NEW YORK (AP) — The hostility she’s felt from the public recently wasn’t necessarily the last straw in television news photographer Lori Bentley-Law’s decision to quit the business after 24 years, but it was one of them.
Bentley-Law’s recent blog post explaining why she was leaving Los Angeles’ KNBC-TV hit home for many colleagues. While President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media are usually centered on national outlets like CNN and The New York Times, the attitudes unleashed have filtered down to journalists on the street covering news in local communities across the country.
When a president describes the press as enemies of the people, “attitudes shift and the field crews get the brunt of the abuse,” she wrote. “And it’s not just from one side. We get it all the way around, pretty much on a daily basis.”
The Radio Television Digital News Association is spreading safety and self-defense tips to journalists, most notably advising limits on the use of one-person news crews. The RTDNA has begun compiling anti-press incidents, like last week when an intruder was shot after kicking down glass doors at Fox’s local station in Washington. The National Press Photographers Association is developing workshops to spread safety advice to its members.
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“The environment has changed,” said Chris Post, a photographer for WFMZ-TV in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “I’ve witnessed the transition.”
CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta made news last week by saying Trump’s attacks on the media “have got to stop” because he feared someone would get hurt. He’s been the target of chants and epithets when covering Trump rallies, including one recently where a man looked at him and made a motion like he was slitting a throat. Since then, three suspicious packages have been addressed to separate CNN offices.
While the examples of Acosta and others who follow Trump are most visible, there are countless other, more private examples that happen across the country — like when Post arrived to cover an immigration rally and a man in a car asked him where he was going.
Told it was a pro-immigration rally, the man became agitated and stepped on his accelerator, stopping just short of hitting Post and giving him a self-satisfied look, Post recalled.
“I’m 6-foot-5, 300 pounds,” he said. “I’ve had somebody try to grab my camera. When it gets to that point, where does it stop? It’s a tough time to be a journalist.”
Caitlin Penna, a freelance photographer from Durham, North Carolina, said she constantly has her guard up on assignments. Even her conservative family is suspicious of her. “I’m pretty sure my grandmother thinks I’m this far-left liberal because of the things I cover,” she said.
One night she was unwinding at a local bar and struck up a conversation with a man nearby. When she discussed what she did, the man said, “you report fake news” and walked away.
Bentley-Law was startled when the essay on leaving her job got 11,000 hits in three days. She usually counts readers to her personal blog in the dozens. Her intention was to tell friends and colleagues why she was leaving, and instead was flooded with texts and emails from frustrated journalists across the country.
“I suppose my experience isn’t unique and certainly resonated,” Bentley-Law, who declined to be interviewed, said via email.
On her blog, she wrote that “I don’t want to be immersed in sadness every day. I don’t ever want a cute little girl in pigtails to look up at me and say, ‘We hate you.’ I don’t want to hear ‘fake news’ shouted at me anymore, or to be flipped off while driving my news van.”
She said that some of the incidents she wrote about — the hateful little girl and the man who stuck his bare butt out the window and defecated — predate Trump. There are other factors that contributed to her desire to leave, including shoulder woes from carrying heavy equipment for many years and a constant diet of murders and other depressing story assignments.
But the current environment is definitely part of it. People who drive vans emblazoned with a television station’s call letters are obvious targets. One recent day, Bentley-Law wrote that a person in a Mercedes prevented her van from getting off a highway until several exits beyond her destination.
Video journalist Joshua Replogle of The Associated Press was filming flooding from Hurricane Florence in North Carolina’s rural Bladen County when a nearby man knocked over his camera and began punching him in the face. His friends muttered, “fake news.” So far no charges have been filed, he said.
“The ironic part is my video would have helped him,” Replogle said. “It would have brought attention to a small town” where there was flooding, he said.
So far this year the RTDNA’s “press freedom tracker” counts 39 incidents of journalists being attacked in the United States, including the June 28 shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, where five people were killed. In less lethal examples, a man purposely crashed a pick-up truck into the side of a Dallas television station, a Miami reporter and a photographer were physically attacked while doing a live shot and a North Carolina crew had its power cable cut while covering a demonstration.
Last year, the first time a count was kept, there were 48 such cases for all of 2017.
While one-person crews have become more popular for television stations looking to cut costs, the Radio Television Digital News Association recommends that their use be curtailed in certain times and places, said Dan Shelley, RTDNA executive director.
“Since the election, people are emboldened more,” said Nic Coury, a staff photographer at the Monterey County Weekly and a freelancer in the affluent California county.
Coury has been called part of the liberal scum media, an enemy of the state and been told old that he and his colleagues lie all the time. When conservative Arizona politician and law enforcement officer Joe Arpaio made a local appearance, “it was like walking into the dragon’s lair,” he said. Coury felt the anger when asking people for caption information.
Still, Coury has given no thought to quitting. Despite Bentley-Law’s experience, Shelley said colleges are finding that more people want to get into journalism.
“It matters,” Coury said, “and I think now more than ever it matters.”
Post said on the same day a man shouted “fake news” at him while driving by in a pickup truck, he had an experience while driving through a fast-food line that gave him hope.
He was handed a cup of coffee and told that the woman in line ahead of him had bought it, wanting to pass along the message “thank you for what you do.”