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
"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."