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Covering protests with police presence

Protests – and some riots – have erupted across the country following the death of George Floyd and about the treatment of minorities and the militarization of police. Reporters have little choice but to cover these protests from on the ground, among the police and protestors, even when things get violent. The protests are the biggest news of the day, and chasing that news is the job. However, many reporters have come under fire, quite literally, while simply trying to document the actions of others. 

I’ve reported on several protests – this week’s march in Houghton, city labor protests in Grand Rapids, student protests on my college campus, and more – and luckily none have turned ugly or resulted in excess policing. But just because we live in a relatively quiet community where such clashes are unlikely doesn’t mean reporters can be ignorant of their rights and responsibilities covering protests.

The main thing to remember is that while the constitution does protect the press’s right to gather and disseminate news in a variety of ways, reporters have no special rights to access and are still subject to the same laws as everyone else. If you are out on the street during a violent protest and are even perceived to be breaking any laws, don’t be surprised if an officer tries to haul you away. That’s their job, even if some do get overzealous about it.

Some officers are willing to give reporters a little extra leeway, but at the same time, other officers have targeted reporters, spraying them with pepper spray, smacking equipment out of their hands, and sometimes detaining them without cause, even when they are clearly identifying themselves as media. A reporter’s best tactics are to plan ahead to avoid trouble, and to cope with it when it happens- not to try to fight it.

The Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press recommends not only prominently displaying press credentials, but also dressing in a way that will set you apart from protestors or rioters, who tend to wear a lot of black. Separating yourself physically from the protest and standing aside with other media members can help keep you distinguished from the crowd.

The Reporter’s Committee also recommends trying to gauge how friendly different groups at the protest are toward reporters, and staying closer to the groups that are less likely to target them. If police seem to be amenable, engaging with them before the protest may help them recognize you and your rights later on. If you’re expecting problems with the police, research what kind of crowd control tactics they use or have been trained on, and try to be prepared. Masks and goggles for tear gas and pepper spray, body armor and helmet for rubber bullets, and a first aid or trauma kit is always good to have on hand.

To avoid getting arrested, the Michigan Press Association recommends any reporter covering a protest event clearly identify themselves as members of the media, stay alert of your surroundings, and avoid breaking the law. They do not recommend arguing with police about what rights you have (although if a calm discussion can be initiated, that’s probably okay), and to follow police instruction to avoid being charged with failure to obey or obstruction of justice.

Reporters are still subject to search and seizure if they’re engaging in criminal activity, like trespassing, for instance. While certain things like phones require a warrant to search, a reporter can be briefly detained for questioning, and frisked if an officer believes they may be armed or dangerous. Short of being arrested, your belongings and person are protected from search and seizure by the fourth amendment. However, if police think you’ve been engaged in illegal activity, they can arrest you and seize your belongings as potential evidence. One way to keep your photos, video and recordings safe is to utilize streaming and cloud services to upload backups as the files are created.

Finally, make sure you or your company have a lawyer who will be able to find you and help you if you do get arrested. Make sure they’ll be available while you’re reporting, and keep their number somewhere outside your phone (so you don’t have to unlock it in front of police). Writing on the inside of your arm is a good way to make sure you can’t lose it, or have it taken from you.

Joshua Vissers holds a B.A. in multimedia journalism and is associate editor at the Daily Mining Gazette. Send questions to jvissers@mininggazette.com.

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