As objections to stay-at-home orders grow louder in some states, newsroom editors are deciding how to cover public protests by making on-deadline calls about news judgment, ethics, and the health and safety of their reporters.
How have the protests been organized, how widespread is the anger, is there accountability for violating social distancing – all those questions have been swirling around the coverage of what in many communities is undoubtedly a story. How to cover them responsibly remains a matter of continued debate, illustrated by Facebook’s decision to remove posts for protests that specifically promote flouting social distance.
For some insights on coverage, we reached out to Kevin Benz, a 35-year veteran journalist and former news director who now coaches newsrooms in ethics and leadership. Three years ago he wrote an article for Radio Television Digital News Association titled “Ethical Questions for Journalists Covering Protests.” It was timely then. It is timely now.
“Dissent is not a one-way street, it’s a roundabout,” Benz said in an email interview. “Editors need to ask who else is affected by the dissent or protest? We are seeing some counter-protests by medical professionals. What is their agenda? What about those who may be forced to return to work when they feel unsafe?
“Protests and dissent are opportunities for journalists to educate. The coverage should be fair to those who disagree as well as those protesting.”
What factors should editors take into account when they decide when and how to cover these protests?
Benz: Obviously not every protest is news. Deciding when to cover these events involves a number of factors. Here are some questions journalists should try to answer as they grapple with decisions about coverage:
How timely and how expansive is the issue or issues at the heart of the protest? These protests obviously pass that test.
Who are the protestors? Do they come from your audience / community? Do they reflect others who may feel the same but were unable or unwilling to join? Again, these protests do seem to reflect the diverse and dissenting feelings of many in the community and they are relatively sizable.What is at the heart of the protest? This is a much more difficult question, especially as we learn more about how the protests have been organized. Journalists should reveal the organizations that are sponsoring these protests when they can, but that cannot be the end of the coverage. Not everyone participating may be aware of those origins. Journalists should work to reflect the diverse points of view of those participating, whether they are aware of the origins or not. As I wrote in the article you saw, “Often, those caught up in the march have no idea who is leading or organizing the protest — they simply saw or heard an issue that appealed to them and joined.”
As journalists what is our obligation to cover them?
Benz: First, we are reporters. It is our obligation to reflect the thoughts and feelings of diverse audiences and to cover dissent and the civil disobedience that sometimes comes with it.
These protests are not small. So, yes, journalists should be paying attention to them, especially given the size and scope of them.
Protests and dissent are opportunities for journalists to educate — to tell the stories of those who feel so strongly about a subject, they are willing to put themselves out there in such a public way.
How should they address the issue of transparency to their audiences in describing when and how you cover these events?
Benz: Newsrooms should have guidelines about when and how they cover protests. (See the questions above.) Now is a good time to share those guidelines with their audience.
We have reports of protesters being arrested for violating social distancing rules. Do reporters have to have that potential outcome in mind when interviewing or photographing protesters?
Benz: Journalists should be sure what they record is accurate, contextual and true. These protests are occurring in public spaces, so journalists need not be concerned, legally, about who or what they record. They should be concerned and sure they are accurately recording truth, not allowing themselves to be used by outliers looking for publicity based upon a stunt.
In your (RTDNA) piece you talk about being independent and recognizing your own biases. In these protests, with self-care being at the forefront, how can journalists separate their personal health concerns with the behavior exhibited by protesters?
Benz: Safety should be everyone’s first priority. Reporters need to stay safe. That said…
Personal bias and personal perspective should be the next concern of journalists covering protests on the ground. Reporters need to first identify their own bias, they should own it. Then they should work to mitigate it in their reporting as best as possible. Objectivity is not possible (ever, but that’s another conversation) but fairness is. Journalists need to accept the right of those they cover to disagree and the legitimacy of their cause.
I am not suggesting journalists simply accept any argument as legitimate, though. See below for more.
How much of the story should focus on objections to stay-at-home rules and how much should be the possible health dangers these protesters are exposing themselves and others to?
Benz: There is a major difference between those who are simply advocating for the opening of the economy, those who argue against the power of government to force them to stay home, and those who are not believing the science behind the disease.
These arguments should be covered in a fair way… NOT in a balanced, false equivalent way. There is no argument against the science of this disease and journalists should avoid giving weight or credence to anyone suggesting conspiracy theories about the origin or dangers of this disease — no different than avoiding giving credibility to anti-vaccination conspiracies or climate change conspiracy theories. The reporting of these protests should point out the scientific dangers the protestors might be exposing themselves to.
AND… many of the protestors are out there wearing protective masks and gloves. They believe the science, but they also have a legitimate protest against what they see as government overreach and they may be sincerely afraid of how the closed economy is affecting them personally and their community.
Journalists should be fair and thorough, covering the issues behind the protests and delivering important factual discussions about it — correcting misinformation, adding factual information, avoiding giving credibility to conspiracy or falsehood.
As I state in the article…
“Here are a few guidelines for journalists covering protests, dissent and civil disobedience:
Aim for fair rather than balanced.
“Balance” suggests your storytelling should include equal weight for all sides of a story. This approach, while theoretically sound, is not realistic. Most stories, and certainly all protests, are a kaleidoscope of points of view. As you go about gathering your story, think about how to be fair to the protestors and to those who might disagree.
Recognize the diversity of the group.
People protest for many different reasons, avoid assuming everyone is there for the exact same cause. Ask people why they are there and what issue they are most passionate about.
Avoid allowing one person to speak for everyone.
This happens of course when a large protest is formed by charismatic leaders who are readily available (and anxious) to speak. One person can never speak for any large, diverse group. Talk to them, yes, but also get information from those in the middle and at the end of the march or protest.”
Protest leaders in some cases have assigned names to these events — such as Patriot’s Day Rally. Should news organizations describe the protests using terms devised by the organizers?
Benz: Journalists make these decisions every day. In making the decision about how to label a protest, ask: Is this a title that has legitimacy? Is it accurate? What is the agenda behind the title? Would everyone in the protest agree to the accuracy of the title? Can you cover the protest accurately without mentioning the title? Should you?
What safety guidelines would you encourage your reporters to follow in covering these events?
Benz: Safety should be the first consideration for journalists in the field anywhere, anytime. Journalists covering the protest story should abide by guidance set out by doctors and scientists, as well as the guidance of their employers — maintain a safe distance, wear protective masks and gloves, avoid contact.
Also, consider that some in the protestors may not be as considerate of a journalist’s safety. As with any protest that has the potential for violence, journalists should anticipate and avoid those who might want to compromise their safety.
What other journalistic issues raised by these protests must editors and reporters factor into their decision making?
Benz: It’s easy to cover the protests and protestors as a singular event. It’s not a singular event. These protests are tied directly to the state of our community today. Journalists should take the next step by observing and reporting on the affect and effects of these protests.
Those who disagree with the protestors (and surveys would suggest the majority does not agree) are not walking around across the street counter-protesting. They are at home, following the guidance they believe will keep them safe. How do journalists reflect them in the reporting?
What about police? Do these protests endanger their health and safety? How should they be protected?