RTDNA Guidelines: Journalist Arrests

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.

We strongly recommend that every newsroom have an arrest protocol and that newsroom leaders make sure reporters, producers, photographers or anyone else who might be in the field be aware of the protocol.

The best defense against being arrested is to know the law. For example, everyone has the right to record the actions of police officers or interview someone in a public place. But sometimes a sidewalk in front of a building is not public property, and public locations may not be public after an order to disperse has been issued by authorities.

Here are guidelines to consider (adapted from Michigan Radio arrest protocol):
  • Journalists in the field should have updated, wearable, photo-IDs showing that they are members of the press and employed or affiliated with a news organization. On the back of this ID will be 24/7 contact numbers for the news director or equivalent manager; a back-up member of management; and the Reporters Committee 24 Hour Legal Hotline (1-800-336-4243). The most important thing for the journalist is to make sure that someone knows he or she has been arrested, and knows which law enforcement agency conducted the arrest. That is why the first call should be to someone most likely to answer the phone.
  • News organizations should establish a priority for journalists to follow in the event of an arrest. This might be:
  1.  News director
  2. Program director
  3. General manager
  4. News organization lawyers
  5. Family/partner/next-of-kin of the arrested reporter if the reporter cannot call news organization leaders.
  • Journalists should always remain calm and professional when approached by law enforcement, but firm if they are within their legal rights, and keep reporting/recording, including their interaction with the police. Remember that you are free to leave at any time if you are not under arrest.
  • If an officer says you are “under arrest” you should no longer try to argue your position or free speech rights with the police. That fight is over. Officers may ask you for your equipment AFTER an arrest (you do not have to give it to them if you are not under arrest). If you can,  retrieve your smart card or hit the key lock on your recorder; this should protect your recordings/photos. You do not have to provide the police with your cellphone password, unless they are Border Patrol Agents. The Privacy Protection Act of 1980 prohibits law enforcement from seizing or erasing materials obtained by a journalist for the purposes of communicating to the public. There is no guarantee the police will be aware of, or follow, that law.
  • If you are placed under arrest, the best practice is to provide any identification information the police request, and say no more without an attorney present. Ask if you can call your news director to let her or him know what has happened. There may be multiple other calls you want to make as well (home, your own attorney, whatever) – but the news director can make all those calls for you if you only get one call.
  • How fast a news organization or its lawyers will be able to get you out of jail will depend on when and where and the time of day you are arrested, the severity of the offense, and whether or not the attorneys agree you were arrested in the course of your duties as a reporter. (For example, if you are driving back from a press conference, and get in a fist fight in the drive through line at McDonald’s, you’re likely on your own.)
 
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.