Reporting in dangerous situations

I was asked to speak on a panel put on by the Society of Professional Journalists, UW Student Chapter. The topic: Reporting in dangerous situations. My fellow panelists included former Emergency Communications Officer Jefferson Mok and Photojournalist Alex Garland. Check out the video!

SPJ Vid

Here’s some of what I said:

Alex’s ability to walk away [as a photographer] versus my ability to walk away aren’t exactly the same…So you have to be able to gauge how the person you’re going to interact with will respond to you…If you feel they’re just going to argue [and be hostile] with you, then there’s no point in wasting your time.

And a lot of covering protests, even if you do that, is about being respectful even if it’s people you don’t agree with.

You’re not going to sit there and argue with them about talking to you unless you can tell that they have this front because of some other narrative that they’re not necessarily directly a part of…There’s a difference between being uncomfortable and being completely unwilling [to talk to media].

And if you’re going to protests—like I personally will always tell someone, ‘hey I’m going to go cover this thing, if I don’t respond to you by the end of the day, here’s a specific jail you can call, here’s a specific person…Especially with embedding yourself in the community—which I feel is the most important thing you can do for yourself for your reporting and also for your safety—that’s why we’re able to go to places that some reporters get kicked out of. When you embed yourself in community, a lot of those protesters tend to have those back-up connections for themselves already so if you can access that for yourself, it’s not a conflict of interest, it’s a matter of safety.

Waivers they’re signing, emergency contacts you can give to them if you end up on the arrest list.

And you can always access trainings—Fire Dept for emergency treatment, de-escalation training if you wanted, tap in to local resources and look around.

Honestly, on-scene, you might not want to talk to someone who’s been a witness yet because their mind is traumatized. They’re going to pour out things that happened that their memory might just skip over. But always, always try to get their contact info and just be as gentle as you can: ‘Look, I’m not trying to get you to talk to me right now or anything, but if you want to later, I can give you my number, you can give me yours and if you want to reach out later…’

A lot of journalists, and especially broadcast journalists, tend to put themselves in the way of other people or in the middle of someone else’s trauma and that’s not respectful. And if you do that to someone, they don’t want to talk to you or trust you, which makes sense. So just don’t do that.

In really big crowds, too, you’re not limited to only the people who saw it immediately. You can canvass the crowd…If you talk to like 50 people, and across all that you can tell there’s a streamline of people saying the same thing, then you can piece it together.

I always bring snacks, because I will get hungry. You are walking forever.

Most of my moments happen when reporters choose to drop in and leave but I stay. So a lot of my work comes out of community involvement, constantly checking back with activists, constantly checking back with mosques, constantly checking back with really young kids, and respecting when people want to be identified by specific names.

I also tend to go to protests knowing what five other journalists are going to do and what their coverage is going to be, so why the frick do I want to add my voice to something that’s already being done? I want to go cover something that’s not getting covered.

[Speaking on BLM protests in the UW community] I realized that the UW administration going in exactly the opposite direction that the BLM protests were asking them to wasn’t getting covered…Later, Ana Mari, the UW president, had sent out my story to the UW faculty listserv saying that what I wrote wasn’t true, when it absolutely was—people who appreciated my work were a part of that listserv so forwarded it to me—so that pushed me further to keep digging. This happened both with the BLM stuff, like divesting from prison funds, and then another part of it was later after the UW shooting and the UW administration’s poor reaction to that.

Yeah, being forced to do multiple things at a time [like interviewing, and social and photography] makes it so you can’t be that observant because you’re multitasking so much. So as a reporter, you can push back on your editor once in a while, especially if it’s for your safety.

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