by Russell Midori
Two generation-defining stories are colliding in America; the first wave of the great virus and the second wave of the civil rights movement. Journalists’ heads are spinning. Reporting on COVID-19 created a sudden and necessary urgency by media leaders to validate government precautions, while protests following the death of George Floyd rapidly diminished the foundational credibility of government institutions altogether. Journalists are called on now to make sense of these enormous social disruptions.
Objective journalism endeavors to find the balance between the fully opposite concepts of upholding social cooperation and giving voice to revolutionary ideas. Journalism is most important to the health of society in times when finding such a balance feels impossible, and this is one of those times. The present generation of journalists is undergoing an exhaustive test of intellect, ethics, and tenacity that will distinguish them in history and guide Americans to the next phase of our nation’s great experiment in democracy.
You may not always find a grateful audience as this weighty challenge comes at a time when public opinion holds mass media, and journalists by association, in low regard. You may not always find a livable wage, as vulture capitalists have decimated the economic potential of our career field for many journalists. You may not even fully experience your right to free speech, as government officials have violated the Constitution by systematically and forcefully restricting press freedom in our coverage of the present civil rights movement. And yet, you must persevere.
I am a front-line journalist based in New York City, and my work principally involves shooting, editing, and transmitting breaking news content for television. My news experience is less editorial and more in the field of technical production. I don’t favor any cause or party, and I’m not an authority on how you should tell stories in these unprecedented times. I look forward to seeing your work, especially if it causes me to question my own aging views on objectivity and source reliability. I hope nothing I write here affects your editorial approach.
Instead, I’d like to share the experience I have in mitigating risks while reporting on social unrest. Front-line journalists covering domestic civil unrest today are facing threats that were once only associated with overseas reporting, and I hope my experience in that arena will spare you a few hard lessons. I’ve produced conflict and security stories on the ground in Haiti, Iraq, India, Mexico, and Kurdistan and I’ve covered domestic unrest in Standing Rock, Dallas, Charlottesville, and Ferguson. As I write this on the laptop in my live news truck, I’m preparing to film a protest in the New York streets, which I did nearly every day in June this year. My journey in journalism has often brought me to hotbeds of civil disorder, but I have very rarely been in serious danger because I’ve learned to identify and reduce threats from protesters, police, soldiers, and criminal predators. I hope the information here will help you do the same.
Avoid Reporting Alone
Team up with another journalist if you can. Working protests alone is dangerous, especially if you have your attention focused on capturing photography, writing notes, or recording audio. I try to work with journalists who have different backgrounds than I do to balance our experiential deficits. If you have a lot of experience covering social unrest, consider working with someone who doesn’t do much protest coverage to compensate for your potential complacency toward threats. If you don’t usually cover protests, you should definitely work with someone who has done it often to help you identify threats and tell you when to keep your head down.
Your pre-planning should include contacting a criminal lawyer who will be available while you are reporting in case you get arrested. If you are reporting in the United States without at least $1000 dollars in your bank account, you should also be in contact with a bail bondsman so you don’t have to sit in jail for doing your job in the presence of zealous police.
Contact Police Beforehand
American police have the authority to use force against you and arrest you while you’re covering a protest. You should thus know how they work and who holds authority in their chain of command. Most American police performing “riot control” duties have authority from local precincts and municipalities rather than state or federal jurisdiction. So if you know the location of a protest, you can also learn the precinct with jurisdiction in that area and contact the desk sergeant to learn information about their leadership and procedures.
Ask them if they’re bringing pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets. Sometimes, the non-lethal weapons police choose to bring is a story all by itself that speaks volumes about how local cops handle unrest. It also never hurts to know the names of the captains, lieutenants and sergeants on duty during a protest. If the person who takes your call doesn’t want to reveal that information, push for it; you’re a journalist. Ask to speak to a supervisor. It’s better to learn about police procedures over the phone rather than in handcuffs.
These conversations can help you get a sense of how police leadership expects their officers to behave during a protest. That empowers you to exert your own authority as press if a police officer, for instance, asks you to stand somewhere “for your safety” as a pretense to censor your footage.
Photography Restrictions, Search and Seizure
You do not have to stop filming unless you are under arrest, nor surrender to police any footage or photography you have captured during a protest if it is not evidence of a crime. The Privacy Protection Act of 1980 restricts law enforcement from searching for and seizing a journalist’s work product and documentary materials, and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures. I have been forced by police and soldiers to delete footage in other countries, but I have never surrendered footage in the United States. The Committee to Protect Journalists suggests you rehearse your response in advance and say something like “I’m a journalist, and my equipment and its contents belong to my company. If you want to access it, you will first need to contact their attorney.” If you are reporting without the protection of a company, defer to the personal lawyer you formed a relationship with before the protest began.
Despite all these rights, I make a habit of bringing multiple media cards in a secure case, disguised as a camera lens. I use my downtime to swap cards out – protecting the ones with important footage and keeping a clean card in my camera.
It’s almost always a good idea to display your credentials prominently when covering protests. If, like many journalists, you do not have access to police department press credentials, you should at least have something around your neck that identifies you as press. Even government antipathy toward the press, no matter how significantly it has grown in recent years, does not negate your First Amendment right to report on issues of public interest. You should wear whatever credentials you can attain noticeably, and clearly announce yourself as press during any conflict with authorities. You are not a protestor; you are a member of the press, and you must exert that privilege without hesitation to protect yourself whenever you can.
This does not guarantee your safety as it should. VICE journalist Michael Adams held his press pass in the air while laying down to comply with police, and a cop still pepper sprayed him in the face while he announced himself as a member of the press. Adams had the presence of mind to continue filming, providing evidence of the attack by police. He calmly reported on his own condition during the incident even while he was taking damage.
I’ve observed a disturbing tendency when my colleagues get hit with rubber bullets; they get hit and they fall. There is no reason to fall when you are hit with any projectile unless you are falling dead or being ordered to the ground by authorities. I believe there is some kind of strange learned behavior from watching old westerns that tells us we must fall when we are shot. If you are strong enough to move when you are shot, keep moving. Do not fall. This is true even for real bullets. Keep this thought in mind when you think police are going to fire on a crowd. You have to move. You must not fall; you must not panic.
Fear Is Your Friend. Panic Is Your Enemy.
Fear is a natural and healthy response to perceived threats. I have been afraid several times covering protests in New York this year as I stood between intrusive police and aggressive protesters. Not only is there no shame in experiencing fear, but it is in fact an asset to your survival and your professionalism. I’ve never met a fearless person, but if I ever did, I wouldn’t want him on my reporting team because fear is your greatest asset.
Fear is like a superpower. Physiologically, it engages hormonal responses that heighten your senses, reduce your sensitivity to pain, and enhance your physical strength. The reason your face turns pale when you’re afraid is because blood rushes to your major muscle groups to oxygenate them, so you are better able to run or fight. Intellectually, fear motivates you to identify your vulnerabilities and build plans or skills to overcome them. If a reporter acknowledges her fear of physical harm before going on a dangerous assignment, she might make a list of which area hospitals have Level 1 trauma centers or look for multiple routes of egress before parking her truck at a protest. That’s the kind of reporter I want to work with.
The negative potential consequence of fear is panic. Panic sabotages you by crippling your critical thinking ability. In her book Becoming Bulletproof, former Secret Service agent Evy Poumpouras writes “panic is likely to kill you faster than whatever it is you’re afraid of,” because it takes away your ability to process information and respond to it.
By understanding your fear and practicing techniques to control it, you use it to your advantage in dangerous situations. You’ll become more aware of your instincts, which you must trust to survive, and you’ll instantly recognize and effectively react when something doesn’t feel right.
Become familiar with the feeling of fear in your everyday life and make conscious observations about how you respond to it. You probably already have techniques to calm yourself down, such as deep breathing or talking to yourself out loud. Examine why these techniques work so you can build on them for deliberate use when you feel panic coming on. For instance, if talking out loud works for you, perhaps you could practice reciting a personal mantra to speak aloud that will consistently produce a calm state of mind. I have one – it’s four words that I say in the same order every time. It is embarrassing to admit that I do this (and you’d be surprised at how often), but I take a deep breath and quietly say it to myself in even moderate circumstances that might arouse panic. I say them out loud because it reminds me that I can affect the world. Saying it in your head doesn’t break the freeze. This practice has trained me to detach from feelings of overwhelm so I can rationally observe whatever situation I’m in, make a decision about what to do, and act on that decision with speed and precision.
Embrace the Suck and Break the Freeze
Marines have a term for how to deal with bad situations. “Embrace the suck,” they say. It is a state of mind; a conscious, willing acceptance of inevitable suffering. Like many journalists today, Marines are forced to work in austere conditions, exposed to danger, and sometimes don’t have the legal authority to protect themselves from hostile actors. Their situation sucks, they can’t change it, and so they embrace the suck.
Embracing the suck is an empowering attitude. It inculcates the antifragility you need to survive through traumatic events. It doesn’t mean you don’t complain – but when you do complain you maintain a positive tone of voice and an upright body posture. Adopting this state of mind can help you to avoid freezing.
A freeze, if you haven’t consciously decided to freeze, is usually a poor response to a bad situation. In his book “Facing Violence” self-defense expert Rory Miller writes “If you are taking damage or seeing someone else take damage and you have a warm, comfortable feeling and hear a rushing noise in your ears like the ocean, you are frozen.”
If you are in a freeze, your mind doesn’t allow your body to move. Your feet feel like they’re glued to the floor. If you can recognize that you are in a freeze, you can break it by doing…something. Anything – even something as simple as speaking out loud can save you. Clap your hands together in front of your face and hope the sound startles you into action.
To avoid this problem – which is often a programmed evolutionary response to threats – you should think about it often. Even reading about it now is helpful. You can train away your freezing reflex by consciously facing your everyday fears and becoming comfortable with discomfort. In other words – by embracing the suck. When you must do something unpleasant, do it without hesitation. For instance – don’t hit the snooze button on your alarm in the morning. If you’re at the beach, jump into the cold ocean in one swift movement. Fight your little moments of fear to train yourself to embrace the suck. This will humble you and remind you that life owes you nothing, and you alone are responsible for your safety and success.
Even if you practice these techniques though, nobody is immune from freezing. The surest way to guard against a freeze is to work with someone so you are not alone in moments of panic. A colleague of mine once froze while she was interviewing sex workers in a European red light district. Angry customers behind us started throwing bottles at us during an on-camera interview on the sidewalk. I immediately pointed to the camera at the ground, faced the men throwing bottles, and waved to show our concession to them. They continued throwing bottles, and I realized my teammate was frozen. She just stared at her interview subject as two bottles flew by her head and shattered on the ground in front of her. I moved to her and looked her in the eyes. I told her “we are in danger, and we have to move now.” We didn’t get the story, but we got ourselves out of a bad situation.
Empathy is a critical tool for reporting on social unrest. You may come to a community as an outsider, and insiders will exclude you if you don’t have the humanity to engage them with an empathetic heart. This doesn’t mean patronizing a mob; it means actively listening and understanding people to form a human connection. It’s good journalism.
A few years ago, my presence was personally protested during a protest. Ostensibly, I had been protested because I worked for a big network and I appeared white, while the protest was about supporting local business and strengthening the black community. But when I later assessed the events that led to my being canceled, I realized it was because I had been so detached in my reporting style as to demonstrate a lack of empathy for the protesters.
While I was setting up my camera for an interview in the pouring rain, someone had asked me what I was doing there. I shrugged and said “I’m just doing my job.” It seemed like a good answer to me because I thought it showed I would report on the scene with professionalism and objectivity.
Instead, the protester saw that my heart wasn’t in it and he rallied the others against me. After that, only the older protesters in the crowd would give me interviews, which the younger protesters shouted down. Failing to read the situation, empathize and actively listen, weakened my ability to produce strong journalism that day. That I didn’t look like the protesters or come from their neighborhood also didn’t help, and there is surely a lesson in there about working with large diverse teams to get all sides of a story. But such diversity is sadly not a given in our field, and developing greater empathy may be your best recourse.
Knowing when you’re in danger
Some journalists have an abundance of “file folders” – experiences they have had that they can subconsciously refer to in order to know when they are in danger. As you build your own file folders by covering unrest, it is usually best to error on the side of caution. Even if you can’t describe a specific danger, leave a situation if your gut tells you something or someone is a danger to you. Here are a few of the common threats from my own file folders that you should remain awake to while covering unrest.
- A person crowding you:
Some people just want to verbally antagonize “the media,” and that’s pretty much their right, but when they get close to you, you must quickly assess if they mean you greater harm. You may consider avoiding direct eye contact with these types of people, as many see that as an assertion of dominance. Instead, I like to look at their hands. Looking at hands doesn’t compete for dominance, it shows you are aware of your surroundings, and it also lets you know if they are carrying a weapon or balling a fist. If you try to de-escalate the situation, it is best to do so from a distance of six feet so they can’t surprise you with a strike.
I recently filmed a live shot for a reporter with 20 year’s experience working on the streets of New York. Her live report included information about a conflict between Hell’s Kitchen residents and a late-night bar serving customers outdoors during phase two of the city’s reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bar owner and manager crowded her between live shots and tried to discourage her from reporting on the noise complaints from community members. The first thing she did was tell them to keep six feet from her. Had she not been so sure of herself, they might not have complied. When they backed up, she listened to their demands empathetically even though we only had 45 seconds before going on air. She then calmly but assertively explained to them that it was her job to report on this conflict between the bar and the neighbors. We went live, and she reported her story exactly as she had intended to, directly in front of them despite their intimidation tactics. By keeping them at a distance, she controlled the situation. By having a teammate, she reduced her threat of attack. And by having extensive experience, she knew how to operate within her journalistic rights.
- A Cop Taking a Knee:
Taking a knee is often how soldiers and police are trained to don their gas masks, so if you see a cop on his knee, stand ready for tear gas. I carry a wet handkerchief in a zip lock bag and a pair of swimmers goggles in my cargo pocket while covering protests. Holding the wet handkerchief to my mouth and nose helps me breathe while moving out of tear gas range, and the goggles protect my eyes from gas or projectiles. Some of my colleagues have more robust respirator devices.
- People Asking Not to Be Photographed
Protesters today very often don’t want to be filmed. I’ve sometimes overcome this by getting to know protesters while leaving the camera in the vehicle, and then asking permission after I’ve built up some good will with them. Sometimes, there’s no time for that.
While you generally have the right to film people in public spaces, you should ask yourself if the juice is worth the squeeze from both a storytelling and a safety perspective. Ethan Rocke recently filmed inside Seattle’s autonomous zone and was asked by protesters who had assumed authority over an area to stop filming. His communication with them offers a great example of respecting the protesters while asserting his right to free speech.
- Filming Criminal Activity
Although crime events, such as looting during a protest, is in the public interest, you must be aware that photographing people engaging in criminal activity makes you a target for criminal actors and may also subject you to having your footage seized by police. If you are filming a crime in progress, you should maintain a safe distance and a high level of situational awareness. As a personal choice, I typically don’t film looting in progress. Often you can tell a story about crime by capturing images of its aftermath. I have also spoken to business owners after their stores were looted and found them quite willing to share surveillance footage, which is usually better than anything I could have safely shot anyway.
Rocks and Hard Places
The vast majority of protests you might cover as a journalist are safe. American police are typically good public servants carrying out the work they have been authorized and obligated to do, and protestors are usually caring humans exercising peaceful civil disobedience. But the present level of animosity in this country makes protests unpredictable, and you must maintain situational awareness to guard against the threat of escalating circumstances. Journalists do not benefit from the protection of a badge and weapon, nor from the kumbaya acquiescence of the ‘tolerant’ mob. Adrenalized police and protestors pose threats to frontline journalists, and so, even if intimidation and violence are relatively rare, you must train yourself physically and mentally against such threats if you intend to work in the field as a front-line journalist today.
Russell Midori won the OPC Foundation’s Nathan S. Bienstock Memorial Scholarship in 2016, having learned cinematography on the job as a Marine Corps combat videographer before earning his degree in broadcast journalism from Brooklyn College. He also has a Masters Degree from Columbia University in Documentary Production and Investigative Journalism.