From the Occupy protests in 2011 to the recent Freddie Grey protests in Baltimore, journalists have been seeing more demonstrations across the country that have the potential to be violent.
In the Stay Safe and Savvy session on day two of the Excellence in Journalism conference, members of The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), law enforcement and media came together to discuss ways of preventing and diffusing confrontational situations.
One tip shared was that social media can serve as a valuable heads up if protest scenes threaten to turn violent.
“It would say “Tonight, we’re going after some news people,” said Eric Rasmussen, an investigative reporter with KTVU in Oakland, Ca. “I mean I saw that in some tweets. It doesn’t mean you don’t cover it, but if you know what you’re heading into, you can kind of decide where we can be live and where we can’t.
Rasmussen opened the session with a 2011 video from his Flipcam, where he and his cameraman found themselves in the middle of a group of Occupy protesters.
He said that was the point where his newsroom decided they needed security guards to cover the Occupy protests properly. Later in the session, he showed a video where protesters threw a board at a live truck, along with a bottle full of urine. That time, there was guard, and Rasmussen said that presence kept the situation from getting worse.
Panel members said many police departments have limited resources, and can’t respond to the crowds fast enough. Being aware and knowing your surroundings and where to get away can help you in a tough situation.
“We are kind of like the third eye,” said panelist Collin Wong, a retired police officer in Oakland of 27 years, who is now the vice president of Star Protection Agency CA, a company that accompanies media. “We know the photographers are blind and paying attention to other things. We’re kind of like that third eye.”
Wong said that his guards are armed with guns, just in case, and audience members asked how reporters felt about that.
“That’s the only kind of guard I want to be with,” said Rasmussen.
Many smaller markets that can’t afford a paid security guard or aren’t covered by a union are choosing not to send multimedia journalists out by themselves. Other suggestions were having a live truck without decals, making sure reporters and photographers have keys to vehicles so that they can get to safety.
Live shots were also discussed. Morning show shots usually have reporters at one place for hours at a time.
“We have this concept of do your live shot, move to another location,” said Janice Gin, session moderator and former associate news director at KTVU. “Is it more work, yeah, but it’s about your safety.
SAG-AFTRA has started a Safety4Media campaigns with tips what do during an unruly protest and steps to take if trouble erupts.
“You can report incidents to us,” said Anna Calderon, nation director for news and broadcast in southern California for SAG-AFTRA. “Safety has always been in the forefront, not just during protests but in general.”
“Don’t linger,” said Wong. “If it doesn’t feel right, is it worth your story?”