Journalists play a unique role in protests, one that frequently makes them a target of people on all sides.

They attend mass gatherings to record what happens, providing an unblinking eye to the actions of protestors and police, elevating voices of those present while holding everyone accountable. They also attempt to make sense of the chaos.

All of that tends to work for the benefit of everyone until some people grow uneasy with being recorded and fact-checked.

Reporters in Pittsburgh on Saturday walked alongside demonstrators as they voiced anger over the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, and the many other racial injustices of life in America. For many Pittsburghers, memories of the 2018 East Pittsburgh police officer fatal shooting of Antwon Rose Jr., and the subsequent street protests, laid just beneath the surface.

Journalists showed the signs protestors carried, and they recorded their chants: “I can’t breathe.” They captured moments as police stood on the edges of the crowd, allowing people to peacefully express their frustrations. They showed the business owners and others caught in proximity to the events but not intentionally part of them.

The Post-Gazette’s Michael Santiago walked among the protestors on Saturday to capture images of the peaceful protests, and the Tribune-Review’s Natasha Lindstrom was still on the scene late at night to report on a protestor who returned with gloves, trash bags and a shovel to start cleaning up.

In between, when some people in the crowd turned violent, journalists found themselves being targeted, too. That happened here in Pittsburgh, just as it did across the United States.

KDKA-TV photojournalist Ian Smith stood with his camera over his shoulder near the PPG Paints Arena, recording demonstrators as some people in the crowd moved from peaceful protest to targeted destruction. Then, as a black woman tried to protect him, as seen in a still image from surveillance video that the Penguins posted on social media, someone in a black hoodie moved toward Smith and he ended up on the ground getting stomped.

“I was pulled down, kicked and punched repeatedly, and my camera was destroyed,” Smith recalled later on his social media accounts.

Paul Martino, the reporter with Smith, suffered chest pains, and they both ended up in the hospital. KDKA declined to make the journalists available for an interview.

“[Smith] was thrown to the ground and stomped on,” Martino said on Facebook. “As I approached him, demonstrators threatened me, but I got away.”

Had Pittsburgh Penguins President David Morehouse pulled Smith into the PPG Paints Arena, according to the Post-Gazette, the situation could have ended far worse.

It’s not clear exactly who attacked Smith or why. Perhaps it was the same person or people who set fire to the police vehicle, and they worried that Smith had evidence of the crime. After all, he was the one with the camera.

At least three journalists were injured while covering the Saturday night protests in Pittsburgh. WESA-FM’s Bill O’Driscoll reported on Twitter that he had been hit by a police officer’s rubber bullet.

Police attacked journalists more than 100 times over four days of protests, according to Harvard University’s NiemanLab, as incidents played out across the country. A freelance photographer in Minneapolis got hit in the eye apparently by a police officer’s rubber bullet, while a TV reporter in Louisville got hit by a police pepper ball while filming a live shot. Earlier, police in Minneapolis arrested a CNN reporter as he prepared to present an on-camera update.

Protestors targeted journalists in other cities too. A Fox TV reporter near the White House got attacked by protestors who beat him with his own microphone.

Another reason journalists can seem unpopular at a protest is that they attempt to make sense of the chaos — and that often means contradicting the official or popular narratives.

Pittsburgh City Paper’s Ryan Deto reported what he saw as a “white guy in pseudo riot gear” doing the first damage to a police vehicle — and then, a stickler for facts, he urged social media users not to jump to conclusions before learning the details. Other people can guess at the young man’s motives, but journalists must wait to talk with those involved or dig for other evidence.

Similarly, the mayor of Minneapolis made a charge, repeated frequently and then reasserted in other cities, that the people causing trouble are all from out of town. When a journalist from the local NBC affiliate in Minneapolis looked at the actual arrest records, however, the opposite was actually true. The mayor eventually walked back his statement.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto made a similar claim here, saying the troublemakers had invaded the city. Turns out he was closer to the truth, when only a third of the 46 people arrested were city residents.  The rest whose addresses were known were from Western Pennsylvania.

We will see more protests in the future, if not over the next several days. Journalists will be back on the streets to record what happens with as much detail as they can and to make the most sense of the chaos as possible. Realize that they have a critical, if often unpopular, role to play.

Comings & Goings

  • Megan Harris, who headed up editorial coverage for The Confluence, WESA-FM’s daily current events show, announced that she is leaving the station. Her final piece, including a sign-off to listeners, will air this week. Harris has been hired by Argo AI to lead content strategy and education as part of a newly expanded communications team.
  • KDKA-TV, a CBS-owned station, laid off two longtime on-air anchors — Susan Koeppen and Rick Dayton — as part of a nationwide push to save costs through downsizing. The station already lost many longtime employees in a buyout before the CBS and Viacom merger.
  • KDKA-TV reporter Brenda Waters recently announced her retirement after a 45-year career, including 41 years in Pittsburgh. She started at WIIC-TV (now WPXI-TV) in 1979, and then moved six years later to KDKA-TV.

The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com