Nathan Howard was tired. It was his twentieth night in a row covering Black Lives Matter protests in Portland and he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Protestors had marched on the sheriff’s department and police had come in to disperse the crowd. It seemed like a regular dispersal, Howard says. Suddenly a flash-bang exploded, about a half second after it bounced off his ankle.
“I looked down to make sure I still had a foot,” says Howard, a 2015 graduate of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. “I continued working for another 30 minutes after that.”
In the moment he paused to check his foot, police began chasing protestors. There was no time to get a medic, he still had a job to do. He began running after police, who were running after protestors down alleys and dark streets. He wanted to document the arrests and the police interactions with local residents, the freelance photojournalist says.
“If I’m injured and labeled as press, and they felt comfortable doing what they did to me …,” Howard says, and then pauses for a moment. “Somebody has to be there to photograph it, to document it.”
Journalists across the country are committed to maintaining the integrity of their profession, increasingly putting themselves at risk in an environment where the former president of the United States frequently has referred to the media as “the enemy of the people.” A profession that has long been respected for its mission to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information now faces wartime elements, hatred, and other dangers.
Murrow graduates documenting the Black Lives Matter movement and other protests say they have become targets, with threats coming from multiple directions.
“I think we are always on edge,” says Veronica Miracle (’12 Comm.), general assignment reporter for ABC7 Eyewitness News in Los Angeles. “There’s so much anger at protests, you have to be careful not to have it directed at you.”
Reporters say it is not safe to be in vehicles marked with their news stations’ logos, and they don’t wear clothing that identifies them as media. Some journalists wear eye protection and bulletproof vests. Past midnight many news stations rely on helicopters and freelance reporters for coverage.
“We won’t go to any big event without at least two security. I’ve had four, for just me and my photographer,” Miracle says.
Over the last seven years, BLM has transformed from a hashtag to a social justice movement and a national organization. Organizers founded BLM in response to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The organization’s website says BLM’s mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.
BLM protestors marched throughout the country following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020, and protests continued in Portland, Oregon, every night for months afterward.
Hannah Lambert (’15 Comm.) says covering the protests was like nothing she’s ever experienced. On the first couple of nights in May, the police aggressively dispersed crowds early, even though the city had a curfew in place. She says they used tear gas and flash-bangs.
“It’s chaos trying to do your job and report while you’re being blinded by gas or trying to stay out of the way and show your media credentials,” Lambert says. “It was my first time being tear gassed, and I got it like five times that first night.”
Lambert, a digital enterprise reporter for KOIN 6 News in Portland, says she saw a change in dynamics after the first few weeks of protests.
“It began with young people of color. Then the movement got hijacked by Portland’s core group of protestors, a majority white,” Lambert says. “It’s very far from what it started as.”
Reporters say it is challenging when there are dueling protests and both sides hate the media. There’s a balance, reading the situation and interpreting the levels of hostility.
“You’ve got four factions and none of them are super thrilled the press is there. Cops, feds, far right, and protestors,” Howard says. “How do you safely maintain access to all four groups at the same time? If you don’t have access, you can’t tell the story.”
Howard has seen hate, violence, and fear as he has photographed the protests night after night. His throat is burned from tear gas and he drinks a lot more water than he used to. He says he does his best to stay rested so he can maintain situational awareness. He has a military-grade mask and a bulletproof vest.
He was there on the Fourth of July when federal law enforcement officers in military fatigues, carrying assault rifles with live ammunition, started grabbing protestors. He was 20 feet away in August when Aaron J. Danielson, a supporter of the right-wing Patriot Prayer group, was killed. On the hundredth night of protests, he saw protestors throw a Molotov cocktail.
“That was attempted murder on the cops, extreme in that sense,” Howard says. “That thing almost hit four photographers. That was a gut check for us.”
He says the immediate physical danger gets his adrenaline going and safety is a concern, but it doesn’t linger.
However, Howard was concerned when federal law enforcement officers began policing protests in July. Members of the media saw unusual cars parked outside their homes and observed the same people repeatedly throughout the day. Journalists weren’t sure if protestors were following them, or cops.
“The Department of Homeland Security was creating dossiers on reporters,” Howard says. “That’s what scares me. The federal government monitoring the press, or the local police doing it, that’s more concerning for me and what that means to the press.”
In late July, Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security, ordered the federal agency’s intelligence unit to stop collecting that information.
Reporters each have their own strategies for maintaining safety. Howard talks to police to show them he’s not a threat and he wears the same clothes every night to make it easy for them to identify him.
“Police are a player and that’s been very unsettling, in a way, to watch,” Howard says.
While he talks to law enforcement, Howard limits how much he talks to protestors.
“In really intense situations it can be easy for comments to be misconstrued, and it can be very dangerous. I try to be a fly on the wall,” Howard says.
Miracle says her role at the Los Angeles protests is to help people at home see what is going on. She attends protests as a witness, to show where are people going, what they are doing, and why they are there.
“You have to be really smart and aware of your surroundings,” Miracle says. “That undercurrent of hatred is always there. The age of journalism is different from the one I expected.”
Journalists say it is important to differentiate between Black Lives Matter protests and those led by other organizations and groups.
Lambert says that as the protests shifted away from BLM, attitudes toward the media started changing. The early protests were media friendly, she says, but now many protestors oppose the media. They record their own footage, but only film police, Lambert says.
Late in the summer, protest organizers blacklisted Lambert for shooting video that went against the protestors’ “media rules,” which include not filming or photographing protestors’ faces or people committing crimes. Protestors tracked Lambert through her activity on Twitter and looked for her at protests. She says she wasn’t afraid she would be physically attacked, but she had an uneasy feeling she wasn’t used to. Her news station pulled her from covering protests, and she says she appreciated the break.
“After three months, it was a lot of tear gas, a lot of long nights,” Lambert says. The protests, coupled with a pandemic and a contentious election, have created a difficult environment for journalists, she says.
Latisha Jensen (’19 Comm.) has focused on the accountability of one particularly aggressive officer in Portland rather than nightly protests. Riot cops cover their name tags, but most are identifiable by a number on their helmet. After weeks of reporting on the officer who wore helmet number 67, Jensen reported the officer’s name in a story after confirming it with three independent sources. By October, five officers had been taken off street duty, she says.
“I feel like I had a role in that,” says Jensen, who covers inequality and political representation on the east side of Portland for Willamette Week.
Reporters know their safety isn’t guaranteed, but many are willing to take the risk.
“Officers don’t care if you are with the press,” Jensen says. “[Reporters] know that something might happen. That’s why it’s important that they be out there.”
Safety isn’t the only challenge journalists face as they work to tell the protest stories. News organizations have limited resources and reporters are exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally.
After months of protests, some journalists contemplate whether their audiences are getting tired of the coverage. Lambert says based on the stories KOIN viewers read on the station’s website, they are not. Still, in the fall she shifted her focus to building a database on the arrests, or lack thereof.
“Those stories are harder to write and take longer, those stories about what this all means,” Lambert says. “If reporters are out for six or seven hours at a protest, they don’t have time to dig into the deeper meaning. It’s a resource problem. [News] outlets have had layoffs. It’s a pandemic.”
In between longer, in-depth news stories, the violence becomes the narrative, Howard says, but not because anyone is failing as a journalist. The overarching theme of violence is going to come out, he added.
“The violence that is abnormal is the most newsworthy,” he says.
It can be difficult to keep up with all of the news and prioritize it every day when so many important issues need attention. Jensen says that one of the biggest challenges she sees is that Portland, among the whitest cities in America with 77 percent of residents categorized as white, is the center of these social injustice protests.
“As a journalist of color, I’m filling a gap that’s needed in Portland, as a Black person in a really white city,” Jensen says.
Jensen says being the only person of color on her staff can be draining. Her newspaper endorsed a city council candidate this summer who had made insensitive comments about people of color.
“People can be insensitive in their reporting and that can be harmful to communities,” she says. “It keeps that way of speaking to people and the stereotypes ok.”
Howard also notes that a majority of the journalists covering the protests in Portland are white.
“It’s often easy to forget who frames the narrative of these protests,” he says. “You still, in the way you see the world and through your personal experiences, frame the narrative.”
As the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death nears, reporters consider how long this moment will last.
“When you talk to folks consistently participating in extreme activity and ask why they are doing it, they say they’ve been trying to affect change from within for years to no effect,” Howard says. “Their response is to take to the streets where it gets media attention and scares people they think should be scared.”
Until we have a system where everybody feels like they are heard and they can affect change, this will continue to happen, Howard says. Meanwhile, there are always a few things on his mind when he’s working at the protests.
“I’m always looking for moments of humanity between protestors and police, sometimes cops and protestors sharing a joke, protestors sharing a hug. I’m looking for that human element. I’m hoping something will resonate with people in my photos.”
Howard says he will not stop covering the protests. He spends a significant amount of his time looking for ways to keep national editors interested in a story about Portland.
“This is an incredibly important story and unless you have someone actively looking for stories to interest national outlets, protestors will lose protections they get from having national attention,” he says.
Jensen says covering the protests was emotionally tolling, but she finds it rewarding. She has spoken to victims of police brutality and shed a light on deep inequities in the community. She says you have to look at each individual to understand the inequities, and consider not just race, but schools, poverty, jobs, housing, and more.
“What will get us to the end is listening to the heart of the message: What people are demanding—why they are on the streets in the first place,” Jensen says.