Trying to Break into Journalism? Go to the Riots
Protest coverage is a great way to get published, but it’s critical you do it safely
Breaking into journalism for a novice is a difficult task, to put it lightly. Most publications don’t like taking chances on an unpublished writer, and your competition in a digital age is global. You need to find a way to capture the attention of editors who often receive dozens, if not hundreds, of pitches daily.
Covering protests in real-time is a great way to get your foot in the door, particularly in regions where there aren’t many journalists, or while a story is breaking. It is also a critical responsibility in a democratic society.
I have written about or witnessed violent protests in four countries, most frequently in the United States and Colombia. I have learned a few strategies to stay safe while doing so. Sometimes those lessons were the result of grave errors on my part, sometimes training, and sometimes advice.
The first freelance journalism job I ever landed was a result of dumb luck. I just happened to be on the ground at protests at one of the local universities in Bogota, Colombia in 2017. I had been pitching the local English ex-pat newspaper for weeks; for weeks, they had been shooting me down. But when protests escalated into violence, I got a call from the editor asking if I could get them 800 words and a few photos by the end of the day.
So, to the riots I went.
Public perception of a protest movement is critical to its success or failure, and the correspondent on the ground is the eye of the world. It’s your job to tell the truth about what happens.
I have always thought of it as “God’s work.” It doesn’t pay nearly enough and it is hazardous, but there aren’t many vocations that are more important. Sometimes it means working in an environment in which a government would rather people not pay attention.
It’s pretty damn exciting.
It is also dangerous.
But you’re willing, you’re passionate, and you want to get the story published. I admire that and share your passion.
But you can’t cover the story if you end up injured, lose your equipment, or worst of all — if you’re dead.
My favorite security instructor (in a “Hostile Environment Awareness Training”, or HEAT class) told me once that there are only three rules to remember while working in a potentially dangerous environment:
- The primary concern while working in a hostile environment is your safety
- The second most important rule is personal safety
- The third and final paramount concern is your safety
So let’s talk about some strategies to keep you safe while you do this important work.
So you received an assignment, or there is a protest developing near your location. Understandably, you want to head out, and you want to do it now! You need to get there fast and start documenting!
Stop. Breath. Think. Plan.
I realize the urge to rush out into the field is strong, but the decisions you make before leaving your home, hotel, or office are critical for how well you can cover the situation, as well as whether you can do so safely.
If the protest turns violent, you will find yourself in a chaotic and dangerous environment. Your safety will be heavily impacted by the decisions you make before setting out, from what you decide to wear to how well you understand the situation.
Being familiar with the background of the story will not only help you cover it better, but it is also knowledge that can keep you safe if things go wrong.
Who is protesting? Why? What do they want? Being able to talk knowledgeably with an angry protester very well might be enough to disarm a potentially dangerous situation. If there is time, especially if you are working abroad, contact law enforcement in the region. Inform them you are planning to visit on assignment. Ask if there are any dangers you should be aware of.
They will be able to inform you of potential hazards in the region that a foreigner might be unaware of. Avoiding a dangerous situation before it happens is 90% of our strategy for staying safe.
I once ended up stumbling into a human trafficking operation by Colombian paramilitaries (and stupidly putting myself in a needlessly dangerous situation) because I was in rush to get to an assignment and didn’t take my own advice.
I promise you, it’s worth the phone call.
Of course, sometimes officials don’t want reporters to cover an event. They may be hostile to press, especially if you are working abroad. In such circumstances (especially when engaging in investigative journalism) it may be best to find other sources for local information than state authorities.
But do your homework!
What to Wear
Choosing what to wear isn’t as simple as it may seem. Before you arrive at the protests, you need to make a decision. Do you want to be clearly identified as press from a distance? This is great protection against being targeted by police or security forces who may be responding to escalations (or escalating the situation themselves). Most security forces don’t want to be caught on camera assaulting journalists, so communicating your position as an observer can keep you safe. Helmets and vests, clearly identifying you as press, can also afford a measure of physical protection.
Some outlets have strict protocols for their journalists operating in the field. There are a number of organizations that provide or rent safety equipment to freelancers, as well.
Sometimes, however, it is more useful to be able to blend in anonymously with a crowd. People behave differently when they know they are being observed, and telegraphing your presence might make it harder for you to get the whole story. Furthermore, in especially tense situations, the protesters may distrust press or even attack them.
You do not want to accidentally dress like the protesters, particularly those who may be inciting violence. This will make you a target for police or security forces responding to the situation. In the United States, this might mean not dressing all in black at a leftist protest, in which there might be elements of “Block Bloc” or self-proclaimed anarchists. Knowledge of the protests is key here.
You want color-neutral civilian clothes that will allow you to blend into the crowd, and won’t draw attention if you are forced to flee. Choose loose-fitting, comfortable attire in which you will be able to run, and sturdy footwear.
Bring your press credentials. If you are a citizen reporter, make a lanyard and laminate it. Keep it tucked under your shirt. You may be challenged by protesters or police for photographing or observing. You want to have the ability to quickly show a badge. No one is going to Google your blog in the heat of the moment. Usually, perceived credibility is enough to exit a tense situation peacefully.
Bring two notebooks, backup pens or pencils, and your phone. I have seen some writers produce passably professional photos armed with only their phone-cameras. It’s low-key, and you may be able to get candid shots that someone with more obvious equipment cannot.
Photojournalists with heavy gear will want to identify themselves clearly as press. You’re not blending into the crowd with four cameras strapped to your chest.
No matter what you decide to wear, bring a respirator or gas mask, a large bottle of water, and a very basic first-aid kit. Large quantities of tear gas can be fatal, particularly outside of the United States, where security forces use military grade anti-riot weapons. There are also studies suggesting there may be long-term health risks to over-exposure.
If you’re going in civilian gear, store the mask in your bag, along with the water and first aid kit. I prefer a messenger bag; in many countries, protesters wear backpacks and I prefer to maintain an appearance that lets me stand apart when necessary.
Finally, you want someone to know where you are. Set up a check-in time with your editor or a close friend. Let them know that if they haven’t heard from you by an agreed time, they need to alert the authorities.
That person will be your lifeline if things go wrong in the field.
Arriving at the Scene
Park well away from the protests if you are driving, and approach on foot. Do not rush. As you approach, observe where the viable exits are—they may become key later on. If things go badly and you need to make a quick retreat, you do not want to rush down a barricaded street by accident.
Take your time and evaluate the situation. Notice where the action is taking place and where it is not. Furthermore, take note of particularly aggressive protesters.
Every protest I have ever been to has instigators. Usually, they are on the younger side of the age spectrum. Sometimes they are simply taking advantage of the chaos to wreak havoc; sometimes they are hot-headed true-believers in the cause. Sometimes they are infiltrators hired by opposing parties or security forces to incite violence. I think of them as “cowboys,” more prone to violence than peaceful tactics—cowboys shoot first and ask questions later.
Whatever their motive for instigating action, they are certain to be part of the crowd. Their aggressiveness will be an attempt to escalate the situation.
Note the Cowboys. Remember their appearance and keep a safe distance from them.
Before you pull out your camera or rush to the front-lines, take a few notes — the more detailed the better. How many people are there? What are they saying? How are the security forces behaving? What is the day like? Hot? Rainy? What is the general mood of the crowd?
These are all details that will enhance your description of the scene when you write it later.
This time is also an opportunity to begin planning a safe approach, close to the front lines but away from the cowboys and possible bottlenecks.
If things are calm, start talking to people. Get some quotes. It’s your chance not only to start documenting what’s going on, but it’s also an opportunity to learn about what might happen later in the day. What are the plans? What are the rumors?
I keep the conversation casual at first. If someone is clearly looking to make a statement, I encourage them. Tell them you are a journalist. It is basic ethics that the person should be aware they are speaking “on the record.”
I carry field mics—it saves me time having to scribble down notes. But pay attention! You may have to recall the conversation from memory if something happens to your equipment.
Start uploading snapshots to social media. If a story is breaking, people will be looking for information, and you can take advantage of that to both get the story out and to raise your profile.
If the situation is tense, or if the protest is against a government known for punishing dissidents, you might want to take a gentler approach. A microphone may seem intimidating to someone who fears being retaliated against.
In situations like that, ask permission before taking a photo of someone’s face. I have had a camera smashed to pieces by an angry protester who was worried the image would end up in the hands of the government he was protesting against.
You do not want to take any actions that might inadvertently get someone hurt.
Move around, explore, but never put yourself in a situation in which you are enclosed by people or barriers. Mobility is your friend in case something goes wrong.
Take photos, start conversations. The people you are interacting with will give you details on the story, and cultivating their goodwill may help keep you safe later. A friend I made among the crowd in New York pulled me out of the grasp of riot-officers arbitrarily arresting dozens during the Occupy Wall Street protests.
You can’t file your story from a jail cell, and if you’re on assignment, your editor won’t care that you weren’t doing anything illegal. They will expect you to know better.
Once the Match is Lit
Sometimes, due to the cowboys in the crowd, security forces, or mutual misunderstanding, protests take a violent turn. A spark sets off violence, and the environment dissolves into chaos.
In Latin America, protests are MUCH more violent than their counterparts in the United States. The governments there tend to be more willing to use force and the crowds do not back down as easily as they do in the U.S. In a way, it’s inspirational. On the other hand, it’s terrifying.
Molotov cocktails, thrown rocks, and skirmishes in the street are common — as are brutal beatings at the hands of security forces, rubber bullets, and military-grade tear-gas.
This is the critical moment of your assignment. Start filming.
But remember that your personal safety is critical. People want to read your story, not see you as a statistic afterward.
If your safety is jeopardized, it’s time to abort the mission. Immediately leave the area. When facing an imminent threat, every meter of distance between you and an attacker decreases the likelihood of injury exponentially.
If you decide to stay, keep yourself mobile—always keep an escape route visible. Back away from dense crowds, avoid police lines and keep tabs on the cowboys.
The cowboys in the crowd are the most likely to be targeted by anti-riot weapons, and you do not want to be caught in the crossfire.
As you go about your job, keep away from developing melees or charging forces from either side. Your best strategy for minimizing risk is again to maintain a safe distance.
It is your job to get honest coverage of what is happening, whether it’s flattering to either side or not. The success or failure of civil unrest is defined by its popular perception, and both sides are aware of this. This is your protection, but violent situations are not always rational, and you may find yourself questioned.
If you are grabbed by protesters or police, raise your arms in the air and shout “Press!” clearly and in a non-aggressive manner. Do not resist physically. Always seek to de-escalate. Display your credentials; even that homemade lanyard can be enough to disarm the situation.
If you find yourself enveloped in tear-gas, run as quickly as you can out of the cloud. Do NOT attempt to photograph the experience. Your best defense is limited exposure. Tear gas can cause difficulty breathing, vomiting, temporary blindness, skin irritation, and extreme physical pain. Large doses can result in seizures and even death.
Once you are out of the cloud, wash your eyes and face with the water you brought. Retreat further to a safe location and repeat. Exposure is cumulative and you want to remove the agent as soon as possible.
Deployments of teargas can also cause fleeing crowds to stampede. In such a situation, your previous mental notes on which escape routes are viable will be useful.
Avoid getting pressed into thick crowds. Mobility is survival.
When photographing cowboys, be cautious. No one wants their face plastered all over the internet committing a felony or physically attacking a repressive regime. Usually, those willing to commit violence will be masked for just that reason, but nonetheless, it is best to avoid making them think you are there to expose them.
I had my life threatened on the Venezuelan border for photographing youths crafting Molotov cocktails during a riot. They thought I had gotten their faces in a photo (I hadn’t). I just kept calmly backing away, clearly showing press identification, while speaking loudly and calmly.
Luckily for me, sympathetic protesters came to my aid and talked the youths out of attacking me or destroying my equipment.
Scared people will take desperate actions, and as I mentioned above, you do not want to inadvertently hurt anyone.
Doing your job safely will allow you to get the material, file your story, and go to sleep in your own bed rather than a jail-cell.
I also highly recommend taking formal safety and first-aid training courses. There are a number of organizations that provide certification and information on the subject. A list of a few of them is posted below.
Get Out There!
So get out there! Get the story and get it published! If you’re just starting out, you might not sell the story your very first time. I didn’t.
That’s OK! Self-publish. It goes into your body of work, and the social media material you posted during a breaking or important story will serve as important credibility the next time you are pitching a story.
It will also raise your profile. So keep it at! Just do it safely.
Resources for Reporters Covering Civil Unrest
Useful resources for reporters covering civil unrest:
- Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ): provides information including downloadable manuals on safety and security, insurance, gear-rental, and protection on behalf of journalists worldwide.
- Reporters Without Borders (RSF): Information on reporting safely globally, links to HEAT training, health-insurance, gear and real-time assistance in the field
- The Red Cross: The Red Cross offers security and first-aid classes to aid-workers and journalists in most of the regions they operate in. These classes are a great resource for understanding local threats in an area you may not be familiar with as well as rudimentary medical training in the field.
- Fundacion Para Libertad de la Prensa (FLIP): FLIP is an organization similar to RSF, concentrated in Latin America. They have helped me when I was detained by Venezuelan officials. In addition to other services, they have contacts in most Latin American governments.
- Security Firms: Private security firms exist all over the world, and virtually all offer training focused on the regions in which they operate. It’s worth seeking them out in the region you’re going to be covering. The courses are more expensive than the other options, but they are also usually tailored to meet your needs. I also highly recommend classes on basic electronic security if you plan to be working abroad.