Journalism 101 Students Apparently Need To Learn Self-Defense In Addition To Writing And Reporting

We are seeing unprecedented attacks on the press in this country.


At a Trump rally in Green Bay, Wis. in October 2016, graduate student Jasmine Minor was told by a woman standing with her daughter, “You’re not welcome here … Go back to where you came from.”

Minor, a 23-year-old black woman, and her journalism classmate at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, Christen Gall, said they were shaken by the hatred and racism, so they did the only thing they could. They wrote about it. Thankfully, no one harmed them physically.

Every year, approximately 250 students start their journalism education at Medill, where I am an assistant professor, and we teach everyone the basics: how to find sources, how to report stories accurately and with context and perspective and how to write clearly and concisely.

For the past eight years, I have taught many of them on the graduate and undergraduate levels. But in addition to those traditional skills, increasingly I’ve had to prepare my students for the ugliness of a public that has been conditioned and emboldened to question facts and to believe “alternate facts” and fake news.

And now, students must respond to verbal and physical violence.

Each day brings another example. Friday, Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott showed a sheet pierced with bullet holes from target practice to a group of reporters. According to the Texas Tribune, the governor joked, “I’m gonna carry this around in case I see any reporters.”

And as most everyone knows by now, earlier this week, Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, was “body-slammed” by Greg Gianforte, the then GOP candidate in Montana’s special House election. Jacobs recorded audio as it happened. Gianforte is now facing misdemeanor assault charges, though he won the election and has since apologized to Jacobs.

The ramp up to a world where journalists need to have self-defense skills along with reporting skills started with a declaration of war. President Trump, then candidate Trump, called the media “the enemy of the American people.” He put reporters in a pen at his rallies and encouraged his supporters to taunt them.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 17 journalists around the world have been killed so far in 2017, and 48 were killed in 2016. None of those journalists was killed in the United States, but we are seeing unprecedented attacks on the press in this country, and one could argue that today’s body slam could be tomorrow’s killing.

To see what that looks like, you don’t have to go far. Less than two weeks ago, prominent Mexican journalist Javier Valdez was murdered, his body left on the street in Culiacan, where he was the co-founder of the newspaper Riodoce. According to The Guardian, there have been six other journalists killed in Mexico this year and 100 killed since 2000. Just three days later, the Mexican Human Rights Commission reports that journalist and media executive Salvador Adame was kidnapped in the southern state of Michoacan. Adame has not been seen since.

Of course, the U.S. has had its share of tragedy and lives cut short in the journalism ranks: Daniel Pearl kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan, and Medill graduate James Foley abducted in Syria and beheaded. They are among the American heroes who gave their lives to shed light from some of the darkest corners of the earth.

But the expectations for journalists reporting domestically are different. When they ask questions that their subjects don’t want to hear, they might expect an answer that has no relation to the question, a “no comment” or a door slammed in their face.

Now, in the Trump era of vitriol and viciousness, now that the poison of a campaign and presidential drumbeat against the media is spreading, and now that verbal abuse against members of the press is acceptable and even encouraged in some circles, we have reached the next level. The body-slamming level.

Broadcast students are taught to remain calm and report while people photo bomb, jeer and scream, even try to plant a kiss during live television. We might be remiss if we don’t add the caveat to act much the same way that Ben Jacobs did when being physically attacked: stay professional, stay focused and keep the recording device rolling.

We have always taught journalism students how to ask tough questions and how to defend democracy. Now we also have to teach them how to defend themselves.