To be a journalist is to doggedly pursue important information intended to inform and serve the public. Sometimes, that information might place an individual or organization in a negative light, threaten their reputation or livelihood, or otherwise create conflict as a result of its publication. Pursuing and exposing the truth therefore comes with risks.
Journalists across the world face threats and intimidation while doing their jobs. Sometimes, this comes as general public disdain or name-calling by members of an audience or a person implicated in a story. But, in some cases, journalists face physical, mental, and emotional violence both online and offline in the course of reporting. A global trend toward violence against journalists is especially acute in countries where the freedom of the press is not well protected (e.g., Egypt and the Philippines). However, it is growing as a problem in the United States as well.
Although the United States has historically been seen as a beacon for the free press, its ranking on press freedom indices in recent years suggests that is no longer the case. For example, the 2021 World Press Freedom Index ranks the United States as the 44th most free country for journalists (out of 180). This places the U.S. below countries like Taiwan, Bostwana, and Trinidad and Tobago. Furthermore, the 2021 ranking is not an aberration: the U.S. has not been ranked better than 40th since 2013.
The World Press Freedom Index takes multiple factors into account, one of which is violence against journalists. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, nearly 400 journalists were assaulted and more than 130 were detained during 2020 alone. This was a significant increase from even just five years earlier, and it points to changing attitudes — and, namely, increased animosity — toward journalists by different segments of society.
Some of these attacks are encouraged (if not driven) by popular figures and media personalities who decry journalists as “enemies of the people.” Indeed, former President Donald Trump’s use of such language and frequent public attacks on specific journalists, specific outlets, and the institution of journalism have been credited with influencing the exceptional amount of violence against journalists during his time as president. During Trump’s rallies, it was not uncommon to hear supporters yelling at the journalists tasked with covering those political events. Similarly, photojournalists captured striking photos of supporters wearing t-shirts with slogans like: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. No assembly required.”
However, the violence against U.S. journalists was not strictly enacted by partisan supporters. Scores of journalists were detained, arrested, and sometimes attacked by police officers and security services when covering protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. In one exceptional case, a foam bullet left one photojournalist blind in the left eye. More frequently, journalists were shoved to the ground and prevented from doing their jobs despite being clearly credentialed. (In Minneapolis, police officers arrested a credentialed CNN reporter live on air while he was reporting.)
What was perhaps most striking to media observers about these incidents is that the journalists’ behaviors (e.g., encroaching upon the locus of action while respecting authorities’ commands) were not too different from times past. What seemed to have changed was the response they faced from the authorities — and the fact that such attacks were not publicly elected by some social and political elites, or even large segments of U.S. society.
While only some of those assaults were captured on video (often by protesters engaging in acts of journalism), their frequency and violence resulted in government officials in a number of European countries calling on American officials to better protect journalists and respect the freedom of the press. Put another way, the U.S. was no longer being seen as a beacon of press freedoms; it was seen as a place where journalists needed support in order to carry out their duties. These sentiments were echoed in editorials by multiple journalistic outlets, as well as watchdog organizations (e.g., Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists).
Research shows that violence against journalists is correlated with rhetorical attacks against journalists in elite discourse. Put another way, as rhetorical attacks against journalists have risen, so have different forms of violence against them. This is of particular concern as partisan rhetorical attacks against journalists have become more frequent and sustained in recent decades. This is not just a recent phenomenon, though. Right-wing radio has consistently assailed “the mainstream media” since at least the 1970s.
However, mainstream politicians, especially among the Republican party, have become increasingly bold with their attacks on news media over the past two decades. For example, in 2019 alone, former president Donald Trump used the insult “fake news” on Twitter 273 times and called the press “the enemy of the people” 16 times. Trump’s administration also barred well-regarded journalists from covering certain events and canceled the historically traditional daily White House press briefing, all under the guise of fighting unscrupulous journalists. Indeed, that same year, an edited montage video depicting then-President Trump shooting and stabbing journalists was played publicly at an event for his political supporters.
Scholars and advocates of press freedom worry that actions from the upper echelons of major political party, and those of some of their political supporters, serve to vilify journalists and incite public attacks against them. A study from Pew Research backs up this perception: People who supported Trump while he was president perceived journalists to be less ethical. Moreover, mainstream journalists who covered Trump’s administration were frequently subject to an array of online name-calling every time they posted a new story.
The violence is not just rhetorical, though. For example, in May 2017, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, Greg Gianforte, body-slammed a journalist covering his campaign. The attack was fierce enough to send the journalist to a hospital. Although Gianforte was later convicted of assault, his actions were publicly praised by then-President Donald Trump and celebrated in some corners of society. Moreover, Gianforte would go on to win two terms to the U.S. House of Representatives and become governor of Montana.
Violence against journalists is even more prevalent and pernicious in some places outside of the United States, though. The Middle East, Latin America, and parts of Asia have proven to be especially dangerous for journalists. It is estimated that more than 800 journalists around the world have been killed on the job during the past decade alone. (Such numbers likely underestimate the reality.) There are many more global incidents of violence against journalists that include kidnapping, detention, and torture.
The disappearance of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi has become a terrible symbol of the need to increase protections for journalists worldwide. The Washington Post writer reported critically about political corruption in the Middle East. In October 2018, he was assassinated in gruesome fashion by Saudi government actors who wished to silence his voice. Despite the evidence linking Khashoggi’s murder to the Saudi crown prince, few concrete sanctions were placed on Saudi Arabia by countries that advocate for press freedom.
In another high-profile case, Maria Ressa, a Filipino-American journalist who founded a journalistic outlet called Rappler, was convicted of cyberlibel in the Philippines in 2020 after years of reporting critically on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Press freedom advocates allege that the Duterte government was behind the lawsuit — which was advanced by a businessman who was the subject of one of Rappler’s stories — and pressured the courts to interpret a 2012 law intended to combat child pornography, identity theft, and libel in a “Kafkaesque” way that could criminalize critical journalistic conduct. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, as well as international watchdog groups, have decried the ruling as an example of authorities using legal mechanisms to restrict critical journalism.
While a range of journalists face violence, there is one group that is particularly vulnerable: freelance journalists who cover conflict zones. Declining news budgets have resulted in more conflict journalism being performed by freelance reporters. Such reporters receive limited institutional assistance relative to staff reporters at mainstream international journalistic outlets, such as limited legal support, little access to on-the-ground resources like a security detail, and lack of access to services like emergency extractions. However, freelancers often need to take greater risks in order to gather information (e.g., photographs) from the front lines of conflict in order to have their stories get picked up by major journalistic outlets (and, in turn, get paid). Consequently, freelancers are disproportionately more likely to get killed when reporting abroad, and especially in war zones.
Some research has found that women in journalism are more susceptible to violence than their male counterparts, particularly online. A study by the International Center for Journalists published in 2020 documented the variety of physical and psychological threats female journalists face online, which fall under the category of “gendered online violence.”
Gendered online violence includes acts like cyber-bullying and online harassment, targeted toxic attacks, threatened sexual violence, and violations of digital security and online privacy (e.g., ‘doxxing’). Such acts can further complicate the already difficult online environments that many journalists must operate within, and make female journalists especially vulnerable. These gendered online attacks occur on a variety of sites and platforms, from online news comment streams on a journalistic outlet’s website to social media interactions on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Similarly, journalists belonging to minority ethnic groups are more likely to face online harassment than their majority counterparts. These attacks often come by way of ethnic slurs and coordinated action, and they tend to be more personal in nature. Newsrooms, in coordination with law enforcement, continue to develop best practices for preventing and reacting to this type of harassment, including creating clear standards for interactions allowed on their news websites.
All of this serves as a reminder that the practice of journalism is not only difficult but also dangerous.
Journalists across the world face physical, mental, and emotional violence — both online and offline — as a result of doing their jobs.
Violence against journalists is especially acute in countries where freedom of the press is less protected than in the United States, but it remains a problem in the U.S. as well.
Offline violence against journalists is correlated with rhetorical attacks against journalists in elite discourse. Because the United States has long been viewed internationally as a bastion of press freedom, the anti-journalist behavior and rhetoric of recent years has set a dangerous example for other countries.
Women in journalism are even more susceptible to violence than their male counterparts, particularly online.