Dangerous era for journalists: 1 in 5 TV news stations report employees attacked in 2020

WASHINGTON — Covering the news during a pandemic is not easy. Covering the news during a pandemic, election year, and growing civil unrest is apparently down-right dangerous, a new survey finds. According to the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), one in five television news stations say they have employees who were the victims of violent crimes last year.

The poll of 1,762 non-satellite TV stations and 3,379 radio outlets reveals journalists were threatened, assaulted, and even arrested at alarming rates across the U.S. in 2020. Overall, 20 percent of all TV news directors report that employees of theirs were attacked while on the job. That was especially prevalent in larger markets. In fact, nearly two in five news directors in the country’s top 25 markets say members of their newsroom reported being attacked.

Although participants will argue their demonstrations were largely peaceful, the survey reveals protests were the most dangerous places to practice journalism during 2020. Half of all attacks on the media reportedly took place during acts of civil unrest, marches, rallies, and riots.

“Never before in the modern history of our country has it been more hazardous to be a journalist,” Dan Shelley, Executive Editor and Chief Operating Officer of the RTDNA tells StudyFinds. “But the the real victims are the members of the public journalists attempt to serve by braving the hazards to seek and report the truth.”

Bulletproof vests to cover the news?

Due to these trends, a staggering 86 percent of news directors say they changed their station’s policies to protect employees. This includes buying equipment one would typically only see in a war zone. Respondents report giving their journalists bulletproof vests, gas masks, goggles, extra support personnel, and even security teams in the field.

“We’ve purchased a lot of protective equipment, including bulletproof vests. We’ve also formalized our guidance to staff on how to stay safe at protests,” one news director tells the survey.

Political unrest fanning the flames

From allegations of the press creating “fake news” to former President Trump calling the media the “enemy of the people,” journalism’s reputation has certainly fallen over the years. Lack of trust in the media may even be leading to growing violence against such organizations.

“During the election, someone shot out the living room window of the news director,” another respondent tells RTDNA researchers.

Overall, the poll finds only 15 percent of attacks on media members appear to be random acts of violence.

Big cities see more violence

When it comes to where these attacks are occurring, the survey finds the biggest media markets appear to provide more opportunities for violent crime against journalists. Nearly four in 10 newsrooms (39%) in the top 25 media markets reported attacks on employees in 2020. These markets include New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis, St. Paul, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The numbers are slightly lower in smaller markets, with 29 percent of newsrooms in the 26th to 50th biggest markets reporting attacks. Less than a quarter (24%) of newsrooms in the 51st to 100th biggest media markets said the same.

“This data makes clear a reality that many journalists have already recognized – we are under attack. It is a journalist’s constitutionally protected duty to serve the public by seeking and reporting the truth, but this protection alone has proven inadequate,” RTDNA says in a media release.

The group is calling on Congress to pass new laws which would create added protections for journalists.

Researchers from the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University conducted the survey.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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