January 17, 2021

Laura Figueroa Hernandez has been thinking a lot about her safety. The White House correspondent for Newsday will cover the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden next week and said she’s had conversations with her boss about ways she can protect herself. For starters, Newsday is sending her a protective helmet.

“That’s something that I never thought that I’d have to wear in Washington, D.C., but I guess that’s where we are nowadays,” Hernandez said.

At Donald Trump’s inauguration, she recalled flashing her press pass proudly to access certain areas to report. She interviewed Trump supporters at the National Mall.

“Now would I flash my press badge? Would I be wearing it openly? Probably not,” Hernandez said. “I’d probably have it on my person, if I am asked for security reasons, but now I think reporters in general are in this situation where you want to be more cautious about disclosing who you are right off the bat because you don’t know whether everyone that you approach is going to be friendly towards media.”

The violence of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol — including the assaults and threats against the press — continues to reverberate for journalists in Washington, D.C., many of whom are now preparing for Biden’s inauguration with caution. Several journalists spoke to Poynter this week about preparing for the inauguration as they wait to learn about how much access they’ll be granted. This week, The Washington Post reported that all or most of the National Mall is expected to be closed to the general public for Inauguration Day.

Marissa J. Lang, a reporter who covers protests and demonstrations for The Washington Post, said there are a lot of unknowns, including what areas will be open to the press versus the public, and where protesters will show — if they show up. Lang will be part of the Post’s ground team on Inauguration Day.

Because of her experience covering protests, Lang said she’s developed a rigorous preparation plan for going out into situations where there’s potential for violence. She plans to wear protective gear and natural fiber clothes. Lang noted that natural fibers, if caught on fire, are less likely to melt onto your body.

Lang, who helped cover the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, has not had time to process all that happened. “Even if we try to process it, there’s only so much we can really do because we’re still in the middle of it,” she said of herself and her colleagues. “Even though Jan. 6 happened and the insurrection happened, it doesn’t feel to me like it’s over because I’m still preparing for another week of the unknown and possible violence, and trying to evaluate threats, and evaluate safety risks, and evaluate what we should expect next week.”

Tracy Grant, managing editor for The Washington Post, said the newspaper will have dozens of journalists around the country this weekend and also in D.C. for the inauguration. She added that the Post is ensuring that reporters are protected and know how and when to use their protection. Grant said about 150 Post journalists have gone through a training course since fall 2019 that covers situational awareness with real-life examples. 

Since the start of the pandemic, it’s been a policy that any journalist can refuse an assignment out of concern for personal safety, she added.

“We do tell people very explicitly that there is no story, no photo, no piece of video that is worth their health or their safety,” Grant said. “It is always the correct decision to leave too soon rather than too late.”

Grant added that the inauguration is a huge deal for people who live in the area. She noted that it’s an economic story, a safety story, and a tourism story. “This year, it is also a terrorism story and a health story, and so those concerns inform everything that we do,” Grant said.

Andrew Beaujon, senior editor for Washingtonian, said his staff will be covering the inauguration but he doesn’t exactly know how yet because of factors that include the rippling effects of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the coronavirus. Evy Mages, a photographer at Washingtonian, was credentialed to take photos from a certain area of the inauguration event.

Beaujon said it’s all hands on deck for his small staff, who met this week to talk about the historic day. He said staff are told not to risk their health and safety under any circumstances.

“It really is going to be some meatball surgery,” he said of covering the inauguration.

He said Washingtonian is a publication for people who live in the D.C. area, and what it means locally will be the focus of its coverage. 

“I just hope that we can document how this very strange inauguration lands on Washington, D.C., and the region, and what it might tell us about what the next four years are going to be like because the last four years have been completely insane,” Beaujon said. “That last four years have definitely proved to me that there’s no way to know what’s coming and all you can do is be as nimble as possible.”

David Lightman, a congressional correspondent for McClatchy DC, has covered every inauguration since Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985. He and a colleague spent the night before Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 in sleeping bags on the floor at their D.C. offices because they were anticipating large crowds. He also recalled Reagan’s second inaugural parade being canceled in 1985 due to subzero weather conditions, and covered the 1973 protests at Richard Nixon’s inauguration.

The veteran journalist had a few tips for journalists preparing to cover Biden’s inauguration next week.

“Be very patient. You got to understand, law enforcement is just trying to do its job and you’re going to have to wait, and you may not be able to walk the same paths you walk,” Lightman said. “Be patient with logistics; I don’t know how much the wireless is going to work, for example, or your pen is going to freeze. I was taught as a police reporter long ago, always carry a pencil. And frankly, bring something to eat because lord knows when you’ll see food again.”

Lightman said there are certain moments in one’s journalistic career that are elevated because they’re historic. The inauguration of the president of the United States fits into that.

“So much of what we do is the day-to-day, or the investigative, but then there’s certain moments that go in the history books,” he said. “And there you are, the witness to this.”

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
Amaris Castillo

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