Whether to protest a police shooting, to express outrage over a verdict or to express passion on any political issue, 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 things get trickier when peaceful protest is accompanied or replaced by violent disturbance. From Baltimore to Berkeley, things can spin quickly out of control -- for participants, for police and for journalists, whose job is to report on such events and the issues that surround them.
Here are some things to keep in mind in planning and carrying out coverage of civil unrest:
- Observe and describe what is actually happening -- what you can see, hear, even smell or feel. Do not assign motives to anyone; you cannot know what people think or feel, only what they say or do.
- Do not use words like protest and riot -- or protester and rioter -- interchangeably. Protest can be legal or not. Rioting is by definition a crime. When violence breaks out at what was a peaceful protest, the people involved may or may not be the same ones. Marching, chanting, carrying signs, even occupying buildings and blocking traffic can constitute non-violent protest. Vandalism, arson, assault and other illegal acts may be forms of protest, but they are not protected by the First Amendment.
- Be mindful of loaded language from all sides and skeptical of simplistic accounts: “Police were forced to fire on the crowd” -- according to whom? “Peaceful protesters were beaten by police” -- did you see that yourself, or are you reporting what you were told? “This is being called the biggest march in the city’s history” -- by whom is it being called that?
- Be as precise as possible in describing crowds and their actions. Words like riot, mayhem and thug may carry unintended meaning to various audiences. Avoid subjective language like huge, scary, ugly, etc. Choose objective terms like actual numbers and specific actions. Describe what is happening; do not assume to know the motives of those doing it.
- Be skeptical of crowd estimates. Organizers of an event have an agenda. So do their opponents. The police or other government authorities might, too. Where possible, use more than one source, including your own firsthand observations. Attribute any estimates you provide: “I counted 175 marchers going past this point in just one minute, and protesters have been streaming by at that rate for at least half an hour,” or, “The Highway Patrol estimates this crowd at 200, but organizers tell me there are at least 1,000 people protesting here.”
- Vet those who claim to be witnesses. Respectfully ask where they were and what they were doing when they saw what they are describing. How far away were they? What were the conditions? Do not assume that anyone willing to talk with a journalist is telling the truth.
- Carefully review all user-generated content including pictures, video, 911 calls and other information before putting it on-air or online. See RTDNA guidelines for using User-Generated Content.
- Recognize that, even with press credentials on display, journalists may be treated no differently than protesters in some situations. Follow police directives, but record as much as possible without endangering your own safety or interfering in police activity. Get names and badge numbers where appropriate.
- Conversely, be mindful that journalists are often seen as “authorities” themselves by protesters and even by rioters. News vehicles are occasionally targeted for tipping over or even burning. Cameras can be smashed and news people badly beaten. Safety comes first. Then consider whether your presence might -- even unintentionally -- be inflaming the situation. Is there a safer or less provocative place from which you can do your recording and/or reporting?
- Weigh carefully the decision to report live from active scenes of ongoing violence. Similarly consider carefully the impact of using bright lights and other obtrusive equipment. Could it attract attention and provoke dangerous behavior? What alternatives do you have to maximize truth-telling and to minimize harm?
- Remember that there are not just two sides to every story; in most cases, there are far more than two sides. Resist false dichotomies suggesting that everybody is on “one side or the other.”
See also coverage guidelines on Law Enforcement Actions, Breaking News, User-Generated Content, Live Coverage and Use of Police Scanners.
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.