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Covering protests: Do’s and Don’ts of the biggest story this year


by Candace Bowen, MJE

They’re certainly newsworthy: timeliness, significance, in many cases proximity and maybe even some recent graduates your audience knows.

BUT some questions need answers: Is it dangerous to cover protests? Is it legal? What should student reporters do to avoid confrontation with police? What if the principal thinks they shouldn’t go – or should they just go and ask later? What’s the adviser’s role in all of this? And then, how should students cover the situation? Is it news? (How fast can your student media produce and disseminate it?) What about photos? Do you need permission to take them? To publish them?

The Student Press Law Center created two articles for their website when protests were happening in the past. With a few updates, they have happily encouraged me to share their content.

Decide first, why should you cover a protest?

Help your staff think about the reasons for covering such events. That’s not a legal question, but it’s the primary question journalists should ask themselves about any content. Go back to a basic journalism class lesson about what makes news NEWS.

  • One news value is timeliness. If students can cover what is happening NOW and not have to wait three weeks for another print publication to go to press, then news is a good idea. If they can’t be at all timely, see some other suggestions for different approaches at the end of this blog post. 
  • Another important news value is significance or the related value of impact. The former asks how big a difference this act or event will make in people’s lives, and the latter asks how many people will be affected by this. If local police are arresting students, is this something that has never happened before? Might it make a difference in their actions in the future? Will protests in general make a difference in how our government acts toward one group of people or another? Is the simple act of protesting making a difference in how safe some students and other residents feel?
  • Conflict is evident, but is there an important basic disagreement here – maybe even bigger than issues between Israel and Palestine? If you’ve followed the news carefully, you see the very essence of democracy in conflict. Do the students have the right – especially in a place that encourages critical thinking skills and exploring a variety of ideas – to express their views and discuss what is upsetting them? On the other hand, do college and university officials have the right to ensure the protesters aren’t disrupting classes and the basic educational mission? It’s a challenging dilemma.
  • Look at other news values: proximity, prominence of the people involved (or even how well they are known in your school), human interest? The more news values you have, the stronger their story will be and the better job they can do focusing it.

Next, COULD you publish about this topic?

You probably know already if this kind of topic would fly at your school or would create a call to the principal’s office.  Does your policy say students make content decisions or does everything need an administrator’s approval? This post isn’t long enough to go through all the arguments of the value of students determining content, so the basic question: Is this the mountain you want to die on? It’s a cliché, but it’s still a valuable question for students to answer.

So, the staff decides to cover the protest at a nearby college

After asking all those questions and deciding it’s a story too important to ignore, it’s time for the two big steps: What can your students do to write the very best article possible? And how can they use the SPLC’s recommendations to remain safe. 

  • Protests, by their very nature, are chaotic and confusing. But here are few tips to keep in mind:
    • Before you go, talk to a lawyer who can help you understand the laws covering protests in your city or state. They do vary.
    • Interview a wide range of protesters. Get their names and IDs (student, year in school/faculty, teaching area, etc.) Don’t just talk to the loudest ones.
    • Find out their biggest concerns and reason for protesting.
    • Talk to school officials. That may be tough, but to give the complete picture, it’s necessary. They may only give you a press release or you may have to call them after the fact, but you need all sides. Even talking to law enforcement is good, though, that, too, may have to be the police community resource person later. You can get a report of how many (if any) were arrested, or they may provide a press release or have a press conference.
    • Take plenty of candid action photos – you don’t need permission because this is clearly a public place.
  • Make sure you know how to stay safe. Some of the SPLC tips may seem a bit extreme, but they’ll want to read and consider them all just in case. Make sure your students pay special attention to these:
    • Make sure someone knows where you are going and what you are covering. This should probably be parents and the media adviser.
    • Have emergency contact information. The more detailed list on the SPLC site linked above suggests writing that info on your arm with a Sharpie.
    • Always work with a buddy. A reporter and a photographer are a logical pair.
    • Wear conspicuous press credentials. 
    • Cover the story, but do so safely.
    • And most important: Remember you are a neutral observer. Don’t grab a protest sign or join in the chanting.
    • You do have the right to cover a protest, though many law enforcement members may not know that about the student press. Make sure YOU know what you can do legally and why.
    • The SPLC article has many good tips about what to do it you’re stopped by law enforcement. READ IT ALL.

What if the protest or walkout is at YOUR school? Much of the same things apply, but here is another good article from the Student Press Law Center that might help with that kind of coverage.

What if you can’t be timely about this? Write a news feature. Don’t start with a date three weeks ago. Follow one protester and talk to him/her afterwards. What is happening now? Has anything changed? Was anyone arrested? What’s happening to them now? How is the mood on campus changed? It’s almost the end of the semester, so did that make a big difference?

Possible photos that could work?