April 21, 2021

By Izzie Lund and Kaleigh Carroll, Western Washington University

When you cover a protest, what organization, document or person do you turn to?

Established journalists may point to people within their publication, others in the industry — like Poynter — or personal contacts they’ve established during their career.

But what about student journalists? These are the questions we asked ourselves 16 weeks ago, and we discovered there wasn’t a clear answer.

So we decided to change that.

As the winter quarter editor-in-chief and managing editor for The Western Front, the independent, student-led newsroom at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, we committed to writing clear and comprehensive protest policies for our students to rely on for many quarters to come. This meant outlining how to produce ethical and accurate coverage while prioritizing reporter safety.

Comprehensive protest guidelines are important. In the span of one year, journalists have covered COVID-19 lockdown protests, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Jan. 6 Capitol riots.

But reporting on these events safely, ethically and accurately is easier said than done. One of the most important, yet challenging, components of this coverage is balancing the need to minimize harm while also reporting the truth. It’s especially true for student journalists, who are still learning how to balance journalism ethics in their work.

Student newsrooms are also more susceptible to the loss of institutional knowledge as the editorial and reporting teams change every quarter, semester or academic year. Clear guidelines help student newsrooms produce quality, ethical protest coverage consistently.

They are more than a helpful tool; they’re a necessity.

We recognized this need at The Front last summer, and dedicated our time to understanding the problem. Then came the hard part: actually writing policies.

Like any journalist would, we did background research, identified experts and interviewed anyone gracious enough to speak with us. More specifically, this meant contacting both professional and student news outlets across the state to inquire about their protest policies. It also meant interviewing people who study and practice journalism.

Without the input of these experts — journalism ethics professor Joan Connell; Barbara Allen at the Poynter Institute; Wall Street Journal reporter Erin Ailworth; our faculty adviser, Betsy O’Donovan; and Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center — these policies wouldn’t be what you see today.

Even with our detailed plan, writing and publishing protest policies wasn’t always a linear process.

After our conversations with Connell, we completely reorganized them and had to ask ourselves serious questions about the need to minimize harm while also reporting the truth. While we wanted to protect vulnerable groups from being photographed, we realized our initial phrasing also prevented reporters from photographing newsworthy events.

In our revisions, we directed reporters to consider “why” someone may ask not to be photographed, gave editors final discretion over photo selection and emphasized the need to minimize harm.

It’s important to understand that the endless drafts and revisions weren’t setbacks — instead, they were an opportunity to strengthen the document and reinforce our philosophy behind these ideas. We hope and expect that future editors will do the same thing, and rework these to better serve our community.

Over the course of the quarter, we also had the chance to try these policies before they were published when The Front covered protests surrounding a homeless encampment and occupied protest on city property in Bellingham. After talking with reporters who had been challenged by angry protestors, and recounting our experiences, we reemphasized reporter safety and included more practical hotlines for reporters to use.

We’re proud of what we’ve produced, but we don’t want this work to stop with The Front.

So, how can your newsroom craft its own protest policies?

First, come up with a plan, based on what you know and what you need to learn. Break research, writing and external review of your policies into small, achievable goals with clear deadlines. For us, this meant taking it week by week for our 10-week quarter.

The first week, we simply looked at other newsrooms’ protest policies, or the lack thereof, and spent the week after reaching out to experts. We sought out insight from our academic sources and practical experience from working journalists to refine our draft. Once the expert interviews were done, we spent weeks three and four writing an outline, which we then fleshed out into a first draft.

These small, weekly goals prevented the policies from getting buried in responsibilities student editors must deal with daily.

Make sure to give yourself breathing room for the unexpected. What if an expert takes longer to get back to you than anticipated? What if they redirect you to someone else?

Simply put: Preparation is your best friend.

Once the draft was complete, we brought it to everyone on the editorial board and solicited feedback. After their feedback had been considered, we reviewed and revised the policies to integrate their ideas or queries.

Getting full support and input from our editing team not only fostered collaboration but also ensured diverse perspectives were heard and included. This was especially important for a predominately white newsroom at a predominately white institution, due to the potential for blind spots or biases in these policies.

Multiple copy editors reviewed them before publication to ensure they were clean and clear. We contacted the Student Press Law Center, a wonderful nonprofit resource for student journalists, to ensure everything in the policies was legally sound.

A final draft should also be published somewhere that is accessible to the public and future publication staff. For us, this meant linking our protest policies into The Front’s general editorial policies, under policy No. 5. You might also consider writing an editorial to explain your approach to the public, like we did, and invite the community to comment and make suggestions.

This isn’t a perfect formula for every newsroom, but it’s the approach that worked for us.

However you approach writing protest policies as a student newsroom, and we hope you do, remember who you’re writing them for: student journalists and the communities they serve. Keep them safe and keep them accountable.

Izzie Lund is a reporting intern at Whatcom Watch, former editor-in-chief for The Western Front and a third-year journalism and political science major at Western Washington University.

Kaleigh Carroll is a third-year journalism major at Western Washington University who currently edits for The Planet Magazine and formerly worked as the managing editor for The Western Front

More student journalist resources for covering protests

Read the full issue from The Lead’s archives here.

Opportunities and trainings

💌 Last week’s newsletter: Reflecting on the state of student journalism

📣 I want to hear from you. What would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share? Email blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com.

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Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com…
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