Sergio Olmos doesn’t normally wear boring khakis and a bland button-up dress shirt. But when he’s covering protests, riots and extremist rallies in Portland, that’s the uniform.
He never wears black, or anything that might make him look like part of the crowd. It needs to be obvious to police in a split second that he’s not taking part in the moment he’s covering, said Olmos, currently reporting for Oregon Public Broadcasting.
He also has Kevlar, a helmet, safety glasses, a gas mask and his press badge.
“You always have your press badge out,” he said. “You don’t go incognito.”
Olmos has learned what to wear, who to find and what to do from years covering protest movements in the U.S. and around the world. And next week, he plans to be in Washington, D.C., when President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are inaugurated.
He will not be covering the pomp or the circumstance.
The FBI has warned of nationwide, armed protests with the potential for violence leading up to Jan. 20. Reporters Without Borders issued a statement expressing “grave concern” for journalists and urged authorities “to take every action to ensure the safety of members of the media covering such events.”
Poynter spoke with Olmos and a number of others on tips for staying safe whether you’re on the ground or working remotely.
Olmos’ regular gear — lightweight Kevlar, a helmet, safety glasses, a gas mask — isn’t hard to get ahold of and something many newsrooms may already have after covering protests this summer.
One point he stressed though, between police with rubber bullets and protesters with paintball guns, is to protect your eyes. He recommends basic hardware store safety goggles, which are cheap, lightweight and inconspicuous.
And unlike swimmers’ goggles used to protect eyes from tear gas, safety goggles also give you better peripheral vision, said Joie Chen, Poynter’s senior adviser and faculty member who previously covered protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
While milk has been a common ingredient to treat tear gas, Chen recently heard about decontamination wipes called Sudecon, which might be easier to carry than a bottle of milk.
Protect your work
Turn your phone’s touch ID and face ID off, Chen said, so no one can force you to open, view or delete photos or video footage.
Treat it like a beat
Olmos has learned to monitor the social media ecosystems where far-right extremists talk to each other. Maintaining sources in that space can feel dangerous, he said, but for him, it’s important to break down barriers to get people poised for violence to view him as a human.
“When you’re out at these things, you cannot be the other,” he said. “You have to have some contacts within the community.”
Also, find the other journalists
In Portland, that became a tight-knit group, but whether you’re covering Washington, D.C., or protests locally, start group chats with journalists from other news outlets and stay in touch while you’re on the ground.
“When things start getting bad, we all pair up,” Olmos said.
Olmos doesn’t stand in the same place for long. Move around, talk to people and don’t let yourself be a predictable target. That has two benefits, Olmos said.
“You always know what’s going on and no one can ever say where you are.”
Prepare ahead of time
Don’t drink a lot of alcohol the night before, Olmos said, don’t take on too many other assignments and stress your mind or your body out. Be rested and ready so that you can be alert.
“The risk is you walk into a situation where you’re not totally there mentally,” he said. “That’s amateur hour s— that can get you really hurt.”
Have the training, support and mindset to stay safe
Chen has seen some resistance to gearing journalists up to cover protests. Managers wonder if it will make it hard for them to work and more likely to step into harm’s way. But most agree that they’d rather their journalists have the option.
“Today it’s not that they’re going into trouble, it’s that the trouble is coming to them.”
- The James W. Foley Journalist Safety Curricula includes how to conduct risk assessments and risks in covering domestic civil unrest.
- Dart Center’s free training, “Covering riots and civil unrest,” takes place Friday, Jan. 15.
- Dart has more tips, including to fully charge your phone, carry extra batteries, and write the number of legal help in waterproof marker on your arm.
- Committee to Protect Journalists’ tips include planning multiple exit routes and wearing shoes that “allow you to move swiftly.”
- Poynter’s Al Tompkins has 23 guidelines, including to keep rolling and learn basic first aid.
- Poynter’s Joie Chen has a free webinar on covering protests.
- CPJ has a series of first aid videos, including how to tie a tourniquet and controlling blood loss.
- Way back in 2014, I wrote about journalists’ rights while covering protests, including that press areas shouldn’t be restrictive.
- And should something happen to you while on assignment, log it with U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
What’s helped Olmos after months of covering violence is the other journalists who are out there with him. Debrief on group chat, he said. Have a beer. Watch a movie.
“When you’re with other people, it’s shared trauma,” he said.
If you’re physically attacked, if someone threatens you or follows you, that’s mentally traumatic, too, he said, and should be treated as you would a concussion with physical and mental rest.
Caring for your mental health doesn’t just apply to journalists on the ground.
“Everyone is overwhelmed, tired, grieving, scared, angry and having problems focusing,” Kari Cobham, senior associate director at the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism and Media, said in an email.
Cobham wrote for Poynter in 2019 about how to take care of yourself while covering trauma, including finding a good therapist.
She wrote “If you had a chronic illness, you’d treat it regularly. Our brains need care and attention, too.”
Cobham’s other tips include finding what resources for dealing with trauma your company provides, exercise, rest and refuel, and look out for your team.
Recognize layered trauma
“If white journalists and newsroom leaders are scared and traumatized, journalists of color are experiencing it on a deeper level — under constant threat, watching white supremacists freely riot, dealing with daily microaggressions and racism, and trying to do their jobs well, often while trying to affect change in very white newsroom cultures,” Cobham said. “That’s layered trauma. Acknowledge that, prioritize mental health, elevate voices and experiences and take another look at how you’re framing coverage. Make mental health a priority, give journalists the resources they need to safely cover violence, promote journalists of color and pay them equitably. The nation might be on fire, but it’s past time to put out the fires causing trauma in your own house.”
Recognize what you can and can’t control
The magnet of the doomscroll has been particularly strong in the last week, but there are some things you can control, said Samantha Ragland, a Poynter faculty member.
One of them is what you’re scrolling.
If you can’t look away, set regulations on your phone to help you look away. It doesn’t have to be for an entire night, Ragland said, but even two hours will give you a break.
If you’re covering the news from home or the newsroom, clean up your desk before you leave each day.
“What you don’t want to do is end the day in this sense of anxiety and chaos and start the next day in the exact same way.”
Managers, have one-on-ones with your staff
Check in and see how people are doing. If you haven’t started this yet, Ragland said, a new year is the perfect time to try so you’re talking to people before there’s a crisis.
And bosses, remember, “in one-on-ones, you speak the least.”
Find something joyful online
You don’t have to put down your phone to put down the news. Search out accounts you like and actively follow and engage with them, Ragland recommended. Follow NASA or National Geographic or other accounts that convey a sense of awe. Find content that makes you laugh.
“You need to be able to breathe and you need to be able to refill and you can’t do that without considerate effort.”
Here are some more resources for your mental health:
- RTDNA has a mental health resource guide, including daily self-care practices for journalists.
- Navigating Trauma Guide has tips for moving more, getting more sleep and a list of joyful things to bask in.
- Poynter has a free self-directed course on journalism and trauma.
- Association of Black Psychologists Self-Care Tool Kit includes signs of stress and tips for self-care.
- The Carter Center has a whole page of tips and guides for journalists’ mental health while covering the coronavirus.
- Black Girls Breathing has a virtual breathwork circle.
- Therapy for Latinx includes a way to find therapists near you.
- Boris L. Henson Foundation has a directory of mental health providers and programs serving the African-American community.
- The Chicago Headline Club is hosting “Let’s Talk About Mental Health and Trauma in Journalism” on Thursday, Jan. 28.
- And the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
There are several resources to help journalists protect themselves online. Including;
- TrollBusters’ has a collection of digital hygiene lessons, from removing your public data to end-to-end encryption.
- Dart Center has a toolkit for dealing with hate campaigns, including tips for bosses and colleagues of the target.
- CPJ has several resources for digital safety, including preparedness and helplines.
- James W. Foley Legacy Foundation has training on digital security, including threat modeling and scenario simulations.
- And CPJ has a digital journalist safety kit with tips on protecting your accounts and your devices.