When Writing is Neither Solitary nor Apolitical

Committee to Protect Jounalists
Illustrations: Ken Krimstein
January 15, 2021

Here is this week’s addendum to the Polity of Literature series:

Because writers often compose their sentences in the relative calm and isolation of home or office, some people assume that writing is a solitary, apolitical activity. To give context to that assumption, here’s the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)’s recently published list of recommended preparations for writers who plan to cover the events around U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021. (All material is copyright the Committee to Protect Journalists. More information and up-to-date precautions, plus links for supporting CPJ, are available at https://www.cpj.org).


Physical & Digital Safety Considerations

Based on the levels of violence and tactics used by both police and protesters at U.S. protests in 2020, and during the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, journalists reporting from upcoming political events and protests should be aware of and consider the following risks:

  • Firing of rubber bullets, baton rounds, and projectiles
  • Liberal use of pepper spray and tear gas
  • Verbal aggression and physical attacks from protesters and militia groups
  • The potential use of live ammunition by the police and/or protesters
  • The dangers associated with attacks on buildings, vehicles, and barricades
  • The dangers associated with rioting, looting, and arson
  • The use of water cannons and long-range audio devices by the police
  • Potential vehicle ramming of crowds
  • Arrest and detention

Pre-assignment planning

  • Use CPJ’s risk assessment form (available in multiple languages) to plan your assignment in advance
  • Identify how many and which security forces (e.g. National Guard) will be present at the location you are reporting from. Note that Washington, D.C., is likely to be heavily policed in the build-up to and on Inauguration Day, meaning militant groups may instead focus on “softer targets” in state capitols
  • If violence is anticipated, the use of protective safety goggles/glasses, helmets, tear gas respirators, and protective body vests should be considered. For more information see CPJs personal protect equipment (PPE) guide here
  • If protesters are armed and aggressive, body armor Level III A and above should be considered. Be aware that ballistic grade body armor is heavy, and can reduce mobility and endurance
  • Consider the need for unarmed security or a “backwatcher” to help keep you aware of what is going on around you, including any developing threats
  • Individuals should not be expected to work alone at crowded events and protests. Try to work with a colleague and set up a regular check-in procedure with your base, family, or friends. Working after dark is riskier and should be avoided if possible. For more information please see CPJs advice for journalists reporting alone
  • Media workers should take a N95 / FFP2 standard face mask/s and alcohol-based hand sanitizer with them, noting that crowds are unlikely to adhere to physical distancing measures
  • Ensure that you have the correct accreditation or press identification, and have it on display if safe to do so. For freelancers, a letter from the commissioning employer is helpful
  • Know your legal rights in the state you are in before reporting on any protest
  • Plan an advance escape strategy in case circumstances become hostile. Do so by examining maps of the location, and go through the plan again on arrival — which may need to be modified based upon local circumstances (such as road closures)
  • Plan an emergency rendezvous point if you are working with others and unable to get to your means of transportation
  • Identify and record where the closest point of medical assistance is located
  • Mentally prepare yourself for verbal abuse. In such circumstances, try not to react to the abuse or engage with the offenders. There are many resources available for preparing for an emotionally tolling assignment, including the Newsroom Mental Health Resource Guide from RTDNA (Radio Television Digital News Association). Resources from the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma include tips for managers and editors for helping journalists exposed to traumatic events and tips for working with traumatic imagery

Clothing, equipment, & transportation

  • It is recommended that journalists avoid wearing lanyards around their neck for safety reasons, as highlighted in this video of Associated Press photographer John Minchillo being attacked in Washington, D.C., on January 6. Be aware that straps that release when pulled could lead to media credentials being stolen. Consider a velcro pouch on your bicep instead
  • Wherever possible use battery powered equipment rather than equipment with cables, which could potentially be used to attack journalists, as seen in a photo taken at the U.S. Capitol on January 6
  • Take the minimum amount of equipment necessary with you, noting that recording equipment was attacked and damaged on January 6 by violent protesters in Washington, D.C.
  • Wear clothing that helps you “blend in,” that doesn’t look too “tactical” or “military,” and that allows you to move swiftly. Try and avoid loose clothing, political slogans, media branding, military colors/patterns, colors associated with certain groups (e.g. black is associated with anti-fascist [antifa] groups), and flammable materials (e.g. nylon)
  • Wear footwear with hard soles, laces, and some kind of ankle support
  • Tie long hair up to prevent individuals from pulling you from behind
  • If travelling by vehicle make sure it is parked in a secure location and facing the direction of escape
  • Limit the number of valuables you take with you, and avoid wearing expensive jewelry and/or watches. Do not leave valuable equipment in vehicles, which could be broken into. After dark, the criminal risk increases
  • Taking a medical kit with you is recommended. Please refer to CPJs Personal Gear checklist  and also CPJs PPE guide for more information

A journalist wearing army clothes types on a laptop in a bunker, while an angry mob circles them. Their thought bubble reads, "I hope this story makes it."

Situational awareness

With the authorities

  • The police at large protests may be from other localities, and may not know the geography of the area or be as familiar with local legislation. In case of unrest, lack of communication between different police forces could result in poor command and control
  • Continuously observe and read the mood and demeanor of the authorities in relation to the crowd dynamic. Police can become more aggressive if the crowd is agitated (or vice versa). Visual cues such as the appearance of police dressed in riot gear, shield walls, or throwing of projectiles are potential indicators that aggression can be expected. Pull back to a safe location, or plan a quick extraction when such “red flags” are evident
  • Note that several states use mobile bicycle police units, which have previously used their bikes as barriers, to corral and to batter protesters, as highlighted by Forbes

With protesters & militia groups

  • Be aware that members of the crowd could be armed, even in states which do not have an open carry policy. If firearms are visible, move to hard cover and do not dwell in natural exits in case of a stampede
  • Gauge the mood of protesters toward journalists before entering any crowd. Constantly monitor the crowd for aggressive individuals and those who are shouting, drunk, emotional, and/or causing trouble. Try and maintain a safe distance from such individuals
  • Be aware of individuals getting close to you who could cough or sneeze over you, either accidentally or deliberately
  • If individuals or the crowd in general becomes hostile to the media, it may help to deliberately avoid eye contact and to stop taking pictures/filming. You will need to balance the risk versus reward, but engagement of any sort can be perceived as a challenge

Positioning 

  • When working close to a crowd, keep a safe distance from steps and ledges, noting the attack on AP photographer Minchillo on January 6
  • Try to avoid individuals carrying flags on poles, which—as seen on January 6—can be used as offensive weapons
  • Maintain a safe distance from any buildings and/or vehicles being targeted and/or attacked
  • Remain alert to the dangers from looting and arson such as falling debris, smashed glass and fire
  • Be aware of the threat of stampedes, especially if and when tear gas is deployed
  • Journalists should remain conscious of the threat of potential vehicle ramming by anti-protest groups. Remain on the sides of roads and routinely assess locations to shelter in or escape to
  • Due to the risk of mob violence, consider reporting from a higher vantage point such as a building rooftop, upper floor window, or balcony
  • When working around a crowd, media workers should be conscious of not outstaying their welcome. Minimize your time around any crowd to what is absolutely necessary. Always try to keep to the outside and not get sucked into the middle where it is hard to escape
  • Be aware of the risks and dangers from “kettling” by the police, and that beingin such close proximity to others will likely increase your exposure to coronavirus droplets
  • Photojournalists generally work in the thick of the action and by default are at greater risk. They should therefore consider having someone watching their back. Remember to look up from the viewfinder every few seconds, and do not wear the camera strap around your neck to avoid the risk of strangulation. Get your shots and get out

Dealing with tear gas 

The use of tear gas can result in sneezing, coughing, spitting, crying, and the production of mucus that obstructs breathing. In some cases, individuals may vomit, and breathing may become labored. Such symptoms could potentially increase media workers’ level of exposure to coronavirus infection via airborne virus droplets. Individuals who suffer from respiratory issues like asthma, who are listed in the COVID-19 vulnerable category, should therefore avoid covering crowd events and protests if tear gas is likely to be deployed.

In addition, evidence suggests that tear gas can actually increase an individual’s susceptibility to pathogens such as coronavirus, as highlighted by NPR.

For further guidance about dealing with exposure to and the effects of tear gas, please refer to CPJs civil disorder advisory

Dealing with aggression

While there are times when documenting aggression is crucial journalistic work, be aware of the situation around you and your own safety. Note that taking pictures of aggressive individuals can sometimes escalate a situation. Try to avoid confrontation and reduce tensions with de-escalation tactics, as highlighted in CPJs civil disorder advisory.

Digital safety planning & considerations

  • Ensure you have a full battery on your cell phone and take a portable power bank with you
  • Prepare your devices. Know what data is on your phone and your laptop and how that could put you or others at risk. Back up and remove information that you would not want accessed by others if your devices are stolen, confiscated, or broken
  • Log out of and remove any apps from your phone that you will not use at the event
  • If you are concerned about taking your personal phone to cover the event, consider buying a cheap second phone and taking that instead
  • Encrypt your devices. See CPJs guide on encrypting devices
  • Secure your accounts with two-factor authentication and long, unique passwords. Put passcodes on your devices instead of using biometrics. See CPJs guide on securing accounts
  • Review your online profile and take down or limit access to personal information, especially data that can be used to locate you, contact you, or verify your identity. Speak with family members about how to secure their online data. For more information, see CPJs guide to protecting against online attacks
  • Where possible, use end-to-end encrypted messaging services, such as Signal, to communicate with others. Be aware that phone conversations and SMS can be intercepted by law enforcement
  • Backup content from the event regularly when on the ground. This will prevent you from losing content if your devices are taken or broken
  • Be aware that live tweeting or live streaming your exact location at the event could put you at greater physical risk
  • Be vigilant for people who may wish to take, break, or steal your devices

Editors Safety Checklist 

Please click here to download an editor’s checklist, which includes key questions and steps to consider in order to help reduce the physical and mental risks for media workers covering political events and protests in the build-up to, and aftermath of, the U.S. Presidential inauguration on January 20, 2021.


All material copyright Committee to Protect Journalists. More information and up-to-date precautions (plus links for supporting CPJ) are available at https://www.cpj.org.

Committee to Protect Journalists

The Committee to Protect Journalists is a New York City-based "independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide. We defend the right of journalists to report the news safely and without fear of reprisal."(From the CPJ website.)

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