US protests safety advisory
A police officer sprays protesters during a march against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in New York City, on May 30, 2020. (Reuters/Jeenah Moon)

CPJ Safety Advisory: Covering U.S. protests over police violence

Updated August 26, 2020

There have been hundreds of reported incidents of violence and harassment, as well as arrests, targeting journalists covering ongoing Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. sparked by the death on May 25, 2020—in police custody—of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota. These incidents have been documented by CPJ and the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a nonpartisan website of which CPJ is a founding partner, as well as by news reports and video and photos on live television and posted on social media. While police appear to be responsible for the majority of reported incidents, journalists should be aware that crowds and protesters have also targeted reporters.

Journalists who need legal assistance can call the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press hotline at 1-800-336-4243 or contact the Reporters Committee via email at [email protected]. For more legal information, journalists can consult the Reporters Committee’s guide to covering protests and tip sheet.

Journalists covering the protests should consider the following risks:

  • Police targeting of journalists with rubber bullets and projectiles
  • Liberal use of pepper spray and tear gas by police
  • Arrest and detention
  • Verbal aggression and physical attacks from protesters, including vigilante and militia groups
  • The dangers associated with arson and looting

Journalists covering the protests should consider and be aware of the following:

Physical Safety

  • Media workers should not be expected to work alone when covering protests
  • Taking into account the levels of violence and tactics used by both police and protesters, ballistic glasses, helmets, and stab vests should be worn. If there is a threat of live ammunition being used, then body armor should also be considered
  • Consider the risk of COVID-19. Demonstrators and law enforcers are often ignoring physical distancing guidance. Remain alert to individuals who may cough over or close to you (be it purposely or accidentally). Note that if tear gas and/or pepper spray is deployed virus droplets could spread as individuals react to the effects. Ensure that you have 70% alcohol-based sanitizer, disposable gloves, and an N95 face mask (or FFP2 / FFP3) when not using a respirator
  • When reporting from a protest location, maintain situational awareness at all times and be aware of the threat from potential stampedes. Due to the prevalence of mob violence, consider reporting from a higher vantage point such as a building rooftop, upper floor window, or balcony. Always stay in close proximity to hard cover, keep to the periphery of the crowd, and have an emergency exit route planned
  • Remain alert to the risk of arson and looting. Maintain a safe distance from any building or vehicle being targeted, and watch out for dangers including flying and falling debris, smashed glass, and fire.
  • Journalists should remain conscious of the threat of potential vehicle ramming by anti-protest groups. Remain on the sides of roads and take stock of locations to shelter in or escape toon a regular basis
  • Consider using a “backwatcher” to help keep you aware of what is going on around you
  • Always have a check-in procedure with your base, particularly when reporting after dark. If working as a freelancer consider having a check-in procedure with a fellow journalist, family, or friend
  • Consider your choice of clothes. Avoid wearing flammable materials like nylon or anything that is loose-fitting that can be grabbed. Newsroom logos and/or political slogans should be avoided, as should military fatigues and black-colored outfits (which are often worn by far-left anti-fascist [antifa] groups)
  • If carrying a backpack, it is advisable to wear it on your front if practical to do so, in order to prevent people pulling it from behind. Keep long hair tied up and tucked away, and avoid wearing anything around your neck that could potentially be used to choke or pull you (such as a necklace or lanyard strap)
  • Keep to the outside of the crowd. Avoid being sucked into the middle of the crowd where it is hard to escape, and avoid getting trapped between the police and the protesters. Try to keep your back against a wall or something similar to protect your back/rear. Identify possible escape/evacuation routes and fall back locations. If in a team, identify agreed emergency rendezvous points to meet with others should you become separated
  • Continuously observe and read the mood of the authorities in relation to the crowd dynamic. Police can become more aggressive if the crowd is agitated or vice versa. Visual cues such as the appearance of police dressed in riot gear, shield walls, or throwing of projectiles are potential indicators that aggression can be expected. Pull back to a safe location, or plan a quick extraction when such ‘red flags’ like these are evident
  • Keep your media credentials with you, and easily accessible at all times in case the police ask to see them
  • Large crowds create potential risks of sexual assault. Journalists should always work with colleagues and have the means to raise the alarm. Working after dark is considerably more risky and should be avoided. For more information please see CPJ’s advice for journalists reporting alone
  • Plan all journeys in and around cities in advance, and have a contingency plan in place. Movement can be affected at very short notice due to protesters blocking roads, as well as the closure of metro stations

Digital Safety

  • Be aware of the information stored on your devices. Think about the type of information police will have access to should they detain you and gain access to your phone or laptop
  • If possible, leave your main phone behind and instead carry a phone that has minimal information on it. If you cannot leave your phone behind then remove as much personal information as possible from the device, including logging out of and deleting apps from the phone. For more information, see CPJ’s advice on device security
  • Deactivate touch or face ID for your phone and use a pin number instead
  • Turn off location services for your apps as this information is stored by companies and could be subpoenaed by the authorities at a later date

CPJ’s online Safety Kit provides journalists and newsrooms with basic safety information on physical, digital, and psychological safety resources and tools, including covering civil unrest. If you need assistance, journalists should contact CPJ via [email protected]