What a wild time to be a journalist.
Over the last two weeks, cops have attacked journalists nationwide who are covering the national uprising. After undergoing a shoddy editorial process, a fascist op-ed written by right-wing Sen. Tom Cotton threatening to use the military to quell free speech was published in The New York Times, which forced many of the publication’s Black journalists to publicly take a stand against the piece by saying it put their lives in danger. (James Bennet, the editorial page editor who oversaw the publication of Cotton’s op-ed without actually reading it, has since resigned.) On June 4, more than 30 journalists of color at The Philadelphia Inquirer refused to work after the newspaper ran a “Buildings Matter, Too” headline. (The top editor at the paper has since resigned over the headline). And on June 5, The Los Angeles Times’ executive editor sent an all-staff email announcing reforms and acknowledging the paper’s “well-documented history” of fueling “racism and cruelty.”
These developments have caused a “raging debate” over journalism’s role during this pivotal moment in American history, when people nationwide have taken to the streets. But something else happened that didn’t make headlines, further highlighting the deeply uncomfortable divides between the journalism industry, the people it reports on, and the reporters of color working within the confines of the field.
On June 1, 18 journalism organizations—some of which represent communities long targeted by police—signed an extraordinarily troubling open letter to law enforcement officials imploring them to “halt the deliberate and devastating targeting of journalists in the field.” No context was provided for the nationwide protests prompted by the murders of Black people at the hands of police, including Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician shot by the police in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, and Tony McDade, a trans man shot and killed by police in Tallahassee, Florida. There was also no mention of the police brutality inflicted on protestors who, like us, are protected by the First Amendment.
“First, you have our utmost respect,” begins the letter to law enforcement from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the National Association for Black Journalists (NABJ), and the Association of LGBTQ Journalists, among others. The letter goes on to say: “When you silence the press with rubber bullets, you silence the voice of the public.”
But the public has made its voice very clear since the uprising began two weeks ago after the murder of George Floyd. Also, as Cotton’s op-ed illustrated, the editorial decisions made by mainstream media outlets regularly normalize state violence and rarely reflect the voice of the people.
It should be seen as a horrible misstep that journalism organizations representing marginalized communities sent a letter expressing respect for and solidarity with law enforcement officials, and to plead with them to stand down—but only for journalists’ sake. Removing ourselves as the target of the violence during protests may enable us to better do our jobs, but it does not absolve the police from their use of force on protestors who are equally protected under the law, equally entitled to exercise their right to free speech, and who should also not experience violence for doing so. And it certainly does nothing to acknowledge or address the conditions Black journalists have faced at the hands of the police for decades, including surveillance.
Telling law enforcement officials “we are in this together” indicates those who signed on to the letter have a fundamental misunderstanding of some of the core functions of our job as journalists, which is to speak truth to power and interrogate systems of power that allow for abuse. Statements like these can lull the police into thinking it is reasonable and appropriate to request that journalists share photos and footage of protests—in other words, become agents of the state—to help carry out enforcement.
Simply put, it is not our job to respect the police. It is not our job to work alongside the police. It is our job to hold the police accountable. The weight of our stories relies on our ability to do rigorous, evidenced-based reporting, and the evidence shows that police are a direct threat to Black communities and a danger to public safety. The violence our colleagues have experienced while covering the national uprising happens routinely in Black communities. These are all statements of fact, and to be a journalist pretending otherwise is not “objective.” It is ahistorical and aiding in a system that demeans, devalues, and endangers Black lives.