Tips For Covering Protests & Demonstrations

Tips for covering protests
When covering protests, there’s the mission but there’s also your safety. // Photo by Life Matters

Don’t be naïve. Freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, press credentials—none of those things are a shield. In the United States that we live in, those things DO NOT guarantee protection when you’re on the ground covering protests.

“In 2017, the most dangerous place in the U.S. for a journalist was at a protest… Nearly half of all press freedom incidents — such as arrests of and attacks on journalists, as well as searches and seizures of newsgathering equipment — occurred at  protests.” (Reporters Committee For Freedom of The Press)

And conditions certainly don’t seem to have gotten any better.

Fast forward to 2020…

A police officer shot at a reporter on live TV in Louisville.

Police in Minneapolis shot at clearly identified journalists. And photojournalist Linda Tirado was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet and permanently blinded.

You may also remember that state troopers in Minneapolis arrested a three-person CNN news crew during a live broadcast.

Given how bold authorities have been so far, you shouldn’t underestimate what they’ll do to you, especially if you’re a freelancer and aren’t affiliated with a major network or publication.

You have to take your safety and welfare into your own hands, which is why I’ve put together this list of tips for covering protests and demonstrations. This advice is for freelancers and media with credentials.

Before Covering Protests

1) If you’re a freelance content creator, research how the jurisdiction treats bloggers.

In some places, bloggers are given some or all of the same protections as credentialed journalists.

But in other places, there may be little or no protections for independent content creators.

Remember, some areas within a jurisdiction may have their own rules for media and their own security forces. For example, transit systems and transit police.

2) Research potential risks ahead of the event, including warnings about violent groups that may attend, specific sites of concern, and violence threats individuals or groups have made.

Some good sources for this information include:

  • Social media sites using hashtags
  • The website and Twitter account for the FBI, state police, and local police/government.
  • Local public broadcasting radio stations
  • Apps, such as Signal and Citizen
  • U.S. State Department (for covering international protests)

Here’s an example of what you may see from the State Department:

It’s also wise to dig into the history of violent events in the community where you’re covering protests. It can help you identify things that may trigger tensions.

3) Get at least basic knowledge of how to respond to likely risks.

What should you do if your in an area that’s tear-gassed? What are the dos and don’ts of contact with pepper spray? What can you do to help protect your body against rubber bullets?

These are things you should know, especially if there’s advance warning of  potential violence.

By the way, do you know CPR?

4) Pack for the event. And I’m not just talking about your gear, although you should make sure you have extra batteries, portable chargers, etc.

But you also need to pack essentials, such as:

  • A first aid kit
  • Packaged snacks, like energy bars or nuts
  • Bottled water
  • A flashlight
  • Eye protection and eye drops
  • A mask
  • Sanitizer
  • A street map
  • Inhaler and medication
  • Additional layers of clothing
  • Cash (for bail)
  • If you add a gas mask or respirator, make sure you practice using it ahead of time.

This is not an exhaustive list. You may need or want other things.

5) Have a bail bondsman’s phone number. Try to memorize it.

And contact him/her before the event to make sure they’ll be readily available. All bail bondsmen don’t maintain 24/7 service.

Or, have someone on standby to call in case you have to post bail.

In some places, even if you have the money, you can’t bond yourself out.

Know your contact’s number by heart in case you don’t have access to your phone.

Extra Beforehand Steps

6) Contact an attorney.

This isn’t to say you have to pay a retainer or hire the attorney. But call around and introduce yourself. See who plans to be available during the event. And inquire about pricing if you need assistance.

Doing this may lead to you getting some free advice since attorneys tend to know how authorities in their area operate.

7) Contact local authorities before you go to find out if there are special access points, observation areas, or resources for media.

You can also share your plans to attend if that’s something you want to do.

At the Event

8) Consider going unarmed. Or, at least opt for concealed carry.

I know people are passionate about their gun rights AND their safety.

I also realize when people have the right to carry guns, especially in open-carry jurisdictions, they don’t like to be told not to. So, I won’t go that far.

But I will say it’s probably not to open carry.

Being armed could be counterproductive because it may attract attention that hinders your ability to achieve your goal, which is covering the event.

And that negative attention could come from protestors and/or authorities.

Furthermore, there may not be an opportunity for hindsight so choose wisely.

And if you do decide to strap up, definitely make sure you’re doing so legally.

9) Try to avoid covering protests alone unless you’re confident they’re peaceful events.

If you have to go alone, try to link up with other content creators once you get there.

And if all else fails, and you have to roll solo, never get so engulfed in capturing or reviewing material that you forget to observe your surroundings for long periods of time.

Stay aware.

10) If you’re working with a publication, let an editorial staff member know your plans, such as what time you plan to arrive and what you plan to do.

And give your editorial contact details for a personal contact in case you get hurt or get in trouble.

Likewise, if you’re an independent content creator, let someone know where you are.

And have your contact’s number in your Recents or easily accessible so you don’t have to waste time dialing or scrolling through your contacts if you get in a bind.

11) Depending on the size of the event, the setup, and the mood, you may be able to and you may want to introduce yourself to the police or security forces.

In some cases, they could be good allies to have.

12) Throughout the event, read the crowd and determine when it’s in your favor to blend in with the crowd and when it’s best to identify yourself as press and stick near the authorities.

Also, consider carrying a press vest. You can keep it in your pack unless you need it. Amazon has a variety of press vests and press patches, and they’re inexpensive.

13) Be aware of your surroundings.

Take notice of side streets versus dead-end alleys. Use landmarks and other indicators to identify your potential escape routes.

And if you aren’t investigating something specific, try to stay toward the outer perimeter of the crowd, so it’s easier to break away if you need to.

14) Be aware of the protestors’ vibe and be cautious about how you take video, photos, and record audio of people.

Yes, that’s part of your mission. But everyone may not be fond of publicity, especially if you’re capturing destruction of property, altercations, or illegal activity.

Remember, your work can be someone else’s jail or prison sentence.

That can make you a target.

If you’re primarily photographing or getting video, consider finding vantage points so you can get good footage but be out of the way.

You can map out those vantage points out in advance.

15) Backup your footage often and/or carry dummy memory cards.

If you’re uploading your footage to the cloud periodically or saving to one memory card but keeping the dummy in your gear, if your equipment is confiscated or broken, you’ll still have your material.

16) Prepare for kettling.

Kettling is a controversial crowd-control technique where police surround crowds, often to corral people before they’re arrested.

There are numerous dangers, including that it can pack people closely together during the pandemic.

It can often raise tensions as people react to having their movement restricted.

Furthermore, there’s the risk that it can contain clashing parties together, heightening risks of conflict.

When authorities trapped protestors on the Manhattan Bridge in New York, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, called foul on the authorities.

17) Clearly identify yourself as press or media if authorities approach you.

Even if you’re a freelancer, and you’re in a jurisdiction that doesn’t offer bloggers special rights or protections, still identify yourself as media. It can’t hurt, but it could help.

If you work for a news provider or known publication, and you have credentials from that company, bring it with you even if your coverage isn’t for that publication.

This isn’t to make false claims. But if you’re searched or arrested, and authorities see those credentials, it’ll let authorities know you’re affiliated with a large platform where you could report what happens to you.

That can also help.

18) Make sure your hand movements are obvious if you’re approached by police. And limit movement when you can.

Announce moves before you make them.

You may instinctively want to grab your identification or secure your gear, but your moves could be mistaken, especially if there’s tear gas or smoke in the air or if it’s dark, making it difficult to see or making it convenient to make that claim.

Also, authorities may also be sweating beneath their face shields, also affecting visibility.

So, be very careful how you move.

19) If you are arrested or transported, don’t pop off unnecessarily.

Hostility can get you hurt.

Your attitude could change your outcome for the better or for the worse.

Sometimes police are just removing you from the scene and will let you go.

Although that’s not what’s up, you can deal with that injustice later.

But in the moment, if you’re cooperative and not going off at the mouth, you may be able to avoid arrest, charges, bail–that whole rigmarole–or something worse.

20) However, know and defend your rights.

If the police tell you you’re not allowed to record or video, that isn’t true.

If the police require that you give them your equipment or allow them to review footage or audio, you don’t have to comply.

“The Fourth Amendment protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 restricts law enforcement from searching for and seizing a journalist’s work product and documentary materials. Rehearse your response in advance.”

(Reporters Committee)

Stand up for yourself BUT in a non-confrontational way.

Authorities often act with the assumption that civilians don’t know their rights. And if you let them know otherwise, they will sometimes back down.

21) If you’re able to, record interactions with authorities.  If you can’t get video but can capture audio, do it.

22) Use your best sense. When we’re boots on the ground, we all want to accomplish our mission. But more important than any story or any footage is that you make it back home, and you make it back safely.

FYI: Reporters Committee has a Legal Defense and FOIA Hotline that’s available for informational purposes Monday through Friday 9 to 5.

And the number for off-hour emergencies is 1 (800) 336-4243.

Please bookmark and share this list of tips for covering protests and demonstrations with those who can use it.

Did You See: What’s Important When Covering Local Government?


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6 thoughts on “Tips For Covering Protests & Demonstrations

  1. Wow so thorough! So many things to think about. I’m always a big fan of safety and preparation, and you really seem to have it all covered here!

  2. This is a well-prepared resource for those covering protests etc. These are definitely trying times for the world, perhaps particularly for the U.S. , and I’m sure these will come in handy.

  3. The American government is going to war with it’s people and all the checks and balances. Trump is even mocking reporters that get hurt doing their job as acting as part of the checks and balances, being proud that they’re getting hurt covering the news. This isn’t how a democracy works

  4. I am not a journalist. But this post was a great read. I learned a lot of things I didn’t think i needed to know but am really pleased I did. great vocabulary and an essential asset for those journalists on the front line. It is sad attending a protest is the most dangerous place for a journalist.

    1. I’m glad you found it helpful. And yes, the danger for journalists is sad. I can only imagine how much greater that danger is for independent content creators.

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