So You’re a Journalist Covering A Protest
After yesterday’s Berkeley action, I felt like my heart, an organ that had been rather shriveled from a lack of local response to “Battle for Berkeley” episodes 1–3, had grown several sizes. To see so many people showing up to march against white supremacy, whether disguised through Patriot Prayer or blatant through literal fucking Nazis, was empowering, joyous, and reassuring.
What I’m seeing a lot of in the media, though, is sensationalist headlines like “Violence by far-left protesters in Berkeley sparks alarm” and “Black-clad anarchists storm Berkeley rally, assaulting 4”. Much is made about the 13 arrests — most articles don’t mention that more than 4000 people took the streets and marched peacefully.
For perspective, Raiders fans get arrested on average of 12.3 times per game, while Niners fans average about 25.2 per game.
I suppose that the fact that when sports fans cover their faces and start fights it’s socially acceptable, but god forbid you do that at a protest, says much about the United States.
Very few mention the police threw tear gas canisters into the crowd before issuing a dispersal order. One almost hit my friend in the head. This sort of indiscriminate police behavior is exactly why many people choose to wear masks at a protest, to protect their lungs from chemicals that will be used unpredictably. But then, I guess police violence against peaceful protesters exercising their freedom of speech just isn’t that notable anymore?
I get it, journalists. You’re trying to cover a story and you’re trying to get the hot take that will get all the clicks. You feel frustrated when activists demand you not take photos, because it’s public space and you have a right. You need to show you were there so you have some authority on what you saw. I’m a journalist too. I get it.
But the thing is, I really don’t understand why you’re surprised that protesters, especially antifascist protesters, are going to react strongly to you trying to photograph or film them. That is always true in my experience, but especially true when the group is protesting the alt-right — let’s not forget they emerged from Gamergate, which was known for doxxing and then threatening and harassing women into leaving their jobs and homes for their safety. Many of the instigators of Gamergate were let off with a warning, free to turn around and start a much larger campaign of threatening marginalized people. And one of the alt-right’s pet weapons? Doxxing people, including using media images of protesters to identify the crowd.
There are many, many guides on how to be a journalist at a protest, including ones covering situations where violence may kick off. Here’s a few I pulled up by simply googling “guide for journalists covering a protest”:
Ethical questions for journalists covering protests, Kevin Benz
A guide for journalists covering protests, Geoffrey King and Martin Shelton
Dressed for Excess, Quinn Norton
Covering Volatile Street Protests, Dart Center
Here’s a two part guide from Elle Armageddon, who goes to protests as a medic and which will give you reasons why protesters will be understandably wary about your documentation, even if your intentions are good or neutral:
Documentation Without Incrimination
Stop Snitching: Documentation Without Incrimination Part 2
The thing is, journalists, your involvement and risk typically ends when the protest is over, but for the activists out there, the risk continues as long as those photos and videos exist.
The police have actively collaborated with the alt-right to identify and harass protesters — often using your coverage.
So, as a journalist too, while yes, I have a right to photograph people in a public space, I know ethically that it is actively dangerous to marginalized people. Sometimes exercising your rights is not the ethical thing to do. Personally, I now know to ask before I take a photo, never release photos of a crowd where people can be identified, and be prepared to answer to people who are understandably concerned about my intentions.
All we ask, all I ask, is that you all do the same.