College student Trey Yingst skips classes ... to report from conflict zones
On a Monday evening this past April, journalist Trey Yingst set foot in a part of Baltimore that he said, "looked like there were no laws."
Amid the furor and fervor sparked by Freddie Gray's death, he observed hundreds of people smashing store windows, overturning vehicles, looting, setting fires and fighting with each other and the police.
At first, every time he raised his camera to shoot, rioters swarmed, threatening to attack. The press group he was with was targeted and confronted by angry rioters armed with hammers and 40-ounce bottles. A reporter near him was later punched in the face and a second was hit in the head with a bottle, each requiring on-the-scene medical attention and a hospital trip.
Through it all that night and in the days that followed, Yingst captured images, interviews and videos that were subsequently featured by a range of media including ABC News and CNN.
His only real problem, in the end, was that he missed most of his final exams.
As an undergraduate student at American University in Washington D.C., Yingst balances a full course load with basically nonstop global conflict reporting. The latter has brought him enormous exposure.
It's well-earned. Principally, through a news site he co-founded News2Share, the broadcast journalism major has provided on-the-scene photos, videos and news stories from a variety of war zones, political hotspots and areas of unrest.
Along with Baltimore, these areas include Ferguson (after Michael Brown's death and the grand jury decision), Ecuador, Israel, Ukraine (during the seminal 2014 presidential election), Uganda (not long after passage of the country's controversial Anti-Homosexuality Act) and the Rwanda-Congo border.
Last year, Yingst, a rising senior from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was the youngest credentialed member of the press to cover the fighting along the Gaza Strip. He also has been credentialed on day passes in the White House, Congress and the U.S. Department of State. His work has been published or aired by NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, and he's a frequent commentator on HLN, BBC and Canada's CTV.
Yingst is 21 years old.
Age, though, is just a number, and Yingst is adamant that his student status is almost wholly separate from his journalistic identity. But the two do align and present unique challenges at times.
For example, as he experienced with Baltimore, "Breaking news situations have a way of happening during finals time."
Meanwhile, in a time of increased unrest and riotousness at home and abroad, Yingst says journalists need to increase the speed and broaden the scope of their conflict coverage.
Here are some related perspectives he shared during a pair of recent interviews, along with a few tips linked to staying safe and gathering information amid war and strife.
Mesh the Fourth Estate with the first person. Working with co-founder and fellow AU student Ford Fischer, Yingst has set up News2Share to operate like a mainstream news organization -- albeit one with a flair for front lines reporting and telling off-the-beaten-path stories. He cites VICE as a model.
According to Yingst, one of News2Share's main goals moving forward is to help build a more participatory news cycle. In his words, "We want to be the first outlet known for regularly taking viewer-submitted footage and integrating it into newscasts and news articles."
To that end, a prominent part of the News2Share homepage is its Submissions link -- soliciting tips and raw footage from anyone about anything “you think the world needs to see.”
"Oftentimes when breaking news occurs and journalists rush to the scenes, they've already missed the actual news," he said. "So when a car crash happens and news organizations want to cover it, by the time they arrive, people have already been pried loose, taken to the hospital, the flames are extinguished and they're just left with an empty, charred car. You then have many reporters who turn around on camera and say, 'Earlier here today, there was a car accident.' With News2Share, we want audiences to see what's happening in the moments right after or even during the crash. The way we do that is by expanding the integration of viewer footage into our newscasts."
From Yingst's vantage point, this type of footage has remained mostly untapped by the mainstream broadcast media, save for airings of silly viral videos, a few amateur news video sensations (such as the Walter Scott shooting) and CNN's iReports. Yet, its potential to provide viewers with new perspectives and connect with their new news consumption habits is enormous.
"We want to get closer and closer to the news," Yingst said last year during a TEDx talk at AU titled "The Fourth Estate Through the First Person." "... [Audiences] don't have to rely on the reporter who's standing 50 feet away from the event. They don't have to rely on that news helicopter that's flying around telling you to care about that little speck that's supposed to be a car accident. … [Through bystander videos] you can see the human suffering up close and thus you can feel emotion for it. You can care about it more."
He cites Syria as an example. In 2013, reports surfaced alleging Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was employing chemical weapons against his own people.
"It was reported, but no one really cared about it," Yingst told me. "It wasn't until a few citizen journalists, a couple of guys with cameras, were able to get some footage of the aftermaths of the chemical attacks that really showed the suffering up close and personal that people started to care. We could no longer deny that it was happening because it was right in front of us."
Cover and share it live. When heading into a war zone or riot area, Yingst's journalistic gear includes a pen, a notepad, a pair of DSLR cameras, a laptop with editing software, a card reader and a smartphone with a Wi-Fi hotspot.
"I basically want to have the ability to put out a story from any corner of the world," he said, "without having to first come back to a studio or editing booth."
To get station directors and top editors to look at your reporting work from a breaking news scene, Yingst said cold calls and email exchanges are too slow or nowadays even unneeded. Instead, just jump on social media.
"Every single person ... has the contacts to every single reporter, every single media executive and every single newscaster out there through one media platform," he said during his TEDx talk. "That media platform is Twitter. ... So if you capture breaking news, you can tweet that breaking news at CNN and it can be on the air in minutes."
Remain on location. Yingst said many journalists on deadline will leave to file a story in the middle of a riot or protest. By contrast, he normally stays until the crowds disperse entirely -- cognizant that along with false starts an out-of-control situation often has a lot of false stops.
"I can't tell you how many times most journalists have left the scene of a protest or a riot and there's still a few people in the streets doing something and then all of a sudden someone throws a glass bottle and something new breaks out," he said. "Stay until the end, if possible."
Parachute journalism needs a wider landing zone. Along with leaving a riot or crisis situation too soon, Yingst said far too many journalists simply set up and wait for action near the expected front lines or gathering points. What ends up absent from the ensuing coverage: context and human connection.
"It's really impossible to find out what's plaguing a community by just going for an hour or two to the center of a riot or a protest," he said. "I think the best way to find the human emotion and the true story of what's happening in a larger sense is to go into the surrounding neighborhoods, before and after, and really talk to people. Keep your camera inside of your bag. Keep your pen and your notepad in your backpack. Just interact. Let people know why you're there. ... It's amazing the interviews you'll come across or the footage that people are willing to give up that they've taken on their own."
For example, last August during the initial Ferguson riots, Yingst was hanging out in the neighborhood where Michael Brown was killed when an individual provided him with video he shot on his mobile phone right after Brown's death. The clip shows Brown's body lying in the street, at one point covered by a sheet -- combatting a dominant narrative at the time that he had been left totally exposed.
Get moving. "I've found that when people stand still in riot situations, it makes the individuals who are rioting very uncomfortable," he said. "It makes you stand out. So you need to walk or run or just go with the flow of the crowd."
At the same time, practice a positioning tactic Yingst calls lagging. "I lag to the sides a bit," he said. "I'm always a few steps back but moving with the protesters. That way, one, if tear gas or smoke grenades get fired and people start running, I don't get trampled. I can easily get out of the way. Two, if people around me start attacking someone, I have an exit."
Safety is the new black. When covering a riot or in a conflict zone, Yingst recommends fashion choices that offer at least marginal protection against bullets, bottles, bats and tear gas.
He wears long pants and close-toed shoes even if the heat is stifling. Yingst also sometimes sports a flak jacket and helmet, and he recommends having access to a medical kit. "They may seem a little extreme to have as a journalist working in the United States," he confirmed, "but I can tell you in Baltimore I put my helmet on. There were times that bottles and bricks were being thrown and it only takes one of those to hit you to cause a really bad head trauma."
He said a gas mask is also useful. "Two years ago, if you told a journalist to go out in the field with a gas mask they would probably laugh at you because tear gas wasn't widely used in the U.S. since the '60s," Yingst said. "Now when riots happen, if you don't have a gas mask, you could be in some serious trouble."
Balance sensation with the human story. Yingst confirmed that when trouble does stir, journalists have a duty to cover the subsequent chaos and clashes in full. But he stressed the importance of also seeking out meaning behind what might merely seem like madness and focusing on the people who have been most affected.
Among photos he has captured, a favorite is one he snapped in Ukraine during the country's 2014 presidential election. In the background is a well-known spot in the capital city Kiev that had been overrun with debris and destruction caused by political protesters.
In Yingst's words, "If someone only saw that they would say, 'That's just a sensational image.' But in the foreground you also see a young girl, maybe five, six years old, just walking and eating a banana. … So it's showing the sensation, the violence and unrest, as a backdrop, but it's also humanizing and bringing it to an emotional level. You know, there are still little kids walking around and people trying to go about everyday life. That's the story for me."
Be a journalist. Apart from a passport, a few tech tools and some money for flights, food and lodging, Yingst said the practical barriers to covering big news in even the remotest of regions are lower than ever -- including for students.
"If there's a major news story that interests you or is within driving distance of where you are, go cover it," he advised. "It doesn't matter if you're in college, out of college or however old you are or whether you're with an established outlet or not. Go cover it. It's an opportunity of a lifetime."
On the whole, Yingst's professors at AU have been very understanding of his classes-clashes conflict. He said faculty within the university's School of Communication have been especially encouraging, given their knowledge of his work and the significance of the stories he's pursuing. This spring, one professor even allowed him to submit some of his Baltimore coverage as a final project.
Ultimately, from his perspective, a journalist's decision to engage in hardcore conflict reporting should be compelled by more than a class project or an editor's assignment. It must start with genuine passion and an internal urge -- like the one which stewed within him that Monday in April drawing him back to Baltimore.
"I was sitting in the library studying for finals and I just realized I had to get there," Yingst said. "I thought 'I can't be a student right now. I need to be a journalist.'"