Journalists, don't get caught up in civil unrest

April 11, 2018 01:30

RCFP via U.S. Press Freedom Tracker
Taking to the streets is as American as the First Amendment. The Constitution protects “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

But covering civil unrest is one of the most ethically fraught and dangerous assignments for reporters outside of war zones.

Peaceful protests can be accompanied by – or escalate into – violent disturbance.

Of the 45 reported physical attacks on journalists in the U.S. in 2017, 31 occurred while covering protests, according the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding member. Several of these cases were perpetrated by law enforcement, though most were by individual civilians.

It’s important for reporters to understand their rights and ethical responsibilities before they’re dispatched to cover a protest. Newsroom managers, use our civil unrest coverage guidelines to prepare your teams before protests occur.
Download the Know Your Reporting Rights Guide for what you need to know about your rights before heading into any investigative reporting assignment, FOIA request or potentially confrontational story.
Even if protests are peaceful, law enforcement can become involved, and occasionally attempt to disperse protestors in ways that ensnare journalists covering the events, too, such as through the use of “kettling,” or surrounding a group and then ordering it to disband, arresting the trapped individuals.

Of 34 arrests of journalists in 2017, 29, or more than eighty percent, occurred at protests, most during major incidents on Inauguration Day in Washington, at Standing Rock and in St. Louis.

No journalist goes out in the field planning to get arrested but journalists are being arrested with increasing frequency as they try to do their jobs covering protests, asking questions of politicians, or sometimes just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The best defense against being arrested is to know and follow the law, but newsrooms should also prepare their teams for the possibility of arrest by developing a protocol. Use RTDNA’s journalist arrest guidelines as a starting point.

Newsroom managers, it’s your responsibility to keep your teams informed and safe in the field. The best way to do so is to be prepared before incidents occur.

RTDNA's series of more than 30 coverage guidelines is designed to assist journalists and newsroom managers with ethical and operational situations from native advertising and avoiding conflicts of interest to covering race, children, crime and more.