Civil scenarios from crime scenes to riots can generate unpredictable and dangerous conditions. Journalists need to be mindful of self-protection measures to avoid putting themselves at physical or legal risk.
The first responsibility of anyone among the early or “first responders”—including police, ambulance workers, and firefighters, as well as journalists—is to protect one’s self by surveying the scene and being aware of potential hazards, such as oncoming traffic, downed power lines, and the leaking of combustible fuel or hazardous chemicals or gases. As in other situations, you should be close enough to observe the scene without endangering yourself or others, or interfering with security or rescue operations. Photojournalists should apply similar judgment, understanding that they must be close enough to record the events. Authorities usually establish a perimeter in order to keep onlookers, including journalists, at a distance; you may request, but cannot usually demand, a closer vantage point than other onlookers. That said, authorities should be encouraged to provide journalists with a vantage that allows them a clear view of operations. Toward that end, editors should discuss access issues with senior police and emergency officials on an ongoing basis and develop mutually agreed-upon guidelines for news coverage at emergency scenes.
Crossing police lines or disobeying police orders could lead to arrest. Being respectful in both tone and demeanor is usually the best way to proceed. Journalists covering emergency or rescue scenes should also prominently display their press credentials at all times.
Confrontations sometimes arise between authorities and journalists covering a scene. U.S. reporter Diane Bukowski was found guilty of crimes including obstructing and endangering two Michigan state troopers while covering the aftermath of a fatal crash involving a motorcyclist who was pursued by a state police vehicle. Authorities claimed Bukowski crossed a police line; Bukowski claimed she did not cross a line and was taking pictures at a distance of one of the deceased.
Violent crime scenes may be more complicated to cover. Self-protection is again the first rule. During a hostage standoff or other unsettled scenario, be careful not to expose yourself to risk from further disturbances. One question to ask is whether perpetrators may still be at large in the area. In the case of a terrorist attack or other action designed to attract public attention, consider the chance of follow-up attacks. CPJ has documented dozens of cases in which journalists responding to an initial blast were killed or injured when a follow-up bomb exploded. If a second attack or double bombing is possible, you may wish to remain on the periphery and interview witnesses as they leave the area.
Clearly display credentials at crime scenes, including local government-issued credentials whenever possible. (See the section on Press Credentials in Chapter 1.) Avoid confrontations with authorities; at such times, having relationships with senior law enforcement officials is useful. (See the section on Basic Preparedness in Chapter 5.) And avoid contact with material that is potential evidence; do not remove any material from the crime scene.
Witnesses and other survivors of violent events may be agitated or traumatized. “Journalists will always seek to approach survivors, but journalists should do it with sensitivity, including knowing when and how to back off,” notes the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma in its guide, Tragedies and Journalists. More than anything else, this means respecting survivors’ wishes about whether they want to be interviewed or have their emotions recorded; demonstrating such respect, in fact, may well lead survivors to allow journalists greater access. Police and rescue authorities may also be traumatized. Understand that this may not be the best or only time to ask questions of either survivors or authorities.
You do not have a right to trespass on private property in pursuit of a story. Journalists may enjoy some limited access to private property when covering publicly advertised political rallies or events. Learn in advance the relevant laws and regulations.
Journalists in the United States and other nations may not enter private property without the consent of the owner or resident, even if they have been accompanying police authorities responding to a situation. “Even when reporters gain access without being stopped, they can be arrested for trespass and property owners may sue them after the fact, seeking damages for trespass or invasion of privacy,” the U.S.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press notes in its field guide.
In most nations, you have the right to access private property when it is open to the public at large, although your right to electronically record events, as opposed to simply taking notes, may still be limited. Political events or rallies that take place on private property, which could be deemed to include the rented space or field of a public school or other government facility, are often contentious sites between authorities and journalists. Courts frequently hold that the private owners or renters of the space (even if it is a publicly owned property like a park or school) have the right to deny journalists the use of video cameras or audio recorders, and to ask journalists to leave the premises if they refuse.
Journalists who refuse to leave may be arrested for criminal trespass in the United States and other nations. Some journalists maintain that they were not given time to leave after being ordered off the premises. In 2010, Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger was detained and handcuffed by a private security guard after asking questions of a U.S. Senate candidate following a publicly advertised meeting in a public school rented by the campaign. Police arrived, removed the handcuffs, and released Hopfinger, who was not charged with a crime.
Journalists need to be prepared and use care in covering events on or near private property. Clearly displaying press credentials at all times when reporting stories on private property is recommended.
Journalists covering protests and other violent civil disturbances face legal and physical risks from all sides, often at the same time. About 100 journalists died while covering street protests and other civil disturbances from 1992 through 2011, according to CPJ research. In 2011, nearly 40 percent of work-related fatalities came during such assignments, the highest proportion CPJ had ever recorded.
Physical fitness is an important consideration in covering situations that could suddenly turn violent; journalists whose mobility is limited should weigh the risks in advance. Being mindful of one’s location at all times is also essential, and this usually means finding a vantage point that allows for observation of both protesters and riot police or other authorities without ending up between them. Be aware of how such events have played out in the same locations in the past. Map out exit routes in advance, and consider working in teams when covering any potentially violent situation. Photographer and writer teams, camera operator and sound operator teams, and producer and correspondent teams allow journalists to watch out for each other.
In many nations, news organizations have hired security teams to accompany journalists. The spate of attacks against journalists during the 2011 Egyptian revolution and aftermath underscored the violent situations journalists can encounter during civil unrest. Journalists should also know the relevant laws and practices in case either law enforcement agents or protesters demand to review or confiscate video cartridges or other recording material.
Clothing should be chosen thoughtfully, including whether it would be better to stand out or blend in. Clothes should be loose-fitting and made of natural fabric, as synthetic materials can catch fire and burn much more quickly, the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists notes. Good shoes with appropriate support and flexible, non-slip soles are also essential.
Try to keep yourself out of harm’s way. One could think of a journalist as a referee on the playing field: The referee must be close enough to observe the game accurately, yet must take every precaution to avoid getting mixed up in the action. When covering protests or riots, avoid being caught between clashing groups or ending up in the middle of any crowd. “Walk along the sides of the protesters,” recommends the Swiss journalist Dominik Bärlocher on the Canadian Journalism Project website J-Source. “The people who throw stones and such usually do that from the middle of the mass of protesters where they can blend back into the crowd.”
Whether to display one’s press credentials or keep them out of sight (but still handy enough to show on demand) is an important decision for writers covering civil unrest. In some circumstances, it may be better to look like any other civilian and keep your press credentials out of sight but in a closed and quickly accessible pocket, as Bärlocher suggests on J-Source. In either case, journalists should avoid wearing clothing such as a colored bandanna or a blue windbreaker, which might make them resemble a protester or law enforcement agent. In situations where being mistaken for a demonstrator could be dangerous, all journalists should clearly display their press credentials. For radio and TV reporters, and other journalists using equipment to record events, it is almost always best to display a laminated press card.
Never pick up anything thrown at a demonstration. Not only could it be a homemade explosive or combustible device, but doing so may make police presume that you are a protester.
Consider what to bring when covering a protest or similar event. Bärlocher recommends a pack with “at least a strap across the chest and…another one around the waist” to keep it “from bouncing around and hindering you, especially when running.” Everything in the backpack should be expendable; items to carry include bottled water (preferably in an open side pocket), a towel, and a small first-aid kit. Be aware, however, that carrying a backpack, as demonstrators often do, could lead law enforcement agents to mistake you for a protester.
Carrying a lime, lemon, or other citrus fruit can be a good idea, according to the International Federation of Journalists. The fruit can be squeezed onto an affected area of skin to help neutralize chemical irritants. A wet towel can help protect your face from the effects of agents such as tear gas or Molotov cocktails. A gas mask, swimming goggles, or industrial eye protection can also help protect against tear gas or pepper spray. (Avoid wearing contact lenses if you think tear gas or pepper spray may be used.) Light body-armor vests designed to stop knives or rubber bullets, along with metal-lined caps, may be recommended in particularly uncontrolled situations. The International Federation of Journalists recommends that videographers and photographers carry “dud” cartridges or memory cards to hand over instead of the real ones if demanded.
Journalists should obey orders from law enforcement officers, although authorities sometimes arrest journalists without giving orders first. At least four journalists were among hundreds arrested while covering protests related to the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. The journalists were arrested without warning as police attempted to corral protesters and journalists covering their actions into a fenced parking lot. Days later, police arrested dozens of journalists along with hundreds of protesters after sealing off both sides of a highway overpass.
Remain calm if you are arrested. If you choose to object to the arresting officer, you may worsen your situation. If you do speak up, make every effort to maintain a professional demeanor as you explain that you are a journalist covering news. (Whatever sympathies you may have for any actors on the ground are beside the point; what is always important is that a journalist act on the ground not like a participant but as an observer.) If the authorities decide to proceed with the arrest, comply with orders and wait for an opportunity to make your case calmly to a supervising authority.