Back in October, in response to questions from local journalists, I argued that the risks of reporters and other media figures being intentionally targeted by violent political actors (OK, OK, domestic terrorists) was relatively low.
My thinking has changed in the wake of the escalation of political violence that we saw on Jan. 6 and the continuing dangers of more and greater violence in the coming days and weeks.
A week ago we watched pro-Trump mobs storming the U.S. Capitol pause to assault members of the media, delivering the violence against journalists the president has been inciting literally for years.
To cut to the chase, after last Wednesday I don’t think media organizations can automatically assume that their reporters, photographers, and camera crews will be safe at any pro-Trump demonstration in the future, especially if his supporters show up armed. Members of the media should maintain maximum situational awareness and have a plan for how to get out of harm’s way if they need to.
In short, I think media organizations covering a pro-Trump demonstration need to treat it the same way they’d treat sending their staff into a war zone. The risks are that real.
When I thought about this four months ago, my feeling was that the main danger to journalists covering protests and counter-protests during the summer came largely, and unfortunately, from the police, who we saw intentionally targeting journalists with rubber bullets and chemical irritants both here in Detroit and across the United States. I also knew, and the data backs it up, that the most likely perpetrators of domestic terrorism in the United States were unlikely to intentionally target journalists.
These most-likely perpetrators — white supremacists and white nationalists, neo-Nazi groups, violent anti-abortion activists and groups, armed anti-government militias — have had different targets in their sights. In short, journalists have historically fallen outside their “legitimate target” set. But now that a number of these groups have rallied behind Trump, and that the president has explicitly and repeatedly described journalists as “enemies of the people,” I don’t think we can assume that will remain the case.
I am not saying this because I have knowledge of any specific plot or threats against journalists. I say this because it would fit the pattern that we see in terrorism generally.
There is a connection between what terrorist groups and violent political actors — so-called lone wolf terrorists — believe and who and what they target for violence.* Their worldview or ideology shapes their identification of legitimate targets. In embracing Trump, his enemies become their enemies.
So that’s Democrats, Republicans who are insufficiently loyal to Trump, public officials who refused to back his attempt to steal the election. And journalists. There is precedent for this. In 2018 Cesar Sayoc, a pro-Trump extremist, mailed letter bombs to more than a dozen politicians, media companies, and prominent Trump critics.
I don’t mean to be alarmist, but I do think it is important for media organizations to be aware of this changing landscape and to be as fully prepared as possible to keep their people safe.
*It occurs to me that I need to write a post that describes this dynamic. But not this evening.