When protests turned violent in Denver in June, ABC national news hired local freelance video journalist Carl Filoreto to cover the demonstrations — and paid for armed security guards to accompany him as cops fired tear gas and projectiles at people angry over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“I never felt threatened in Denver but knowing you have that extra set of eyes on you that are there for protection, it’s very reassuring when you’re out covering that kind of thing,” Filoreto said. “You just never know what spark is going to incite a major confrontation.”
The fatal shooting of a demonstrator by a security guard working for 9News following demonstrations in Denver on Oct. 10 illustrates just how quickly something can go wrong when large crowds gather.
That day’s dueling political protests, while boisterous, had not been violent and were ending when a small group started arguing outside the Denver Art Museum while walking to their cars. It’s unclear what led the victim, Lee Keltner, and the security guard, Matthew Dolloff, to engage with each other, but the encounter turned fatal within seconds.
Until that moment, few people in Denver — including other journalists — were aware that some news outlets hire private security to escort their staffs. Media experts say it’s a practice increasingly used by local media, particularly TV stations, since the 2015 Ferguson police protests and the 2016 campaign of President Donald Trump.
“The environment for news reporters and media crews has become more dangerous in recent years,” said Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “You’re out there covering stories against the backdrop of people seeing the media as the ‘enemy of the people.’ There’s background music of hostility against the media before you even get out on the streets.”
In Denver, 9News and Denver7 acknowledged in statements after the shooting that they hire security guards and request that they be unarmed. Fox31 Vice President and General Manager Byron Grandy and CBS Denver News Director Tim Wieland would not discuss whether their stations provided bodyguards to journalists while covering local news.
Colorado Public Radio and its online news site, Denverite, have not, said Kevin Dale, CPR’s executive editor. The Denver Post has not hired private security for its journalists.
Broadcast journalists with their large, expensive cameras are most often at risk and more likely to hire security, multiple media experts said.
“Crazies follow television cameras the way moths follow flames,” said Chris Roberts, associate professor in the University of Alabama’s Department of Journalism and Creative Media and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee. “It’s reasonable to have some sort of security.”
Journalists long have been threatened because of their work, which can have a powerful impact on people’s lives. In 1903, for example, N.G. Gonzales, a co-founder of The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, was assassinated by the lieutenant governor after reporting on his drinking and gambling habits.
In the past decade, the number of reported attacks against journalists on U.S. soil has risen, and as of Oct. 13, the U.S. Press Freedom tracker reported an unprecedented 812 incidents in 77 U.S. cities, including 10 in Denver and two in Colorado Springs, in 2020. Many of those attacks have come from law enforcement as well as protesters.
Three days after the Denver shooting, a WSMV reporter and videographer in Nashville, Tennessee, were attacked by a man while doing a report in front of an elementary school. They were not hurt. But in 2015, reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward of WBDJ in Roanoke, Virginia, were killed on-air by an angry former colleague who had been fired by the station. In 2013, photographers in Oakland were being robbed of camera equipment while covering crime scenes.
Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, said he first saw journalists using security at home in 2012 at a NATO meeting in Chicago.
“They kind of looked like cops but you could tell they weren’t,” Osterreicher said. “I talked with them and they told me they were armed security and with a TV crew.”
Until then, Osterreicher said, he’d only heard of American journalists hiring bodyguards when reporting overseas on wars or other hostile environments.
“We hadn’t been thinking that way,” he said. “It wasn’t that prevalent.”
Filoreto worked with personal security in Qatar when he was on assignment there with NBC during the Iraq invasion. But he never worked with security in tow in the United States until Trump’s 2016 campaign rallies, where the audiences often were hostile toward media. Since that election, the national networks have continued to provide media security at Trump’s events, he said.
“When you’re standing there and he’s inciting the crowd and pointing at the media pen and hurling invectives at you, it’s pretty intimidating,” he said. “You don’t know what kind of loose cannon is in the crowd.”
Over the summer in Denver, Filoreto said it was reassuring to have someone watching his back while his eye was glued to a viewfinder, which creates a limited field of vision. It allowed him to get closer to the action and focus on his job.
“You would never know they were with us,” he said. “You would never know they were armed.”
News outlets must perform risk assessments and decide what steps to take to protect journalists, Mahoney said. And along with providing protective gear, journalists need to be trained on tactics such as where to stand and how to exit when things turn dangerous, he said.
“If you go out to a street protest in the U.S., you’re going to see everything from experienced, well-equipped, well-trained journalists to an independent journalist with an iPhone,” he said.
The major networks such as CNN and large newspapers such as the New York Times employ in-house security, Mahoney said. But smaller news agencies don’t have those resources so they turn to outside contractors. Those who hire the outside contractors must discuss the rules of engagement and objectives with the security companies, Mahoney said.
In the Denver area, journalists have worn reflective vests, goggles and helmets during protests where police have fired tear gas and other projectiles, and where protesters have fired guns and exchanged punches. After the Oct. 10 shooting, CPR ordered ballistic vests, Dale said. The Denver Post already had placed an order out in anticipation of increased violence.
Journalists — notoriously independent-minded — do not have a consensus on best practices when it comes to security.
At CPR, reflective vests are issued to reporters and photographers covering protests, but even inside the newsroom there are differing philosophies on wearing them, Dale said.
“One photographer likes to wear the vest to identify himself as a photographer. The other does not,” he said. “We respect both.”
The decision to hire personal security also brings ethical questions. Do media disclose they have security? Do they require security to wear identification? Opinions are mixed. Some say identifying security might prevent journalists from getting hit with pepper spray or projectiles fired by police, but it might not work the other way when facing the general public.
Roberts, who serves on the journalism ethics committee, said identifying security accompanying journalists while covering a police protest could confuse the general public, who might see the security guards as law enforcement. And part of the strategy behind security sometimes means it is invisible, he said.
CPR has talked to its staff about safety, including hiring security, but is not ready to take that step because of the risks that go with it, Dale said. His instinct is that if his staff believes a situation is dangerous enough to need security, then they don’t need to go at all.
“What I want the journalists to do is extract themselves and be safe,” he said. “My worry with private security is something could escalate. I’m not saying we would never do it.”
After the fatal shooting, 9News said it had contracted with Pinkerton for an unarmed guard. Pinkerton later said it had contracted with another firm to hire Dolloff. But Dolloff was not licensed to work as an armed security guard in Denver and now 9News is dealing with the fallout, including the possibility of paying city fines for hiring an unlicensed guard. It’s also likely the family of Lee Keltner, who died in the shooting, will file a wrongful death lawsuit, naming the guard, the journalists, the TV station and its parent company, Tegna.
At the end of the day, news outlets have a responsibility to keep their journalists safe, Mahoney, Roberts and Osterreicher said. The last thing that needs to happen is for journalists and their security to become a political argument, Mahoney said.
“Things are not getting any better out there for journalists,” he said. “In fact, they may be getting worse.”
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