Editor’s Note: The importance of journalism during protests

Nathan Lesch, Executive Editor

I had planned to introduce myself—and reintroduce The Observer—to Case Western Reserve University’s community at the onset of the fall semester. While I still intend to do that, I would be remiss if I didn’t use my platform to address the pervasive bigotry and racism in our society, explain the importance of these current protests and contextualize the transformative power journalism can have.

Individual and institutionalized racism run rampant throughout the U.S. After all, our society was built on racism and slavery. Unfortunately, not enough has changed over the centuries; African Americans still live under a system set up to fail them. Underfunded schools, a legal system that considers them guilty until proven innocent and politicians indifferent to their needs are just a few of the obstacles Black Americans face.

George Floyd’s killing was awful, horrific and disturbing, but in the American context, it didn’t shock me. Further, I know my own emotional response wasn’t unique. Many people, I think, felt similar outrage and sadness. 

These feelings of horror, outrage and sadness are important, because the day that we stop feeling outraged over the murder of innocent Black men is the day when all is lost. When we begin to think that nothing can be done, we stop striving to fix important problems. 

These protests are important because they signify that we have not become totally desensitized to racist violence. Across the country, thousands of Americans have come together in the streets or on social media to demonstrate that we are not resigned to police violence and institutionalized racism. Together, we’re reminding our leaders that these oppressive power structures are unacceptable and renewing our demand for change.

In this time—one of global protests, a pandemic and raging unemployment—journalism is incredibly important. Journalists are not only responsible for providing reliable and legitimate news. They give a voice to the voiceless. They expose the flaws in our society and hold us all to a higher standard. 

Now, as much as ever, Americans need journalists to contribute to public discourse and face injustice head-on. 

All across the country, journalists have walked with protesters, felt their outrage and tried to act as their ambassadors. And, lamentably, journalists at these protests have faced harassment and violence at the hands of the police. 

The list of physical injuries police have inflicted upon journalists is long and alarming. Journalists have been shoved, hit by pepper balls and shot with rubber bullets. At least one, Linda Tirado, a freelance photojournalist who was blinded in one eye after police shot her with what she thinks was a rubber bullet, was permanently disfigured. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there have been over 100 documented cases of journalists being assaulted by the police while covering the protests. In some instances, these journalists were embedded in and indistinguishable from the protestors, but there are many accounts of journalists being specifically targeted for harm by police officers.

Beyond physical harm, police have repeatedly harassed journalists. Perhaps the most famous case of this is Omar Jimenez’s arrest, which occurred live on T.V. after he identified himself as a CNN reporter and was complying with police directions. 

Jimenez’s story is not an isolated incident, either. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has also noted over 30 documented cases of police arresting journalists covering the protests. And the number of journalists who police have harassed and bothered, but not actually arrested, is, certainly, even higher.

This completely unwarranted violence against and harassment of journalists—as well as against protesters and African Americans—is unacceptable. While this censorship has not stopped journalists from covering the protests, it threatens our democracy and showcases the fragility of our country. Because of its essential contributions to American democracy—which include catalyzing public discourse and societal change—journalism is known as “the fourth estate” of government, with the first three estates being the legislative, executive and judicial branches. In other words, without journalism, democracy would be incomplete. 

Journalism is our primary defense against authoritarianism, which is exactly why police violence towards journalists is so problematic.

Not every attempt to silence journalists is intended to undermine democracy; most are likely intended to obfuscate police misconduct. But regardless of intention, each time a journalist is harassed, arrested or shot, democracy is undermined. The leaders of our country, namely President Donald Trump, signal that these actions are acceptable. They’re not. 

Just as we cannot stand by as people are killed in the street by the very officers tasked with protecting them, we cannot accept journalists being attacked as they work to illuminate this nation’s injustices.