Protecting the future of journalism with the Journalist Protection Act
© Greg Nash

When I think of an image that represents the past 19 months, I see a line on a graph climbing higher and higher.

In 2020, I couldn’t escape these ever-increasing lines. I still see them every day. Out of all these daunting figures, there is one that is particularly troubling to me. It, like some of the others, rises daily without relief. The higher it climbs, the more our democracy is at risk.

It is the line that measures attacks against journalists in America.

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According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, attacks against journalists increased 1000 percent in 2020 compared with the previous year. Journalists are being arrested, verbally assaulted, and physically attacked at rates unlike any we’ve seen in recent history. The most routine stories have become dangerous — with journalists reporting equipment damage and getting shot at and facing other forms of attack while on the job. 

Newsrooms across the country have learned to adapt to these increasingly dangerous circumstances. In research conducted by RTDNA and the SI Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, it was found that 86 percent of local news directors changed newsroom procedures to protect employees in 2020. These changes ranged from purchasing bulletproof vests and gas masks to sending out security teams with reporters.

It is a dangerous time to be a journalist in America. Members of the news media play an essential role of holding our systems accountable, but they have targets on their backs. The government leaders who were elected to protect their constituents have stood idly by for too long, intensifying the issue with their inaction.

Until now.

The Journalist Protection Act (JPA) was introduced in Congress on Thursday, July 29 by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezBiden threatens more sanctions on Ethiopia, Eritrea over Tigray conflict Failed drug vote points to bigger challenges for Democrats Overnight Defense & National Security — Blinken heads to the hot seat MORE (D-N.J.), and Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails How lawmakers aided the Afghan evacuation MORE (D-Calif.). It is an essential piece of legislation that acknowledges the dangers of this moment, and acts to create a safer future for the media industry. The JPA would make it a federal crime intentionally to intimidate or cause bodily harm to a journalist or media organization in the course of newsgathering or reporting. It would also allow the Justice Department to prosecute those who intimidate or assault journalists when local prosecutors decline to do so.

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The JPA was initially introduced by Swalwell in 2018. Regardless of the active threats on journalism at the time, the legislation didn’t make it far in the 115th Congress. But a lot has changed since 2018. Today there is much more is on the line.

For months, our team at RTDNA has advocated for the introduction of the JPA. We have gathered signatures from hundreds of journalists expressing their ardent support for its protections. We have collected stories from individuals in the industry who have experienced violence firsthand. We have watched as an institution so essential to our democracy has been repeatedly threatened by those in power.

Today journalists and media organizations across the country join in celebrating its introduction. Tomorrow we get to work to ensure its passage.

With legislation in place to hold individuals accountable, the future of journalism will not be one full of increasing, unrelenting instances of violence. That line on the graph can finally level off and maybe even come back down again. The Journalist Protection Act can make that possible.

Dan Shelley is the executive director and COO of the Radio Television Digital News Association.