‘Always keep recording’: Essential safety checklists and legal advice for covering protests, rallies, and conventions

Journalists covering protests are subjected to an average of 1.6 assaults per day, with more than 85 percent perpetrated by law enforcement, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

With the combination of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, ongoing right-wing conspiracies about the validity of U.S. elections, and the prospect of domestic terrorist attacks, protests will continue to be a major coverage area this year for news outlets. 

To help journalists stay safe, the National Press Club Journalism Institute held a training program featuring tips from:

  • Corinne Chin, Emmy-award winning video journalist, and Associated Press director of news talent
  • Kamesha Laurry, Borealis Racial Equity in Journalism Fund Legal Fellow for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
  • Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association
  • Moderator: Rachel Oswald, National Press Club press freedom team lead and a foreign policy reporter for CQ Roll Call

“We really need to think about creating a culture of safety collectively,” Chin said. “Of keeping each other safe as journalists. Of not necessarily seeing each other as competitors in the heat of the moment.” 

Safety checklists for journalists, editors, producers

There are many things journalists, producers, and editors can do ahead of time to mitigate physical and legal risks while covering a protest. 

It starts with preparation. Before heading out in the field, Chin recommends the following:

  • Do your homework. “Research, research, research,” she said. “If it’s local, visit the location ahead of time to scope out choke points, possible exit routes.” If you aren’t local to the area, familiarize yourself with the location either using Google MapsGoogle Earth, or Snap Map! 
  • Laurry also recommends that journalists utilize the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker as part of their background research to see where attacks have been most common. 
  • Complete a risk assessment with your team before you go. Chin provided a sample template here.
  • Learn what items are prohibited. If you are covering a convention, you might not be allowed to bring a backpack or gas mask. Plan your gear ahead of time in accordance with the event rules to avoid any equipment seizures. 
  • Determine team meeting points. Figure out an easy-to-access, safe admin point to check in with your team regularly if you get separated in a large crowd. 
  • Select a back-up meeting point. In the event that your original admin location becomes compromised, you should have a contingency plan.  
  • Set regular check-in times. Do not rely on cell phones to communicate with your team as reception may become unreliable in large crowds. Make sure that everyone knows not only where to go but when. 
  • Find a parking spot (and a back-up plan) the day before. It can be tricky to find a space that is both safe from potential violence but also close enough to make a quick escape. This is why thinking ahead is important. Also keep in mind any accessibility considerations for your team if the space is far away. 
  • Learn as much as you can about who will be attending the event. Are there any cultural standards you should know? What about language barriers? Has this group had an antagonistic relationship with the press in the past? 
  • Consider the cybersecurity risks of using your devices at the event. If you can, try and consult with a cybersecurity expert in advance. Are you going to be in a situation where you should send encrypted messages to communicate with your team? Does it make sense to turn off biometrics on your devices? 
  • Develop a signal for when you, or your team, is ready to leave. Everyone has a different tolerance for risk, so communicate your boundaries ahead of time and respect those of your colleagues. 

On the day of the event, here is a short list of essentials to bring:

  • A list of emergency contacts. You can either print this out or write on your arm in permanent marker. Again, don’t rely on your cell phone in these situations.
  • Identification and a press pass. “One thing I always recommend is don’t wear it around your neck because that can be easily used to grab and choke you in a situation where there’s a dangerous crowd,” Chin said. 
  • Clothing and shoes. Wear comfortable shoes that you can run in if you need to. Chin suggests avoiding synthetic fabrics, which are flammable. Also be cautious of wearing certain colors that might signal affiliation with a group.
  • Personal Protective Equipment. In addition to your COVID PPE, you may wish to bring a pair of goggles or body armor — if it’s allowed in your state.
  • First aid kit. Prepare a basic medical kit that you can bring in case of injury. Also bring extra medications in the event that you get held up or detained.
  • A buddy. All the panelists emphasized the importance of working as a group. “I know that if you’re a freelancer, this can be really hard,” Chin said. “But consider linking up with other freelancers. Consider linking up with other colleagues just as a safety measure.” 

And if you do run into trouble at the event — especially with law enforcement officers — Osterreicher advises that journalists record everything. 

“Always keep recording. … There’s the presumption that a police officer, if they end up having to testify in court, is telling the truth. And unfortunately, that’s not always the case.” 

“We hope that if you have any negative impacts or negative experiences when you attend a protest that you report it to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker just to make sure the numbers are as accurate as possible,” Laurry said. You can submit an incident online by filling out this form.

A quick legal primer for journalists 

It’s crucial that journalists be familiar with the federal and state laws that protect them.

For example, in the United States, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place. This gives journalists a constitutional right to take pictures of — or record — individuals in a public setting. 

Other federal protections to know include:

  • The First Amendment guarantees five protections, including speech and the press, but it is not absolute. 
    • Restrictions to the First Amendment must be content neutral. “They must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest,” Osterreicher said. “And they must leave open a reasonable alternative avenues of communication.” 
    • The First Amendment applies to federal, state, and local government actors, which range from police departments to public school officials. It does not apply to private entities or citizens.
    • The act of photography and videography is considered a form of free expression.
  • The Fourth Amendment protects journalists against unreasonable search and seizure, not only of your property but of your person.
  • The 14th Amendment addresses the rights of all U.S. citizens in terms of due process and equal protection.  
  • The Privacy Protection Act of 1980 protects a journalist’s work product from being seized: “Police cannot use, or they should not use a warrant,”  Osterreicher said. “They need to get a subpoena when they do that.”

Additionally, journalists should be aware of the local rules in their jurisdiction that might impact their work. Here are four examples:

  • Shield laws protect a reporter’s privilege, but there is no federal shield law.
  • Many courts across the U.S. have recognized the right to record the police performing their official duties in a public place, but the interpretation of this differs by state.
  • Journalists in some states like Minnesota are exempt from dispersal orders issued by police, but, again, it varies by location.
  • Some states like New York now prohibit the use of body armor or other personal protective devices for anyone other than law enforcement, military, or other officers of peace.  

“We can give you all the training in the world,” Osterreicher said. “The best thing for you to do is … have situational awareness, work with other folks, and keep recording.” 

The current climate for covering protests and civil unrest in the United States

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker allows users to filter incidents by year as well as the type of protest, which provides valuable context for the current risks and how they may have changed over the years. For example, it shows:

  • In 2019: Nine journalists were arrested; 42 were assaulted; and 12 had their equipment damaged
  • In 2020: 143 journalists were arrested; 627 were assaulted; and 121 had their equipment damaged
  • In 2021: 59 journalists were arrested; 144 were assaulted; and 37 had their equipment damaged
  • In 2022 to date: 10 journalists have been arrested; 21 assaulted; and 5 had their equipment damaged

Where journalists can find legal help and additional resources:

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