Balancing Riot Gear and the New Media Frontier

Covering 2020’s Protests in a Secure and Equitable Manner

We’ve seen major protests in Belarus, Lebanon, Hong Kong, Ethiopia, and the U.S. in recent months. In moments of civil unrest and massive social change, the journalists best committed to ground truth have to take basic precautions in order to do their work in a safe way. At times, these protests have been met with violence, elevating the risk bodily harm for all parties involved. I’ve been in a few situations like this, so I know the drill. Mask. Goggles. Helmet. Water. Bandages. Identification.

Professionally speaking, newsrooms need to do a risk-benefit analysis. Is it worth investing resources into the physical safety of journalists to travel and cover these kinds of conflicts? With resources evaporating, and fewer bodies available to cover breaking stories, is it worth equipping journalists to collect ground truth? Pay overtime? Cover legal fees from arrests? Medical liability? For many newsrooms the calculus is clear: it’s just not worth it.

Many have described journalism, especially in conflict areas, as excessively dependent on freelance work. Some reporters are a rare breed of adrenaline junkies, while others rest on being independently wealthy in order to cover the overhead of collecting the best stories from abroad. Meanwhile, there are fewer journalists than ever before. In the United States there are fewer than half the reporters employed today than a decade ago, which was almost half the number of reporters employed four decades ago. That’s not counting for population inflation.

When protesters — especially those advocating for civil rights — demonstrate, it is of utmost importance to understand their demands clearly and communicate them to the court of public opinion. After all, paraphrasing Henry David Thoreau, civil disobedience, like a free press, is an essential ingredient in democracy. It is also important to document, firsthand, the behavior of the protesters, their tactics, who is instigating violence or calling for peace, and why. There must be fairness to all parties involved, especially the audience, accounting for relative political privilege and social mobility.

Journalistic ground truth, citing primary sources, and observation, are the most equitable ways of doing journalism, and nothing can fully replace them. But given the changing stakes I’ve outlined, many have come to depend on the Internet as an imperfect replacement for proper reporting. When photos and videos replace eyes and ears, verifying timelines and motivations becomes nearly impossible. Inequality in Internet access exacerbates power differentials inherent to protest as well.

Meanwhile, those with an interest to misrepresent, hijack, or discredit movements for social change have never had an easier time. Internet blackouts in Belarus and Ethiopia are perhaps the most extreme examples of this. But the subtle threats to accurate reporting through the internet persist. Journalists can get doxxed, wherein personal data, usually stolen, can be posted online in order to intimidate. Public figures can be impersonated, lending to permanent reputational damage. Sensitive or embarrassing information can be used to distract from issues at hand.

Journalists, independent researchers, observers, and activists increasingly depend on tools like VPN, end-to-end communications apps like Signal, as well as basic online literacy. But these practices are not yet pervasive—and they certainly aren’t as intuitive as helmets, goggles, and other tools are at preventing physical harm. Fortunately many groups like Bellingcat and the Ground Truth Project are using a combination old-fashioned beat reporting (in the case of the latter) and a smart application of digital tools (in the case of the former) to accurately uncover truth out of the dust of chaotic situations. We can take their example, and the example of many more innovative reporters, to develop the kind of cyber literacy needed to ensure good journalism, a robust democracy, and fairness at a time when all of those things seem fleeting. They offer hybrid models, using the best of what’s available on the Internet, imperfect as it is, while also taking precautions for their safety in the in-person and virtual spaces. In the same manner that journalists expect their audiences to be literate in media, misinformation, and discourse, so too must journalists be literate in the challenges they face and how to adapt in a manner that is most just to the populations they serve.

The author, Julian Hayda, is the Craig Newmark Journalism Scholar at the Global Cyber Alliance. You can follow him on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.