Violence against journalists is universal, found everywhere there is journalism. But the level and type of violence vary according to a series of factors, involving the general level of violence in a society or political system, the level of professionalism in the news media, and the extent to which violent action is useful in representing public opinion. Violence against journalists almost always includes a symbolic dimension; in some cases, the violence is primarily symbolic.
Evidence On Violence Against Journalists
Several organizations track violence against journalists worldwide. Reporters without Borders reports the number of journalists killed each year: 2006 (82), 2005 (63), 2004 (53), 2003 (40), 2002 (25). The Committee to Protect Journalists has been issuing an annual report, “Attacks on the press,” for more than a decade (the reports from 1996 on are available online). The International News Safety Institute, a clearinghouse for a variety of journalism and human rights groups, reported in 2007 that more than 1,000 men and women had been killed in the previous 10 years while on the job. Their report lists 167 deaths for 2006, more than double the figure from Reporters without Borders, probably because the News Safety Institute included auxiliary personnel, like translators. The deadliest locations were in Iraq, Russia, and Colombia, countries that all had high levels of crime and civil unrest or both. These organizations note that, especially in conflict zones, journalists are increasingly subject to violent attack.
Wartime and social upheaval have always produced violence against journalists. The dangers of covering a war are integral to the mystique of the war correspondent and especially the photojournalist, who want to get “Capa close” to the action, a term that refers to Robert Capa’s iconic photographs of military action, from the Spanish Civil War through Vietnam. And in social transitions, specific journalists become engaged and targeted through either partisanship or a determination to expose powerful interests. Autocracies use violence to stifle criticism, and crime reporting can also be glamorously dangerous.
But the largest number of fatalities appeared in local reporting of crime and corruption. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the most common cause of death among journalists who have suffered violence is murder, and the most common perpetrators are political groups (26.7 percent), government officials (20.1), criminal groups (12.0), paramilitaries (8.4), and militaries (6.8), with the civilians outnumbering the military by a hefty margin. In China, for instance, a rapidly expanding media system at the beginning of the twenty-first century produced a wave of exposés of local corruption, and the targets of the exposés frequently became violent. In 2005, “dozens of uniformed traffic officers” attacked Wu Xianghu, deputy editor of a newspaper in coastal Taizhou, Zhejiang province, a day after his paper reported corruption in granting vehicle licenses. Senior officer Li Xiaoguo was removed from his post for his role in the attack, Xinhua reported in October. Wu later died from his injuries.
Journalism is dangerous, but less dangerous than allied endeavors. To be a soldier is more dangerous than to be a war correspondent, to be a cop more than to be a crime reporter, and to be a labor organizer more than a sympathetic journalist. Nevertheless, throughout its history and always in its mythology, journalism has always courted danger.
Patterns Of Violence
Beyond extraordinary events linked to war and social upheaval, patterns of violence are systemic to the operation of a press system and are evident in the histories of most societies. Violence operates at the boundaries of the public sphere and can be a form of policing. Violence marks the limits of the legitimate operation of the press. In any political system, the media are involved in the representation of public opinion. Historically, political forces attempt to capture the representation of public opinion through various means: making news, exerting political or economic pressure, winning elections. When peaceful means fail, violence becomes useful.
Violence has been used to try to exclude ideas and groups from public discussion. Such exclusionary violence often appears to be a surrogate for government censorship. In US history, during the build-up to the Revolutionary War, patriots used crowd actions to target printers who published loyalist pamphlets, both to intimidate them and, acting as “the people out of doors,” to symbolically declare loyalism as outside of the sphere of acceptable public expression. In the nineteenth century, antislavery organizations were similarly targeted. The first antislavery publication in any particular locality was highly likely to be the target of a mob, usually one organized by local party leaders who wanted to show the national party that they were “sound” on the slavery issue. Throughout US history, minority and foreign-language publications were targets at moments of tension, also as a way of symbolically defining the limits of legitimate membership in the public. The World War I period, a watershed for the history of civil liberties generally in the United States, saw a rash of violent attacks against the publications of the large German-speaking minority group (which then experienced a net out-migration following the war) as well as against radical groups like the Industrial Workers of the World.
Violence against the press is a common feature in many countries whose populations are diverse. Communal media in India, for instance, have experienced violence similar to that visited upon African-Americans in the US south at the end of the nineteenth century. Such actions often look like spontaneous popular outbursts; they are usually carefully scripted to do so. When violence runs along ethnic or religious fault lines, its spontaneity becomes a matter of political contest. In the case of the international wave of violent unrest that greeted the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the Danish Jyllands Posten, critics of protesters argued that the violence was staged as a way of delegitimizing the newspaper.
The line between public and private has also been a site of violence. The subjects of personal criticism in the press, whether private or public figures, have often struck back. Journalists and editors have at times assumed a certain level of combat to be part of the job. Mark Twain’s satirical account of “Journalism in Tennessee” is testimony to the ordinariness of this sort of violence in the nineteenth-century United States; the same has been true of highly partisan media in other developing nations. Although generally too low in social stature to merit the ritual, journalists have also engaged in dueling. The expectation that a public insult would occasion an opportunity for “satisfaction” by dueling was common. In France, Émile de Girardin, founding editor of the cheap popular Conservative newspaper La Presse, killed Armand Carrel, editor of the more established Le National, in a duel in 1836. Incidents of personal violence like these have often been primarily political in nature, although they have been choreographed to look like affairs of honor. In recent years, personal violence has been directed more often at journalists covering celebrities, so-called paparazzi, for instance, who intrude too closely on what their subjects want to be a protected personal space. This is a depoliticized version of personal violence.
Another common pattern of violence against the press involves labor issues. The publicists for labor movements have been targets of violence, though not as often as on-the-ground organizers. Labor activists have also targeted anti-labor newspapers, the most famous case being the bombing of the Los Angeles Times in 1910. Within news organizations, too, tensions between workers and management have occasionally produced violence, especially during strikes. In the United States, the most famous incidents occurred during the 1912 strike in Chicago, during which the newspapers formed a united front and secured the services of Max Annenberg to provide muscle to intimidate newsboys into accepting an offer. Annenberg had honed his techniques during the frequently violent circulation wars of the previous decade, when he had hired out his services first to Hearst’s Chicago Journal and then to other Chicago newspapers.
A final form of violence that has become more common as the media have become more concentrated in ownership and management is inclusionary. Movements that feel themselves neglected by the news media will sometimes commit acts of spectacular violence to claim coverage for themselves. During the 1980s in Peru, for instance, Shining Path operatives attacked the press as well as bombing banks, electrical towers, and other establishment symbols to gain public attention (Barnhurst 1991). In a sense, most terrorism is a form of inclusionary violence. On a more mundane level, acts of vandalism, like inserting fake wraparounds in newspapers in news boxes, can also be called inclusionary.
Violence And Professionalization
Because violence is an effective means of intervening in the process of representing public opinion, it is always present in some measure in a press system. In most developed democracies, however, the level of violence is quite low. This might be a result of ownership patterns and market conditions, which discourage the kind of ideological competition that previously nurtured violence. It might also be tied to the professionalization of journalism, which tends to insulate news workers from the more personal forms of attack.
Because violence has occurred wherever the press is seen to be an agent of real or potential political transformation, the diminution of violence in a national system might appear as a sad commentary on the power of the press. In the most professionalized press systems, there is very little violence. But often there is a perception that work is becoming more dangerous. Why? Perhaps the muckraker ideology that pervades the professional press also invites a myth of violent retribution. It is also possible that the professionalization of the press gives greater visibility to violence. The more “whitecollar” journalists become, the less reasonable violent attacks seem. A blue-collar reporter might expect to be slugged occasionally, but a white-collar journalist: that is man-bites-dog territory.
- Barnhurst, K. G. (1991). Contemporary terrorism in Peru: Sendero Luminoso and the media. Journal of Communication, 41(4), 75–89.
- Bekken, J. (2000). Crumbs from the publishers’ golden tables: The plight of the Chicago newsboy. Media History, 6, 4–57.
- Committee to Protect Journalists (2006). Attacks on the press in 2006. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
- Nerone, J. (1994). Violence against the press: Policing the public sphere in U.S. history. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Reporters without Borders (2007). Annual reports. At www.rsf.org/rubrique.php3?id_rubrique=659, accessed August 23, 2007.