including those 
planned by Times managing editor Ray Rivera and his colleagues.

   "This is scary territory," Rivera said. "I don't want to overstate this, but 
there is always the concern. It's hard to know how much of this is rhetoric or 
bombast, but it's easy for me to think that some person is going to take those 
messages seriously and do something."

   At Capitols across the country, National Guard troops are being called up, 
fences built, windows boarded up and employees warned to stay away. No one 
wants to see repeats of the siege at the U.S. Capitol last week, and no one 
wants to be caught flat-footed.

   Video of journalists being roughed up is fresh in mind, along with graffiti 
scrawled on the Capitol saying "Murder the media."

   Reporters at the Minneapolis Star Tribune went through a harrowing summer of 
covering civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, with some shot by 
rubber bullets, tear-gassed or detained by police. The current situation is 
different, said Suki Dardarian, the Star Tribune's vice president and managing 

   "The protest this summer was targeted at the system," she said. "The risk to 
us was as bystanders. There were a few people who didn't like us, but it wasn't 
an anti-media situation. In this case, people are inflamed not just against the 
government but the media."

   A "Storm the Capitol" rally in St. Paul, Minnesota last week shifted to the 
residence of Gov. Tim Walz, who said state troopers had to hustle his 
14-year-old son to safety.

   Gas masks and bullet-proof vests are being provided to Star Tribune 
journalists assigned to cover upcoming rallies, and they will be watched by 
security hired by the newspaper. The experience of last summer helps in 
planning; without it, Dardarian said she didn't know whether the vests would 
have been ordered.

   "It did help us think more clearly and more strategically about what we 
needed to do, and to take it seriously," she said.

   While demonstrations are not expected everywhere, The Associated Press is 
prepared to cover Capitols in all 50 states, said Brian Carovillano, the 
organization's vice president and managing editor.

   "We're not commenting on specific security precautions, other than to say 
the safety of our journalists is our No. 1 priority," he said. "We're drawing 
on the expertise of a lot of people who have a lot of experience covering 
difficult and sometimes scary situations."

   Most organizations stress the importance of teamwork, so journalists who are 
working are accompanied by someone responsible for looking around them for 
potential danger. Plans include escape routes and regular check-ins with 

   "If you go out to these demonstrations alone, that's a bad decision," said 
Connor Radnovich of the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon.

   Radnovich will cover demonstrations at Oregon's statehouse, bringing a 
significant advantage to the job. His hobby is self-defense, and he's been 
trained to recognize the signs that someone is about to get violent.

   In many war zones, journalists make sure they are clearly identified as 
press so they are not mistaken for enemy combatants. It's a trickier call at 
demonstrations where some participants consider the press itself the enemy.

   Tim Lambert, news director at WITF-FM in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said that 
instead of wearing a lanyard or outward identifier, his reporter will carry a 
press pass in a pocket that can be easily reached. In Pennsylvania, where Joe 
Biden's narrow win essentially gave him the presidency, state employees at the 
Capitol are advised to take next Tuesday and Wednesday off.

   The public radio station has bought skateboard helmets, gas masks, eye 
protectors, knee pads, first aid kits and water bottles for its reporters.

   "We didn't go as far as protective plates or bullet-proof vests," Lambert 
said. "We will revisit that if things go south."

   A six-foot fence has been installed around the State Capitol in Lansing, 
Michigan. The state has been a hotbed of activity by anti-government 
extremists, and six men unhappy with coronavirus restrictions put in place by 
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were charged in a plot to kidnap her.

   The Michigan Press Association has arranged for a safe spot within sight of 
the Capitol if reporters need to retreat to cover any unrest from indoors, 
spokeswoman Lisa McGraw said.

   The AP learned firsthand at the U.S. Capitol of the dangers. Some of the 
company's equipment was stolen and vandalized, and photographer John Minchillo 
was roughed up by demonstrators before being pulled to safety. Minchillo went 
back to work, and photographer Scott Applewhite stayed on duty in the House 
chamber despite being told to evacuate.

   "It's the AP's mission to be there and bear witness when others can't be 
there," Carovillano said. "That's basically our whole reason for existence."

   For the most part, news organizations don't have trouble finding people for 
dangerous assignments. It's the job of managers to assess the risks.

   John Hiner, vice president of content for MLive, a digital-first operation 
affiliated with eight newspapers in Michigan, said he's never seen a time with 
this much hostility toward journalists. Some of his reporters have received 
death threats.

   "Frankly, it's discouraging," Hiner said. "But it does not discourage our 
commitment to do what we are doing for democracy. If anything, it's heightened 
our sense that what we do is important.

   "I'm proud of my people, but I worry every single day."

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