How journalists can protect themselves & the news they’ve gathered if arrested on the job

A growing number of journalists across the U.S. are getting arrested while on the job. And it’s not just an Occupy Wall Street issue.

Veteran photojournalist Clint Fillinger was arrested in September for standing beyond police barricades while filming a house fire in Milwaukee. The charges were eventually dropped.

“As the number of people who are out on the street with cell phones that record audio and video grows, so does the number of arrests of people recording and taking photographs of police,” Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a recent phone interview. “It could be just coincidence, but I doubt it.”

Dalglish believes police are becoming increasing “prickly” as more citizen journalists try to document their actions. Police are also paying less attention to journalists’ First Amendment rights and arresting more reporters working for traditional organizations, she said.

Journal Sentinel photojournalist Kristyna Wentz-Graff, a three-time Wisconsin “Photographer of the Year” winner, was arrested last fall while covering a protest in Milwaukee. A photo shows her being handcuffed despite having visibly displayed media credentials. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said video of the arrest makes it clear she was a reporter doing her job.

“An officer turned towards me, cuffs in hand, and before I knew it, I had become part of the story,” Wentz-Graff said via email.

Arrests of journalists in the U.S. last year grew enough to push the country down 27 spots to no. 47 on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index.

Reports so far this year suggest journalist arrests aren’t slowing down. Just this week, Carlos Miller, who runs the blog “Photography is Not a Crime,” was arrested while covering Occupy protests in Miami.

Developing a plan for dealing with arrests

Dalglish recommends journalists start by planning ahead. Journalists working on behalf of specific newsrooms should have editors standing by when they’re covering situations that could put them at risk. “Talk about the protocol for handling an arrest beforehand,” she said.

Dalglish suggests journalists carry identification and wear their press badges while working. She also suggests carrying cash, an editor’s contact information and the number to the Reporters Committee 24-hour legal hotline. “Somebody needs to know if you’ve been arrested so they can get a lawyer down to you,” she said.

The committee is setting up additional hotlines to deal with calls related to this year’s political conventions and G-8 summit in Chicago.

Gavin Aronsen, an editorial fellow with Mother Jones in San Francisco, said in a phone call that he’s been able to avoid arrest by displaying his press credentials and following officers’ instructions in the past. But, as he pointed out in a recent Mother Jones story, that doesn’t always work out.

Wentz-Graff urges reporters under arrest to stay calm and keep reporting. “Outraged, shocked and annoyed — that’s how I felt when the officer placed the cuff on my wrist. But fighting an officer is a losing battle,” she said. “Escalating the situation will only give them more reasons to justify your arrest.”

Should you get as far as the county lockup, Dalglish recommends asking for the supervisor on duty or a public information officer and explaining your role as a working journalist. “Keep in mind the officer who could potentially be on your side of the situation,” she said.

Dalglish cautions journalists against breaking the law in the course of their reporting. “If you violate the law, you will be treated the same as the law violators,” she said. “That means even if you’re press, you don’t get to cross a police barricade unless you have special permission from somebody to do that.”

How freelancers can handle arrests

Freelancers may face more challenges when dealing with police. “If I get arrested, I have no editor who is going to proactively call on my behalf,” said Susie Cagle, a northern California freelance comics journalist. “It’s just me.”

Cagle has been arrested twice since November while covering Occupy Oakland. “If you don’t have a giant professional looking camera, it’s like they see you as fair game to go to jail,” she said by phone. Cagle has found that it helps to obtain official city press credentials and make sure public information officers know who she is and that she’s a working journalist.

Dalglish suggests independent journalists who are threatened with arrest ask for a supervisor and show links to articles they’ve published. “This might help move the process along a little faster,” she said.

Protecting the news you’ve gathered

Several journalists who have recently been arrested or otherwise detained reported having their photographs and video erased.

Casey Monroe, a video journalist for ABC 24 News in Memphis, Tenn., says police erased photographs and video he took of officers issuing a parking ticket. “I identified myself as a journalist, and I was on a public sidewalk,” Monroe said by phone.

Daglish pointed out that “One of the reasons the cops flip out at a crime scene is because they think you have pictures of their undercover officers.” Still, she said, the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 prohibits law enforcement from seizing or erasing materials obtained by journalists for the purpose of communicating with the public.

That may not always be enough to keep a memory card from getting cleared, but it’s a reminder that every journalist has a right to do his or her job — and advocate for themselves when under arrest.

Click here for a related News University course on newsgathering law & liability.

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  • Greg Smith

    One fact I’ve never seen mentioned on this subject is that erased or formatted memory cards are not actually wiped clean. Their directories are simply adjusted or deleted. I have had near 100 percent success recovering images from formatted CF and SD cards using easily available software, such as the recovery programs included for free with many professional cards.

    Let them erase your images, video or audio. Their violation of your civil rights just gives you more ammunition to use against them later. And you still have your creative work, albeit slightly harder to access.