MEDIA: Denver police want to hear from journalists following ‘some problems’ during protest coverage

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Protesters face off with police May 30 in Denver, ignoring an 8 p.m. curfew on day four of protests over George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police. (Photo by Evan Semón Photography)

As national press freedom groups turn their attention to Colorado, Denver law enforcement are looking to speak with journalists on June 26 about how to address “problems” reporters faced while covering local protests.

This week, the Washington, D.C.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press fired off a letter to Denver city leaders. Under the subject line “law enforcement targeting journalists during protests,” the organization asked the mayor and police to “take immediate, concrete steps to prevent further police attacks on credentialed and clearly identifiable journalists in Denver.” The RCFP said it documented at least nine incidents in Denver and one in Colorado Springs, “where police assaulted journalists who appear to have been clearly identified as members of the news media.”

The letter mentions three specific incidents involving journalists:

  • Jan Czernik, a photojournalist for Denver7 News, was struck four times by pepper balls fired by police and his camera was hit. The reporter accompanying him, Adi Guajardo, managed to duck and avoided being struck. Later that night, Guajardo was filming a live shot when police advanced and forced them to retreat;
  •  Hyoung Chang, a Denver Post photographer, was hit by two pepper balls, with one shattering his press ID and the other causing a gash on his elbow. “I’m very sure [the officer] pointed at me,” said Chang, who was also carrying two large cameras at the time;
  • Alex Burness, a Denver Post reporter, wrote on Twitter that police hit him in the head, leg, and side with what he believes were foam bullets. He also wrote that police later pointed their weapons at him and Esteban Hernandez, a Denverite reporter, and forced them to walk towards tear gas despite shouting they were press and the fact that Hernandez was wearing a neon “press” vest.

A spokesperson for the RCFP says the Colorado Springs mention refers to an early June incident involving KKTV reporter Spencer Wilson. The journalist tweeted about it that evening, and said in a Facebook livestream that as police moved protesters from a downtown area, an officer began “pepper spraying people indiscriminately, including me and a photographer from FOX21.” Wilson went on: “And I asked him, I said, ‘excuse me, sir, we’re trying to document this, I’m with media, I’m with media, why are you pepper-spraying us?’ Continued to pepper spray. And continued to spray everyone else.”

Wilson told me he felt it was “pretty obvious” police at the scene knew he and a nearby photographer were with the news. Their cameras were hard to miss, he says, and he stood out in a buttoned-down shirt and tie. Wilson doesn’t feel like an officer went after him because he was a journalist, he says, “but I also don’t think he cared that I was one.” He says the following day he showed up with bright yellow vests and told officers journalists would be wearing them so they would stand out. “And officers laughed at me and told me it wouldn’t matter.”

While Wilson says he does feel like he was “wrongfully attacked by an officer,” he also said a different one offered him a chicken sandwich from Wendy’s that same evening. “That doesn’t excuse what the other officer did,” he said, “but it’s worth making a note.” Wilson said he’s hoping for an apology from the department, or at least a justifiable explanation for what went down.

In the wake of the new letter, Burness, who told his story about his encounters with Denver law enforcement to RCFP’s partner, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, told me this week, “I don’t seek attention or sympathy beyond or even on level with what should be paid to the many peacefully assembled non-journalists who were also tear-gassed and shot at. But I’m OK with my story being shared by anyone working to advance the cause of press freedom, and I will continue in that fight myself.”

Hernandez, who says he didn’t get hit with any projectiles during the incident mentioned in the letter, told me a small cluster of officers did point rifles at him and Burness, and he did feel they knew he wasn’t a demonstrator. “We told them we were press,” he says. “I think they heard me.” He says he feels it’s important RCFP is calling attention to such incidents. “I think it was totally inappropriate.”

Kirstin McCudden, managing editor of U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, says the Colorado incidents are among more than 430 “national aggressions against the press” that have been reported to the organization. They stem from the protests that erupted in cities after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “We’re working through each of them,” she says.

Amelia Nitz, a spokesperson for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said this week her organization wasn’t aware of any specific open records requests related to the interaction between police and journalists in Colorado. She said, however, the group in its letter urged Denver officials to “release all information about arrests of or physical interactions with the press to the public to allow it to evaluate the legitimacy of police conduct.”

These two national groups aren’t the first to get on Denver’s case, and they’re spurring a discussion among local enforcement about how to deal with it.

Earlier this month, Colorado press advocacy groups sent their own letter of complaint to Denver city leaders. The Department of Public Safety responded, saying, “We certainly do not permit any Denver law enforcement officer to intentionally and inappropriately target the media or anyone who is simply engaging in filming or photographing.” Its director, Murphy Robinson, said he hoped individuals referenced in that earlier letter from press advocates would “fully cooperate with our Internal Affairs investigators to ensure that we have all information necessary to make an informed decision regarding the conduct of any involved officers.”

Robinson then sent a June 17 letter to Colorado media outlets reiterating “how much I value the contributions of our local media” and saying he was “truly sorry to hear some of you had a negative experience when covering the recent protests in Denver.” He also asked any journalists to file an online complaint through the office of the Independent Monitor about any specific incident they want investigated. That office, the letter stated, is conducting an investigation into police actions during the protests. “I want to be sure your voices are included,” Robinson wrote.

On June 26*, the department plans to host a Microsoft Teams meeting at 11:30 a.m. for any journalist who wants to talk about how Denver law enforcement can do better in the future.

“We don’t want this conversation to be rehashing what happened during the protests,” Public Safety spokeswoman Kelli Christensen said in an interview, but rather, “Now that we know we have a problem here, how can we move this forward?”

One aspect on the agenda: How the department can make sure reporters have access, but also ensure they’re identifiable to officers on the scene. One thing Christensen says she’d heard so far is that newsrooms don’t have uniform ways to identify themselves as press. “We understand that there may have been some problems during the protests and we want [journalists] to file reports if there’s something we need look into,” she says. “But beyond that what can we do should something like this happen again to ensure members of the press have access they need and are very easily identifiable?”

As for the RCFP letter, Christensen said her office is working on a response but its priority is on its relationship with local media.

Last week, in the wake of protests, Colorado lawmakers swiftly passed “one of the most comprehensive police reform packages in the country,” according to The Denver Post. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed it this morning, saying, “Things cannot go back to normal, we need to create a new normal where Black Americans feel safe … and where Black lives matter.”

How to read copies of Colorado’s Black newspapers from more than a century ago

History Colorado posted a reminder this week that the organization has been busy digitizing the archives of The Statesman, which later became The Denver Star, “a weekly paper founded in 1888 that served the Black communities in the Rocky Mountain West.”

From History Colorado:

The Statesman acted as a channel through which its readers could “voice their opinions, assert their rights, and demand their due recognition.” The newspaper reported local, church, and society news and events, as well as national stories that would be of particular interest to African Americans residing in the Mountain West. The publication also featured op-eds about interracial marriage, Jim Crow Laws, and segregation.

When the controversial movie The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, the paper, by then known as the Denver Star, ran opinion pieces condemning the film, noting in one such piece that its evil “lies in the fact that the play is both a denial of the power of development within the free Negro and an exaltation of race war.” The paper repeatedly called upon its readership to boycott The Birth of a Nation and printed scathing opinion pieces such as a speech delivered by William Lewis, the first African American assistant attorney general, in which he referred to the reels of the film as “three miles of filth.”

The Statesman became The Denver Star in 1912 so readers wouldn’t confuse it with another newspaper called The Colorado Statesman. There’s more history about the publication here, and you can navigate a user-friendly archive to flip through old issues by date here.

This week in 1905, The Statesman carried news about the Black community from across the state offering a glimpse into how communities back then could find out what their neighbors were up to. We learn that in La Junta, Colorado, “Mr. Berry has commenced some improvements on his home,” and so did James Scott, who spent $485 on what “promises to be the swellest home in town.” “Mr. Collins of Pueblo has opened a barber shop,” and “a number of ladies gave an informal tea in honor of Mrs. Garnett Monday evening.” In Manitou, James Anderson became the head waiter at the Iron Springs Hotel, and “Mr. and Mrs. Luther Singleton, Messrs. Reed and Russell spent Sunday at Green Mountain Falls fishing.”

History Colorado says the digitization effort comes via an NEH National Digital Newspaper Program grant, and “you can also read issues of the newspaper online at Library of Congress’ Chronicling America and the Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection.”

The Denver Post’s ‘hedge fund guy’ speaks

For years, Colorado journalists have been trying to get an executive from Alden Global Capital, the New York hedge fund that controls The Denver Post, to explain why they’ve been gutting the newspaper so badly. For years, variations of this line appeared in coverage: “Alden Global Capital declined to comment on this story.”

That changed last week when the hedge fund’s typically media-shy 40-year-old executive, Heath Freeman, opened up to a Washington Post reporter about how he sees his role in the U.S. newspaper industry. “I would love our team to be remembered as the team that saved the newspaper business,” he said in what WaPo media reporter Sarah Ellison described as “his first interview — part of his effort to rewrite the narrative about himself, along with letters to select lawmakers and communications with other newspaper publishers. He has told friends the pragmatic truth is that newspapers need to be cut to be saved.”

More from the profile, headlined “Heath Freeman is the hedge fund guy who says he wants to save local news. Somehow, no one’s buying it”:

This is what Freeman’s approach to saving the newspaper business looks like in St. Paul, Minn.: A local sheriff blew his budget by $1 million and there was no Pioneer Press reporter available to cover the county board meeting. In San Jose: There was no reporter on the education beat at the Mercury News when the pandemic started closing schools. In Denver: In the aftermath of the 2012 Aurora movie theater mass shooting, the editor was asked to slash staff to improve the next month’s budget numbers. In Vallejo, Calif.: There is exactly one news reporter left at the Times-Herald to cover a community of 120,000 people.

The story also comes with a bout of high-finance horn-locking between the young Master of the Universe Freeman and former Denver Post owner Dean Singleton, a regional Citizen Kane-type figure who in 2018 resigned as chairman of the paper in protest of Alden’s moves after ownership cut the newsroom by a third.

Here’s the scene:

Singleton doesn’t blame Freeman for slashing jobs: That’s just what hedge-funders do. But he scoffed at Freeman’s notions of being an industry savior. “The only way Heath could refer to a newspaper was as ‘these assets,’ ” said Singleton, who stayed on for several years as chairman of the Denver Post after Alden gained control. “It was always, ‘You aren’t getting enough out of ‘these assets.’ . . . Don’t buy the idea that Alden is trying to save newspapers. I don’t think any idiot would buy that.” (Freeman retorted: “We’ve saved the very newspapers that Dean Singleton ran into bankruptcy, so take his recriminations with a grain of salt.”)

​Some more nuggets:

  • “In Freeman’s view, his capitalist-villain image is undeserved — bad press, if you will.”
  • “…maybe the Heath Freemans of the world are the best this beleaguered industry can get.”
  • “The reporters who work for him — and the swelling numbers who used to — call him a vampire, a vulture, an embarrassment; some have protested outside his Hamptons home or his Midtown Manhattan office.”
  • The Denver Post consolidated at a printing facility outside of town, in the county ranking among the lowest in air quality in the metropolitan area, where reporters complained of breathing problems.”

Read the whole thing here.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Summit County Daily News reported concerns are growing about the spread of the virus as businesses reopen in the High CountryThe Loveland Reporter-Herald tallied up the latest COVID-19 cases for Larimer County at 630The Longmont Times-Call looked at creative approaches to worshipping at Boulder County churches. Under the headline “COVID Campaigning,” The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel examined how primary season looks during a pandemicThe Gazette in Colorado Springs reported on the local Republican primary race for district attorney that will essentially be the de facto general election since Democrats didn’t put forward a candidate. The Coloradoan in Fort Collins covered local primary electionsThe Durango Herald looked for silver linings amid pandemic shutdown hardshipsThe Denver Post reported on a comprehensive police reform bill lawmakers passed in the waning days of the legislative sessionThe Boulder Daily Camera reported on the next step for a local affordable housing project.

Black media figures in Denver talk about racism

In last week’s newsletter, we heard from five Black journalists at Denver’s CBS affiliate who wrote for their station about what it’s been like in recent weeks covering protests of police violence against Black Americans. This week, Denver’s 303 Magazine ran a piece headlined “Members of Denver’s Media Share Their Own Experiences of Racism.” It is “not any minority’s job to educate the majority, as there are countless resources out there to do just that,” author Camila Biddulph wrote. “But we felt a responsibility to hold these voices up and let them speak if they chose to do so — provide a platform for the people who are directly impacted by the problem our community is trying to tackle.”

Some excerpts from the piece:

  • “I love the news and anyone who knows me knows there’s nothing more I enjoy than watching Anderson Cooper or another anchor I admire riff on the daily occurrences. These days though, I’ve been looking away. Afraid that the moment I dare to look up into the warm fuzzy white-hair covered face of Wolf Blitzer that he’s gonna cut to that video and there will be poor George, dying his final moments on the concrete in Minneapolis, calling for his mama.” — Ru Johnson, Owner of Roux Black Consulting
  • “I can’t forget the way that America sees and how it treats me. I can’t forget the way that America speaks about me behind closed doors, only for that spoken poison to seep out the mouths of their children and become realized in their behavior as they interact with Black people in their professions. It’s not just the deaths and the police brutality that I’ve dealt with in these past few days, it’s a system of separation that I have had to reckon with — all these seemingly smaller impacts in day-to-day setting that invalidate Black life. On one hand, I’m pleased to see communities across the world support Black life, and on the other, I wonder why they care now. So, when people ask me how I am doing through all of this, I simply don’t know and I’m not sure when that’ll change.” — Kori Hazel, Talent Buyer for 303 Magazine, Local Band Manager
  • “Our four-year-old son was born with whiter skin than my white husband. With his light skin and green eyes, I don’t have to worry about him being looked at like an adult before his twelfth birthday. I may never have to have ‘the talk’ with him. So that’s where my privilege ends. I am a tall Black woman with a big afro living in Cherry Creek in Denver. Racism is very polite here. You don’t know until you know. The Black woman is the most disrespected species in America and I feel it every day. When I first moved to Colorado, there were a lot of tears about how racist this place is but there are also many allies here that want to fight the good fight.” — Esther Lee Leech, publisher and editor-in-chief of Cherry Creek Fashion

Read the whole thing here.

Colorado journalism students are doing great work

Just because classes aren’t in session doesn’t mean student journalism is on hold in Colorado. I want to give a shoutout to some Colorado College students working their tails off in a socially-distant environment.

Students Miriam Brown and Arielle Gordon of The Colorado College COVID-19 Reporting Project, of which I’m a part, are in week three of a (daily!) newsletter about how the pandemic is affecting CC and higher education. They’ve broken down the college’s new academic calendar, interviewed campus staff and county public health officials, filed open records requests, surveyed students, examined the ethics of re-opening, and are keeping tabs on what other colleges in Colorado and across the nation are planning for the fall. Plus plenty more.

Over in Montana, CC student Lorea Zabaleta this week wrote for The Mountain Journal about how a name shapes the way westerners approach holy land. Colorado College student Nate Hochman is writing this summer for The Dispatch, a relatively new national publication, where so far he’s looked into “the many contradictions of Mark Levine,” and profiled Antifa.

Meanwhile, three CC journalism students are interning this summer for PULP in Pueblo. Esteban Candelaria has a must-read piece this week about Black Lives Matter protests in small towns in rural Southern Colorado. Skyler Stark-Ragsdale and Nick Penzel reported on the re-opening of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, among other stories for the publication.

“My hope is we can sustain this with momentum because these PULP journalists have put Southern Colorado’s voice on the news map again,” says publisher John Rodriguez. “And they are doing that by telling incredible stories along the Front Range, but also stories from the small towns that don’t get noticed. What we are doing is getting these stories to a statewide and regional audience and doing it as a Hispanic-owned media outlet from Pueblo.” Still, he adds, the outlet needs “a lot more subscribers and help from foundations to turn around this dire situation in this part of … Colorado.” You can help out individually here if you like what you’re reading.

Know of any other compelling student journalism this summer in Colorado I should highlight in a future newsletter? Send some my way.

Speaking of student journalists, this one filed a lawsuit…

Laura Studley, a student journalist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, filed a lawsuit against the Larimer County Coroner that accuses the office of wrongfully denying an open records request for an autopsy report. Read about it at the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, and view a copy of the legal complaint here.

Here’s an update:

More local Colorado media odds & ends

  • CBS4 in Denver said the TV station is aware of an “incorrectly cropped photo of Mr. DeBose and has taken steps to correct the inaccuracy. We apologize for the error and have ensured the correct photo will be used going forward.” (That’s William DeBose, a 21-year-old Black man police shot and killed in West Denver in May.)
  • Look at this Castle Rock teen’s photos of protests (“I really want to be a news photographer,” she says).
  • NiemanLab reports “a growing portion of nonprofit newsrooms are dedicated to local matters.”
  • ️Colorado misinformation fighter Scott Yates says, “the Credibility Coalition, the early Misinfocon meetings, the open sharing of research and thoughts, and the general willingness by everyone I met to be helpful all played a huge part of getting JournalList to a point where it was able to launch.”
  • ️Colorado Public Radio will have new board members starting July 1. Joining are Rishi Hingoraney, Adrian Miller, Robert G. Moore, Clara Oxley-Rivas, Jay Rolls and Andra Zeppelin.
  • “By definition of my job as a reporter, I am a gatekeeper. I decide how a story is framed,” Tina Griego told readers in a post about her recent story on DACA recipients. “I decide whose voices to include. Someone once told me, or maybe I read it somewhere, that we must do what the story demands. This story demanded that these Dreamers talk to you directly.”
  • Colorado’s Vanessa Otero released an updated version (the sixth) of her Media Bias Chart.
  • A Denver TV news director says, “It’s that special time of year when I spend an inordinate amount of time responding to viewers who see a clip from our newscast in a campaign ad and believe it demonstrates we’re in the tank for candidate x or issue y.” (Talk about the case for more media literacy.)
  • The Polis administration “said it would cost $1,200” to fulfill a records request for The Colorado Sun and declined to waive the fee.
  • An old newspaper carrier’s “I sell The Denver Post” button has a $99 price tag at an Idaho Springs antique store.

CORRECTION: A previous version had the wrong date.


*This column appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE


  1. What the heck is happening with the world? There are so much chaos and violence. Instead of helping each other and keeping each other’s hopes up, those who are in power, either in wealth or position, some of our authorities and politicians are taking advantage of people during this pandemic.

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