January 16, 2021

The increasing acts of violence against journalists are causing many newsrooms to rethink some ethical best practices. These evolving standards go beyond the recommendations for covering demonstrations and political violence.

Here’s a run-down of ways to balance the need to document the first draft of history with the need to keep journalists safe.

When and how to identify yourself

  • Most news companies have advised their employees not to wear gear, drive vehicles or display lanyards that indicate employment in the media sector. But you have to keep that identification handy to identify yourself to law enforcement executing a curfew or otherwise blocking your movement.
  • If you are in public and someone demands to know if you are a journalist, you are not obligated to answer.
  • Asking for a person-on-the-street interview may be one of the riskiest activities for a journalist as possible armed protests occur this week. Whether you are doing it at a demonstration or for a story that has nothing to with political unrest, try this technique:
    • Don’t do these interviews alone, even if you’re not covering a story not related to demonstrations.
    • Observe the person first for outward signs of antipathy to the media.
    • When you approach, at first ask if they are open to an interview, or to answering a few questions for a story. That will give you a beat to further gauge their hostility. If you detect any threat, find a way to exit by answering your phone or getting a stomach ache or a coughing attack.
    • If it seems safe, then identify yourself as a journalist, including who you work for. If you work for a local newsroom with a national affiliation, just use your local call letters, no need to say NBC or NPR.
    • If you are using recording gear, keep it small when you can. Use your iPhone or a GoPro.
    • Have your colleagues stay alert to others around you, especially as you finish the interview. Let the interview subject walk away from you. If they want to keep chatting, a phone call diversion can be helpful here as well.
  • Avoid deception when you are seeking interviews. Don’t actively say you are affiliated with an organization that is not your employer.

Getting images safely

  • Many newsrooms are using remote cameras on rooftops and other secure spots. A tried and true practice for weather and traffic news, this is likely to expand beyond demonstrations to daily coverage of communities. When you use such footage in news stories, let the audience know it was a remote camera.
  • Shoot with small, unobtrusive gear. It is acceptable to deliberately choose to work with consumer gear so that you look like an observer. Many reporters are taking their notes in composition journals rather than traditional reporter’s notebooks for the same reason. While these are deliberate choices to conceal your identity, they fall short of outright deception.
  • Don’t actively try to appear like a participant by donning clothing that directly affiliates you with a cause. However, choosing to wear a band T-shirt that might be appreciated by the crowd you are covering is acceptable (unless the band is outwardly racist).
  • Take your company’s security plan seriously. You jeopardize your colleagues’ safety as well as your own when you don’t.

Freelancers

  • This group of journalists takes some of the biggest risks. If you are a newsroom that is likely to buy material from freelancers, consider adding them to your internal security plans. If you are a freelancer, reach out to your potential customers and ask for this support.
  • Work in teams to try to replicate the support that staff journalists have.
  • Be judicious about how much gear you bring on any assignment. Imagine that you may have to leave it behind to protect yourself. It will be easier to do so if it’s not your entire livelihood.

Audience engagement staff, social media managers and newswire editors

  • Mind your mental health. Know that being exposed to traumatic images and statements is likely to affect you. You can employ techniques to manage this exposure. And if you’re a boss, you can encourage your staff to do the same.
  • Be vigilant about verifying information on social media before amplifying it.

Journalists of color

  • If you’re a journalist of color, you are doubly vulnerable to both physical attack and the psychological trauma that comes with covering the news. Managers should be particularly vigilant about both.
  • Elevate the voices of journalists of color. Here’s an excellent example from NPR’s Sam Sanders.
  • This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Managers and white journalists have an ethical obligation to be strong allies.
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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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