NEW YORK – The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University today published a new report entitled Covering Democracy: Protests, Police, and the Press authored by Joel Simon, the Knight Institute’s 2022-2023 senior visiting fellow and founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. The report documents the deliberate and aggressive targeting of journalists by police during demonstrations, examines the historical context from the Civil Rights Era to the present day, and explores the challenges of determining who is a journalist in an information environment transformed by technology. It concludes with a set of policy recommendations to better protect press freedom.

“Journalists play an essential role when they cover protests and demonstrations by facilitating public debate and ensuring the law enforcement officials are accountable to the communities they serve,” said Joel Simon, senior visiting fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute. “Attacks against journalists perpetrated by police, including arbitrary arrests and indiscriminate violence, are extremely alarming and undermine American democracy.”

The report is based on dozens of interviews with journalists, researchers, and legal experts and features personal stories of journalists whose First Amendment rights to gather news at protests were violated by police during recent protests. To identify trends, Simon analyzed data from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a database documenting incidents across the country, involving the press and national, state, and local authorities. And to better understand the police perspective, Simon reviewed court testimony, interviewed investigators, and contacted several police departments across the country.

“At a time when both protests and efforts to repress protesters’ rights are on the rise, it is crucial that journalists on the scene be allowed to do their jobs without interference,” said Katy Glenn Bass, research director at the Knight First Amendment Institute. “Protecting journalists’ First Amendment rights is essential to efforts to protect protesters’ rights as well.”

Covering Democracy addresses numerous issues pertaining to press freedom and safety at protests, and includes a brief overview of the First Amendment rights of protestors and the press, written by Glenn Bass. The report concludes with a set of recommendations directed at law enforcement agencies, state legislatures, news industry organizations and professional associations, leaders of publications and newsrooms, journalists covering protests, and to the Department of Justice. 

The Knight Institute is co-sponsoring a report launch event this evening with the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, which will include an advance screening of the Institute’s soon-to-be-released short documentary film exploring the same issues, Flashpoint: Protests, Policing, and the Press. Newmark’s Dean Graciela Mochkofsky will offer opening remarks and MSNBC’s Ali Velshi will moderate a conversation with Simon, Society of Professional Journalists Vice President Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins, Glenn Bass, photojournalist Stephanie Keith, and documentary journalist Ed Ou. RSVP to attend.

Read Covering Democracy: Protests, Police, and the Press here.

Watch the trailer for Flashpoint: Protests, Policing, and the Press here.