January 15, 2021

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.”

All of that follows the insurrection at the Capital last week, which resulted in five deaths and included threats and physical and material injury to a number of journalists.

Poynter spoke with Olmos and a number of others on tips for staying safe whether you’re on the ground or working remotely.

Physical safety

Gear up

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.

Keep moving

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.”

More resources: 

Mental health

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.

Recognize trauma

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:

Online safety

There are several resources to help journalists protect themselves online. Including;

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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