Six ways to stay safe, from journalism safety experts

By Twumasi Duah-Mensah, CISLM intern

Advanced planning and risk assessment is key for reporters covering protests, political rallies or other volatile situations.

In mid-May, the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media and NC Local News Workshop partnered with the International Women’s Media Foundation and Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press to host two day-long workshops on how journalists can keep safe during the election season. The sessions were part of IWMF’s national program, Newsroom Safety Across America, during which IWMF trainers lead highly interactive, in-person safety workshops to local and regional journalists in battleground states and rural areas where newsrooms are grappling with ongoing safety challenges.

Topics from the sessions included risk assessment and mitigation, personal security, active shooter, protests, legal/know your rights, and psychosocial/mental health awareness. Legal advice was given by lawyers from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. The trainers were Jeff Belzil, the IWMF security director, and Rosem Morton, an IWMF Next Gen Safety Trainer.

From the sessions, here are six helpful tips to stay safe:

Conduct a risk assessment with colleagues before covering a tough story

If you have been assigned to cover a story with potential risks or hazards, you should conduct a risk assessment with your supervisor and other colleagues. This assessment doesn’t have to be formal or take a long time, but should include things such as:

  • Potential hazards
  • Who is at risk
  • The level of risk (the seriousness of consequences)
  • The likelihood of risk
  • Mitigation, or precautions you can take to make the situation safer.

This helps you consider how far you’re willing to go for the story and helps your colleagues consider how to help keep you safe.

Make a plan before moving in a crowd

Before covering a protest or another event with a large crowd, identify at least two security points where you can rendezvous with your team away from others. Map out two escape routes you can use to exit from the crowd safely. If you’re working with colleagues, agree beforehand how far into the crowd you’re willing to go.

While in the crowd, keep aware of your surroundings. Avoid getting too close to a protestor with a loudspeaker, and avoid getting stuck in the middle of the crowd. This can leave you vulnerable to kettling, where police encircle protestors to move in and make arrests. Stay vigilant about your surroundings — if the protest is escalating or if police bring down their visors, they’re preparing to disburse the crowd, potentially discharge riot control weapons and/or make arrests.

Identify yourself if a police officer speaks to you

In most years, fewer than 50 journalists are arrested or detained, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. But arrests certainly are possible when covering a mass event. When waves of Black Lives Matter protests swept the country in 2020, police arrested or detained journalists nearly 150 times, according to the tracker.

Journalists do not have to answer police questions, though you should always identify themselves as press. As long as you comply with police orders on where to stand while recording, you are free to record or take photos of the police in public space. This may change on private property (e.g. a private university). In these cases, refer to the media policy of any given private property.

The officer is obligated to answer if you ask them if you are free to leave, or if you are being detained. If an officer refuses to answer, consider recording them.

If you are detained or arrested, know your rights

If an officer detains you, they can check your outer body for weapons (e.g. a bulge from your jacket or bookbag). Looking through your computer or phone requires a warrant or meeting all three of the following exigent circumstances:

  • Probable cause
  • Likelihood that the crime was captured on camera
  • Strong likelihood that the evidence will be lost

Under no circumstances can police delete photos. If you are being detained, do not unlock your phone in an officer’s presence. If an officer asks to look in your bag or through the phone, answer no. Even a throwaway answer such as, “I’ve got nothing to hide,” may qualify as consent for being searched.

If arrested, identify yourself as a journalist, ask for a lawyer and say nothing else. For legal assistance, you can call the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press hotline at 1-800-336-4243.

Plan a surveillance detection route from the event

Multiple attendees at the workshop told stories of being harassed and followed to their cars while covering stories at public places including protests and school board meetings. Consider the following precautionary measures:

  • Agree on code phrase words with a colleague to establish a quick exit to a situation that feels unsafe. If the colleague isn’t at the event with you, have them on the phone.
  • Back your car into a parking space for a quick exit
  • If you’re under threat, change your daily patterns (e.g. don’t go to the same gym at the same time you usually do)

To detect if you’re being followed, plan out a surveillance detection route, a longer, alternative route to home or work. Identify and plan:

  • 3 third-party locations to meet sources
  • 1-3 cover stops (e.g. going to a Starbucks instead of going home after a sensitive interview)
  • 1-3 shelter-in-place safe havens in case of surveillance

When thinking of cover stops and safe havens, choose buildings with multiple exits.

Consider your online presence

Journalists have heard for years the importance of building a brand online — but be mindful of which details you reveal. Are you comfortable with having family linked to your online presence? Are you using a password manager to beef up your online security? (FYI: 1password is free for journalists.) Have you posted your location through a fitness app, or through a story on social media?

The more personal information you post online, the easier it is for others to learn the details of your life. Consider an audit of what you have posted.

The IWMF recommends the Online Violence Response Hub for more resources about digital security.

More resources for journalists on safety, mental health support and beyond can be found on IWMF.org.