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Tips for reporting protests

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1,800 students, faculty and staff hold hands inthe halls in a unity chain to support Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, March 14. Photo by Theo Yoder, Harrisonburg High, used with permission.

by Candace Bowen, MJE
Covering a protest isn’t like covering a pep rally. The adrenalin rush might be similar, but the consequences are not. With marches in Washington, D.C. and
many other cities, it’s vital for reporters to prepare for what they might encounter.

The Student Press Law Center has helped by focusing on the legal issues involved. But beyond knowing about rights and risks, what else should reporters know? Here’s a list for student journalists covering protests, though by no means a complete one.

  1. Realize you are there to observe and report, gather facts and details, not to participate or support those involved. This is the most important rule when covering a walkout or protest, no matter how sympathetic you may feel towards the cause.
  2. Decide what journalists from your school’s media are going. It’s always better to have more than one. Make sure you’re in touch with your newsroom and with others who know where you are. It’s vital to have a way to communicate with others on your staff covering the event. You might need help with video or audio if you discover an important aspect to cover. You would definitely want to be in contact in case of an emergency. Have a place to meet that’s secure if events become dangerous or chaotic. 
  3. Decide what method of reporting you want to use. Are you gathering information to write a story later? If so, have pen and reporter’s notebook or a smart phone with voice memos you can use. If you plan to tweet the events, discuss ahead of time with your editor how to ensure you are posting accurate, verified information. If you are live streaming, be sure you have the right equipment. Facebook Live works, but here are some other free apps that might be even better. You might also want natural sounds to add to an audio soundbite, so a little higher quality sound app like Voice Record Pro might be worthwhile.
  4. Be prepared for the protest. Dress appropriately for the weather. This may seem obvious, but if you’re wet and cold, you won’t be able to handle your equipment or take notes. Bring snacks like granola bars and water. You don’t know how long a protest will last.
  5. Have and display your press credentials prominently, although doing so could create its own problems. (See #7 below) If you have never had any created for your publication, talk to a local newspaper and see what theirs are like. Make ones that look professional.
  6. Let the police know you are merely doing your job to report what is going on. In previous protests, journalists have been injured and arrested, even when they were following the law. In 2017, there were 23 arrests and 25 physical attacks on journalists, most of them at protests, according to data collected by the US Press Freedom Tracker.
  7. Be aware of the dangers. Sadly, some people today consider journalists the enemy. The crowd may include friends, but counter protesters and others – even the police — could make it difficult for you to perform your job. Rallies earlier this year have included some participants who are armed. If heckled, it’s better to retreat, especially to a spot with other journalists, than to let the confrontation escalate. Be aware of your surroundings. Know where you could go for safety if the crowd gets out of control.
  8. Interview security officers in charge if at all possible, though don’t get in their way. What is the crowd estimate? What is their plan of action? To hold protesters in a limited area? To break up the crowd at a certain time? To do nothing and just monitor the situation unless protesters present a physical threat?
  9. Interview protesters, too. If the event is not in your town and you’re covering a larger protest in a nearby city or if you and those from your school have gone to a major city, make plans to meet at a certain time and place or be sure you have a way to reach them. Their thoughts and words (and photos!) would be most important to your audience, so you need to make sure you get that. Be sure to get names and contact information of resources so you can verify information later.
  10. Think of questions your audience wants to know. What will they not find in the local or national press? Maybe it’s what teens in the crowd think and are doing. Stay around if there’s any police or governmental press conference after the protest is over. Follow up by finding the number of arrests, the crowd estimate and what charges might be filed.

This is important news to cover – so it’s vital to do so professionally, ethically and legally. It’s also important to do so safely.

 

 

 

 

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