Press credentials for Denver Post photographer Hyoung Chang, damaged in the protests last weekend when he was apparently hit by pepper balls fired by police.

The messenger was literally shot last week.

Hyoung Chang has photographed in Iraq and Afghanistan while reporting on the wars there, but he told me he was more uncomfortable on the streets of Denver in recent days.

A policeman shot the 23-year Denver Post veteran with a pepper ball right in the press badge hanging over his heart last Thursday, shattering the badge and cutting his arm.

Chang was carrying two large cameras and standing next to police at the time. He was sure police knew who he was and was thinking at first it must have been an accident. And then the policeman shot him again.

I asked Chang if he thought he was being targeted. “Yes I think so. A little scary.

“I had my gas mask from my Iraq trip and I never used it, and now I have to use it in Denver.”

Chang wasn’t the only journalist who felt targeted by police. 

The National Press Freedom Tracker has tallied more than 174 incidents in which journalists were harassed or injured during the protests: 42 physical attacks by police, 40 tear gassings, 23 pepper sprayings, and 69 rubber bullets/projectiles from May 2 through June 3.

One of our Gazette photographers was hit by a rubber bullet. A Denver Post reporter says he was hit by four foam bullets that left him with welts. A reporter for Denver7 said one of their photographers got hit four times and "our camera got hit." He posted a photo showing a bullet hole in his lens. A photojournalist for Denverite and Colorado Public Radio said he got "shot while standing alone on the Capitol grass taking photos."

On June 1, four journalism advocacy groups, including the Colorado Press Association, sent a letter to state and city leaders to “express our profound concern over recent reports from several journalists that law enforcement agents have specifically targeted them while they’ve covered the protests." 

On Friday, Murphy F. Robinson, executive director of public safety for the city, responded to the complaints, promising to thoroughly investigate the incidents and "any officer who is found to have violated policy will be appropriately disciplined." He also vowed that Denver Police will be holding enhanced First Amendment training by the end of the year and said the city is reviewing police policies regarding management of mass demonstrations. 

And a federal judge in Denver issued an order late Friday night that limits the police department’s use of tear gas and "nonlethal projectiles" on protesters, saying that protecting First Amendment rights was more important than protecting buildings.

Granted, journalists are bound to be at risk when they are covering protests like this.

Marianne Goodland, one of my colleagues at Colorado Politics, a sister publication of the Gazette’s, said that “to be standing anywhere near the crowds is to put yourself at risk." Marianne was also hit by a pepper ball, but she said it was likely collateral.

“It's the tear gas that creates the most havoc,” she said. “It burns your throat almost to the point of not being able to breathe; it burns your eyes, nose, mouth, anything with moisture or mucus. I got hit twice by tear gas; the first time wasn't too bad but the second time was bad. I saw a young woman leaning against a tree, vomiting profusely. A young man was being attended to by field medics, with milk or a mild baking soda solution running down his face.

"That's when I decided it was time to go.”

But something different was going on in the last week than just risk.

Reporters Without Borders recently added the United States to its list of most dangerous countries for journalists for the first time ever. 

Maggie Haberman, a White House correspondent, tweeted this:

"I’ve never seen so many incidents with police and reporters simultaneously in different cities. Tension between cops and reporters is nothing new. Aggression on reporters in multiple locations nationally at the same time is something different."

Wes Lowery, a reporter I used to work with in Washington, had this to say on Twitter:

"This is the thing, to me, that feels different. This is the action where the police are crossing a line in terms of press freedom that they hadn’t routinely crossed before at 2014-2019 protests."

Wes knows of what he speaks. He covered the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the death of Michael Brown, and while he was talking to me on the phone in a McDonald’s then, officers came in and grabbed him and threw him against a Coke machine and arrested him. I heard it all happening because his phone was still on. To this day, I don’t know why it happened. But Wes is black, that I know.

I asked Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, if he thought the hostile environment created by recent criticism of journalists by politicians and some media outlets and cable TV talking heads may have contributed to the messenger shooting.

“I am concerned that efforts to delegitimize the news media have made it more difficult for journalists to cover public events and to chronicle potentially volatile situations like the George Floyd protests,” Roberts said bluntly. “It’s hard enough for journalists to stay safe while covering a protest because they have to get as close as possible to the action. They shouldn’t be made targets because of their press badges or press vests."

My worry is that us local journalists, trying mightily to serve our communities fairly, objectively and honestly, get smeared by the clouds of partisan gas floating here from Washington like a toxic airborne event.

Roberts echoed that concern.

“I worry that some people have formed sweeping opinions about the news media based on how they feel about one or two particular news outlets, and local news organizations get bashed just for being news organizations,” Roberts said. “But who else is going to keep a community informed and hold government and the powerful accountable? Who else is going to track how tax dollars are spent? Who else is going to tell people about crime in their community? Who else is going to tell them what happened during the protest in their downtown? I wish more people would think about that."

I hope you'll think about Jeff's words next time you instinctively blame the media for our current woes. In the day and age of smartphones recording incidents like the George Floyd death, we are all the media now. Blaming the media is really blaming ourselves. 

Here in Colorado Springs, it’s been a different story, really. I haven’t seen journalists directly targeted, and police have knelt alongside protesters.

One of our readers, Robert Herzfeld, summed up the differences between here and there quite nicely.

“After seeing videos of rioters across the nation viciously beating people, setting fires, and looting, I am all the more impressed by the people of Colorado Springs, and Police Sergeant Olav Chaney in particular. I was very moved by the pictures of a protester offering Sgt. Chaney flowers, and another receiving a hug from Sgt. Chaney. It seems that, with very few exceptions, we are blessed with people who possess decency and civility, who see that love is more powerful than hate, and who understand that protesting a heinous killing is quite different from beating random strangers and burning down small businesses. We’re certainly not without our own problems, but today, I’m grateful to be living here. Thank you, Colorado Springs.

There's the rub with blaming media: If all the messengers are shot and all the local newspapers killed off, beautiful messages like this won't get communicated either.

Vince Bzdek is the editor at large for Colorado Politics and editor of our sister publication, The Gazette in Colorado Springs.

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