The following was written by Mark Johnson, senior lecturer, journalism, and was originally published on his blog, VisualJournalism.info.
Current and former students are covering protests across the country. We spent some time in classes on spot news coverage, but nothing we did prepared them for the events of our times.
Some thoughts on what to do before, during and after covering major protests, regardless of where they occur.
BEFORE YOUR COVERAGE
Assess your technology. How much gear do you have to have? You want to be nimble, so lugging every lens you own is probably not ideal. You also need to ask what happens if you lose equipment, to damage, seizure or theft. Can you get back to work the next day?
Pull out your phone and make a few changes. Biometric logins are great, but are also a risk. Turn off the fingerprint sensor and face recognition for login. If you’re arrested and need to protect the information on that device, you cannot be compelled to give them a password. And, while you’re at it, upgrade to a more complex password.
On your phone, turn on location sharing with your editors or colleagues – if something goes wrong, that gives them a chance to figure out where you are.
Lastly, ask yourself why are you going – and this is especially relevant for students. If you do not have an audience, a platform ready to publish your images, you need to think very critically about putting yourself at risk. This is absolutely not a great opportunity to build your portfolio. There are significant risks in this coverage and if you don’t have the infrastructure in place to help you, you stand a great chance of becoming the news rather than covering it.
If you’re injured, who will cover your medical costs? If you are unable to work, who will cover your rent and utilities? If you are detained or arrested, who will bail you out? If you are arraigned, who will represent you?
DURING YOUR COVERAGE
Two words: Situational Awareness.
You have to be hyper-cognizant of everything going on around you. If you have to think about how to adjust your camera, this is not a place for you to be – your attention needs to be on all the fluidity around you. You have to instantly assess every person near you, where they are moving, why they are moving in that direction, what their body language is saying – your reporting tool, be it a camera or recorder, must not be something you have to consciously think about it.
Listen carefully to both what people are saying and how they are saying it. Not the chants and songs, but the conversations. You need to be reading the crowd. Simultaneously, you need to be reading the activities of the law enforcement agencies – sometimes they will kneel or hug a protestor, sometimes they will charge their vehicles into the crowds. You have to be ready – work the edges and think about your escape routes, don’t get yourself boxed in.
Balance your coverage as you’re doing it. Crowds, smoke and conflict are the standard images here, but is that what this story, this particular protest, is about? What makes the scene in front of you unique? There is a place for broad-based coverage, but there is a need to help your audience connect with those involved in these events. A protest is a large collection of individuals who share a common grievance – ensure that some of those individual stories are being told.
One of the best pieces I’ve seen is this two minute video by Ryon Horne and Ben Gray of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution – look how it changes at the 24 second mark. Stunning.
AFTER YOUR COVERAGE
Take a few minutes to calm and center yourself. Adrenaline is going to be racing through your body, you need to let that subside so you can take a critical look at what you have just witnessed.
Dive into your workflow. You have a procedure for processing images, videos and notes – now is not the time to skip it. Back up your data, get your metadata in order. You are covering historic moments, you don’t want to risk losing this work.
You are going to have a strong desire to edit for the most dramatic moments, but is that the story you need to tell right now? Live video and social media have already saturated the internet from whatever event you were at, now you need to piece together what you heard, saw and felt into a cohesive body of work.
You, as a journalist, don’t need to do a highlight reel – you need to unpack the narrative, you need to give your audience an intellectual understanding of what happened, not just provide an emotional response. Avoid the temptation of a card dump, where everything that’s reasonable sharp ends up in a 100+ image gallery – that’s not journalism.
Set the scene, give your audience a sense of scale, give them a sense of the emotions at play, show the passions, show the fears, show the interactions, show the aftermath. Show the why.
Once you’ve published, assess your data and gear. Double-check that your workflow worked, that you have multiple copies of your data and that the metadata is in place. Was anything damaged? Clean your lenses, wipe down your mics and cameras, charge your batteries, repack your bag,
Lastly, remember you are the professional. That means that you act accordingly all the way through. You prepare appropriately, you act appropriately and you publish appropriately. As hard as it is, you don’t chant, you don’t hold a sign, you don’t wear a slogan-inscribed t-shirt, you remain as impartial as you possibly can – your coverage of the event is your way of signifying its importance.