Covering Volatile Street Protests

Report on both sides of the conflict, but don't get caught in the middle; know your exit route at all times; remain engaged but detached. News professionals offer insights to reporters and photojournalists on best practices when reporting on volatile confrontations.

This article was originally published on January 28, 2011, as Egypt's "Day of Rage" transformed into what would be known as the Arab Spring, and was revisited later that year as clashes between police and Occupy Wall Street protesters across the United States posed safety and access issues for reporters and photographers. Today, following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, thousands have turned out to protest in at least 37 cities nationwide. As clashes between police and protesters continue, news professionals offer insights to reporters and photojournalists on best practices when reporting on volatile confrontations.

Journalists covering street confrontations, such as those occurring now in Egypt, need to keep one eye firmly on the story, and another on their own safety. This is rarely easy, given the speed at which fluid protest situations can tip into violence. It can be hard to reason with an angry or fearful crowd when it turns, be it composed of policemen or demonstrators. A press pass by itself is no protection against the probability of being caught in a barrage of rocks, police batons, gunfire, shrapnel or drifts of tear gas.

Even in crowd situations there are things journalists can do to minimise the risks and to exercise small degrees of control. The Dart Center has asked a group of journalists, who have covered such volatile situations as the 2007 riots in Kenya, the fall of communism in Europe and political violence in the Middle East, as well as many others, to offer some thoughts on how they've learned to look after themselves and to even-handedly tell the larger story when enmeshed in the chaos of the moment:

John Moore, senior staff photographer, Getty Images, Denver, Colorado, USA  (former Mideast photo editor, Associated Press:)

I was based in Cairo for several years, and certainly the main danger for journalists there now is the mistreatment by Egyptian police, both uniformed and plain-clothed. They have brutalized both the populace and journalists for many years, so they are fully in character now. AP photographer Nasser Nasser took a stone thrown by a policeman to the face a couple days ago, breaking his cheekbone. Others have also been injured and I fear this could get worse.

In terms of covering crowds, I think the best defense is basic situational awareness. It's important to know the mood of the crowd before one dives in. For those of us non-Arab speakers, that means working closely with a fixer/translator. For photojournalists like myself, we don't need perfect translator, but rather someone who's streetwise, experienced, well-connected and relatively fit. In these situations, for instance, I would be constantly running, shooting, running, climbing up to rooftops – and repeating that general routine all day long with brief stops to file, then repeat into the night. Start again before sunrise and repeat every day until the story's done.

Now, it's a little easier for those working for agencies like AP or Reuters, as they have a network of local reporters and TV crews to help keep them informed about what's going on. When you're on a story alone though, you really need to have a local fixer to, quite literally, watch your back.

As for what to carry into these situations, it's best, of course, to have a gas mask for the tear gas, but if not, carry several bandanas and a small water bottle of vinegar. Wear a vinegar-soaked bandana tied around your face and covering your mouth. This will help filter the tear gas – or worse, pepper gas – so you can continue working. A pair of swimming goggles also helps. For photojournalists, leave a spare camera and backup lens back at the hotel, so if the police smash what you have, you have something you can rely on for the next day.

Sharpie your blood type on your wrist. I realize that sounds extreme, but if you were to become seriously injured, that sort of information could save your life.

Lessons Learned: Early in my career, I was covering the American intervention in Somalia and I made the mistake of walking into a mob scene, completely unaware of the mood of the crowd. It was a crowded roundabout and lined with American soldiers who were standing atop their armored personnel carriers. I suppose they gave me a false sense of security. 

As I walked alone through the crowd, I began to notice the mood of the Somalis was especially poor. This I suppose was evident by the scowls, as I foolishly hadn't taken a translator with me and couldn't understand what they were saying. As I calmly tried to leave, they started pushing and shoving and I was hit in the face with a stone.

The U.S. soldiers did nothing to intervene. I kept moving, but by the time I was to safety, I was fairly covered in my own blood. While the injury was minor, it looked rather dramatic and was captured by the BBC, who had been filming from a nearby rooftop. Unfortunately, the footage ran on the local ABC affiliate in Dallas, Texas, where my parents lived, and they saw it before I took the time to call them to say I was OK. There were any number of lessons learned from that experience and I have been more careful in crowds since.

Peter Cunliffe-Jones, head of AFP Online News, London:

First, always ensure that you have a quick exit route from any position you put yourself in – and know how to get to it.

Second, if you are sending someone to cover a protest, make sure you know who is in charge on the streets and think through whether or not the protesters might turn against the reporters you send because of the way they look or who they are. Once, when I could not go myself, because I was already covering unrest in the south, I sent a reporter to cover religious unrest in northern Nigeria. I had been told by the police that the Muslims had taken the town and sent in a Muslim reporter. Unfortunately, the Christians had taken the town and my Nigerian Muslim reporter was very lucky to escape with his life. I was insufficiently informed.

Third, before you go, talk to people who know the situation better than you, to get the best possible idea of risk. Remember that while we all want to get exclusives, dead reporters don't tell stories. So get informed, and err on the side of caution.

Finally, to bring a sense of broader context to a fast-breaking story, know the country you are reporting on and know its history.

Lessons Learned: I arrived in Sierra Leone in 2000, the day after Kurt Schork and Miguel Moreno were killed in an ambush. They had asked my AFP colleague Patxi Harispe to go with them on the trip. He was AFP's ex-bureau chief in Abidjan and before that Lagos, and knew Sierra Leone very, very well. He advised them against it, saying it was a very dangerous road ... It sounds awful to say, but had they followed his advice, and gone a different way, they could probably have got a good story, and would have been much safer, and not driven into the ambush they did.

Mark Brayne, psychotherapist, Gloucester, UK, longtime foreign correspondent and former director, Dart Centre Europe

Remember, bullets can kill. When in doubt, don't take the risk. You'll feel invincible as the emotions fire up. You're not.

Get enough sleep. Four hours a night and less for two or three weeks is dangerous. Don't be macho and pretend the story isn't affecting you personally.

Take breaks, eat as well and regularly as possible, take brief bursts of physical exercise. Talk to colleagues and editors on the phone on base about the feelings and emotions that are coming up – personally as well as collectively.

Staying safe: Above all, think! Read up beforehand on what covering such a story can do to you emotionally, and to those whose story you're reporting. Be in the story, but outside it as well. You must be both cool and detached, calculating and engaged, impassioned and excited.

It's possible to bring a sense of broader context to fast-developing events. But always remember you're only seeing a part of the story, and that what you see – what your brain registers – is always subjective. You only have your five senses, all of them personal and subjective, to experience what's happening. Everything is filtered through your subjectivity. So be humbled, always cautious, always questioning.

Breathe, take stock, talk to others. Be ready to be wrong – and to change your story accordingly.

Let others keep you grounded in regular conversation with the realities of the wider perspective. What you see and experience matters hugely. But it's only a part. Think of the blind men/women each holding a different part of an elephant and trying to work out collectively what it is. A tusk and a tail are both parts of the whole, but very different, and don't assume from the tuskness of one end of the animal, or the tailness of the other end, that you've grasped the essence of the whole.

In short, be humble.

Lessons Learned:  I covered the Romanian Revolution and the Tiananmen protests in 1989 before I knew anything about trauma and how that affects one's perceptions. Both stories were the best I have ever covered, generating some amazing journalism on minimal sleep. But they also contained some of my worst reporting mistakes ever. On several occasions, I allowed my involvement in the euphoria of the moment to sweep me away. I wish I had known more about how human beings function in conditions of mortal danger and extreme stress.

Salim Amin, chairman, Camerapix and A24 Media, Nairobi, Kenya:

It is very scary being in the middle of a riot or protest: the mood changes very quickly and you must be constantly aware of what the police and the protesters are doing, where you are standing or positioned. You must try to gauge or predict what is going to happen next so you can be prepared.

I have always found it useful to move between police and protesters, listening to what they are saying, to figure out who is going to make the first move.

Try to stay on the side that is on the offensive. Usually, the protesters will start throwing stones or other objects and taunting the police, so it's good to be on their side, but you must watch for when the police will retaliate and move to them as soon as this starts. Never be caught in the middle!

Quickly identify the leaders or decision-makers on both sides and interview, photograph or film both sides, so others will see you are just doing your job and are not biased towards either side.

Have water and scarves handy for the tear gas.

Always understand that a riot situation is one of the most unpredictable places to be. Stick with fellow journalists so you can look out for each other; especially when you are filming or photographing, you tend to lose your peripheral vision and can easily get injured from behind or the side.

Lessons learned: While covering the post-election violence in Kenya we were waiting outside the Serena Hotel in downtown Nairobi where riot police and paramilitary troops had positioned themselves waiting for a planned demonstration. The demonstration took a long time in coming and the journalists were just milling around waiting. Without warning the riot police started lobbing tear gas grenades at us and then charged at us with horses. (I'm not sure if they were bored or using us as a practice run!) What this taught me was that you can't ever let your guard down, even if there does not seem to be much going on.

Ami Vitale, photojournalist, Miami, Florida, USA:

First, find a safe place that gives a clear view of what is happening without putting you in the middle of the fighting. For example, go on top of a building above to analyze what is happening below. Take time to watch how the police or military and crowds are reacting. Do they have live ammunition? Are events escalating quickly? It's important to understand what might happen and how to find a safe place to cover unfolding events.

Go with someone who knows the city well if you do not.  Know where there are some exit points. For example, don't get caught in between a crowd and the police on a bridge. There is nowhere to escape if it turns violent. If it's in a city, look for doorways and alleys to slip into if you need a quick escape.

Understand visual cliches and try to get past stereotypes in a fast-breaking story. For example, I will often try to find quieter ways of telling a violent, sensational story. The violence often overshadows the deeper message.

Lessons learned: Understand there is no reasoning with mobs. My own personal experience was in Palestine, when a mob of angry young men thought I might be an agent of a foreign government. The only thing that saved me was that I had spent the day with a group of women in their home and they saw the angry mob and came to rescue me.

Because they felt they knew me and trusted me, they got involved. If I had only showed up to cover this event and had not known anyone, there is a good chance I would not have made it out alive. Mobs are angry, there is no reasoning with them and they often want to see blood in order to avenge someone.

Brett McLeod, Nine Network, Melbourne, Australia:

I covered the Bangkok Red Shirt protests in May, 2010. On May 19, as the troops move into crush the protest, we found ourselves caught in the wrong spot and several people were shot around us; one of them was killed a couple of metres away, as I was broadcasting on radio.

I've covered wars before, but this was my first taste of "up close and personal" rioters versus the military. What I learned is that a little preliminary work is vital, as the situation can and will change without warning. It's axiomatic to say we were in a volatile situation, yet it was only when the bullets came whizzing past that we realised the real danger around us, that lives were going to be lost where we were standing. We weren't gung-ho, just naive.

We had come under-prepared in terms of protective clothing; we had poor standard vests and no helmets (Well, my cameraman had a bike helmet, more for show than for effect.) I admit I've always been a little cynical about reporters wearing protective gear, but not any more. There are times when it is better to be safe than dead. During this same incident, an Italian journalist was killed. The bullets were being fired indiscriminately, as far as I could tell,  so being a journalist offered no protection in itself. The soldiers were trying to clear the streets, and everyone on them.

One bit of preparation that worked: as agreed, we stuck together, always moving as a group. There was no moment of panic wondering where the cameraman was, as he broke away to get a better angle. That was vital in terms of safety and planning our escape.

A key moment came when I was in the middle of a radio cross, and my cameraman Greg pointed to a couple of men on the ground right next to us. One was dead, shot in the head; the other had been shot in the throat. At that point I aborted the radio cross – it was time to stop being a journalist and focus entirely on our own safety. Staying on air would have been too distracting at that point; we had to figure out how we were going to get off that street and back to a safe place.

Our rescue came in the form of one of the protestors. Again, through lack of awareness, we didn't really know the neighbourhood we were in, and we had no fixer with us. He came and grabbed us, steered us towards a fence, a laneway, a car park and escape. Without him, I have no idea how we would have got out. And I don't even know who he is.

Lessons learned: When it comes to street protests, where there's any potential for deadly force, be prepared. Have proper safety equipment, whether it's protective clothing or gas masks. Make sure you're carrying spare water – you could be stuck for a while. Make sure someone back at the office knows where you are, and is checking in with you. And have an exit strategy – where are you going to run if you have to?

Having said all that, riots are by their very nature impossible to predict. The ultimate protection is the old-fashioned gut instinct. So far, it hasn't failed me.