St. Louis, Missouri — An already adverse environment for journalists in the Midwestern United States has worsened in the year since President Trump’s inauguration, an international group of media watchdogs concluded after travelling to the state of Missouri. The group also met with journalists from Illinois and Wisconsin.
The fact-finding mission this week concluded in St. Louis, where journalists were indiscriminately arrested in 2014 and 2017 during protests in response to police shootings in the city and its suburb, Ferguson. The group also met with journalists from the city of Columbia and the capital, Jefferson City, as well as representatives of the Missouri Press Association and national media groups headquartered at the Missouri School of Journalism.
The group, which included leaders of Index on Censorship, the Committee to Protect Journalists, IFEX, Article 19, and the International Press Institute, found that local public officials have embraced Trump’s rhetoric toward the media and bypassed the press in favour of social media. A Wisconsin sheriff used expletives to deny an interview. Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has called the media “fake news,” refused interviews, and directed his staff to use software that immediately erases mobile chats.
“The hostility to the press at the national level gives a free pass for state officials to use harmful rhetoric and has contributed to a polarisation in public attitudes toward the press,” said Marty Steffens, North American chair and member of the executive board of the International Press Institute, a global network of journalists and editors. Steffens, also a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, served as local host for the mission.
Journalists stressed that the threats are not new, but an acceleration of existing trends of public mistrust and political obstruction of the press. They were split on how the national discourse has affected their daily reporting, with some saying they see it as simply one more factor in an already difficult environment.
A longstanding unwillingness of authorities in Missouri to comply with freedom of information laws has worsened since Trump’s election, with extended delays, prohibitive costs, and the use of technological tools to prevent the release of public records, journalists said. They cited a lack of effective independent oversight and inadequate training of public officials regarding what is known as the Sunshine Law.
“The reality of shrinking newsrooms and financial resources for news media makes the adherence of authorities to both the letter and spirit of the Sunshine Law ever more important. The disregard being shown poses the question whether the current legal structure is fit for purpose,” said Thomas Hughes, executive director of Article 19.
Hostility to the media comes as the Midwestern press corps has been hit hard by changing economic conditions. News staffs in Missouri as well as Chicago and Milwaukee, Wisc., told the group that declining revenues have reduced reporting ranks by two-thirds. One Wisconsin editor said some public meetings go uncovered, leaving the public uninformed about the use of tax dollars.
Proposed legislation in some Midwestern states would shift mandated paid public notices to government websites, making the information harder to find and exacerbating the media’s economic woes, especially at small community newspapers. This also raises the spectre that authorities could use public notice revenues as a means to influence editorial content.
“While many reporters are more galvanised than ever in the current news climate, local media and city newspapers said they did not receive the bump in funding and subscriptions that bolstered national papers after the election,” said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Journalists said lack of financial resources make it harder to fight back when politicians deny access.”
One photographer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch told the delegation that at public demonstrations, journalists are increasingly caught between aggressive police and sometimes hostile protesters. In St. Louis and Ferguson, police have adopted increasingly militarised tactics such as “kettling”— a surround-and-arrest tactic that sweeps up working journalists and bystanders. In the fall of 2017, at least 10 journalists were arrested in St. Louis during protests over a police shooting. Two new protest laws up for consideration in the state could raise the stakes for journalists who are swept up in arrests.
“Nothing fake about the dedicated and resilient journalists working in Missouri encountered during this tour. They continue to play a key role in keeping the public informed and the democracy healthy in spite of myriad challenges,” said Annie Game, IFEX executive director.
CPJ is an independent, nonprofit organisation that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide.