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‘When journalists come under attack, there is a banding together’: CNN, Getty journalists on safety and allyship

From physical violence in the field and online harassment to on-air arrests and equipment seizures, journalists are facing unprecedented dangers on the job. 

Journalists who have encountered such dangers shared ways their colleagues can bolster their safety while reporting in a climate of hostility and contention. They spoke on Wednesday at a National Press Club Journalism Institute program moderated by Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago.

Alex Marquardt, senior national security correspondent at CNN; Sarah Matthews, a staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; Abby Phillip, political correspondent at CNN; and Michael Santiago, staff news photojournalist with Getty Images and a former staff photographer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette drew on their experiences covering protests and political rallies and offered practical takeaways for serving conflicted communities. 

Among their insights:

On targeting by police

Matthews: Just since May, we’ve seen an unprecedented number of journalists attacked and arrested during the Black Lives Matter protests. During this time, journalists have reported 812 total press freedom incidents to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. … To give you a sense of how large that number is, the tracker recorded just 152 incidents for all of 2019. So we’ve seen more than a five-fold increase just in the last three and a half months.

Santiago: When I covered the protests in Rochester, I can’t say that they targeted me because [as a Black man] I looked like the protesters, the police were targeting absolutely everybody. And it did not matter whether you had a press badge or not. I saw TV crews getting targeted specifically by police with tear gas and flashbangs, and that’s something that completely surprised me.

On preparing for field reporting

Matthews: We do recommend that people use the buddy system. And so team up with another reporter, someone who can help you, can look out for you. That way, you know, if you are being arrested or you think you’re going to be arrested, you can give your equipment to that other person and they can keep it safe because that will be taken from you. … 

We always advise journalists to do their homework in advance. Research the right control tactics in the area where they’ll be reporting and bring personal protective equipment as appropriate.  …

We also advise folks to wear their press credentials prominently. … 

We always advise journalists to have the number of a local criminal attorney written on their arms. And if they don’t have that they can call our hotline, 1-800-336-4243.

On journalists banding together

Marquardt: When journalists come under attack, there is a banding together. I think that’s extra important when freelancers are out there oftentimes by themselves. Any sense of competition completely goes out the window when there is an attack on the press at large, and so we’re constantly sharing information, sharing details, sharing equipment if we can, allowing others to jump in our pod, if you will, too. If we’re near the front line, that is absolutely crucial. There really is a sense of camaraderie.

Santiago: For the journalist and photographers who were out [covering the protests], we kind of huddled in one spot to just differentiate ourselves from the people who were protesting. And when that wasn’t working, we made sure that everybody was, you know, is your helmet on right? Fix your helmet, fix your gas mask.

On field security teams

Marquardt: We always have security with us. And it is kind of stunning — it is stunning — that here in America, we need to have security with our news crews to keep us safe. I was not expecting this kind of violence directed toward journalists when I moved back to the states a couple years ago.

[During the Black Lives Matter protests], I had two cameramen, a producer and two security guards. So that was six of us. And, you know, I come from a network that has plenty of resources, so I was really blessed to have a team that size. … That’s not always going to be the case for a print reporter who’s working by him or herself, a freelance photographer who’s working by him or herself. So I’ve always been a fan of nimble teams, but teams nonetheless, and not working alone. 

On online security

Phillip: It is so important to pay attention to your virtual security, to have multi-factor authentication on all of your accounts. And also to urge, especially if you’re in the public eye, to urge your family members to do the same because it’s not just you that people will go after — they’ll go after your family members. And they can do things that can actually cause real problems if you don’t pay attention to your passwords and things like that, that we don’t really think about as journalists. 

On the weight of language

Geisler: Language does matter. For generations people have said, “protesters claim” and “authorities say,” and the difference between those two words claim and say is putting the weight on one side.

To learn more about RCFP’s training and resources, click here. You can download a tipsheet for covering protests here.


This program is one of an ongoing series of free conversations. Click here to see our upcoming programs, or to watch the recording of a previous event. Please contact Journalism Institute Executive Director Julie Moos with questions.

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Tim Bennett
Tim Bennett
2 years ago

How does one sign up or sign in for this session?