Riot Journalism

How to ethically cover social unrest is a complex debate, it is also an increasingly necessary one

“A riot is the language of the unheard.” – Martin Luther King, 1966

Bogota, Colombia – Civil unrest is often the only available tool for people without voices. From the United States, to Berlin, to India, to Moscow, popular movements arise and take to the streets for a cause. Sometimes they topple empires. More often they are stomped into the footnotes of history. They are complex, amorphous, and spontaneous: told through the eyes of thousands of independent vantage points, constantly evolving and adapting to ever-changing power dynamics and conditions. 

The chaotic, complex, and ephemeral reality of a social movement is difficult to encapsulate and raises serious ethical quandaries and responsibilities for the journalists attempting to document them — especially in the information age, where misinformation has instant and global reach as well as immediate consequences. 

In the theater of the street protest, how a movement is perceived is a critical factor in its success or failure. The people clamor against established power and the State survives by painting them as agitators, thugs, or treasonous foreign agents as a prelude to crushing them with force. The tactic is as old as tyranny, and has been used the world over against every large protest movement the world has ever seen.

In the 20th century, civil movements were completely dependent upon fickle global media to get their message out to the world. Attention was difficult to attract and even more difficult to sustain. 

Technology has changed that dynamic — empowering movements worldwide who now possess the ability to craft their own narrative through social media and citizen reporting. But classic media still have a crucial role to play in parsing the truth from the fog of conflict and providing nuance to complex events.

And as they do so, journalists possess a grave responsibility not to harm those they report on. 

In the same way that technology has changed the very form of social movements, it has also given law-enforcement new tools to spy upon and prosecute those attending. Irresponsible coverage feeds into their power and gets people hurt, jailed, or even killed

Inspired by nationwide protests in the United States, journalists in English-language media have finally begun an important conversation about the ethics of protest-coverage, and in doing so they have begun looking to social movements in other parts of the world who have a history of opposing oppressive States or operating in areas of conflict. 

Perhaps more importantly, they are starting a dialogue with the protesters themselves. As part of an effort to further this conversation I reached out to activists about the role they feel media plays in modern social movements, ethical considerations journalists in the field should keep in mind, and mistakes journalists make in the heat of the moment.   

Give voice to the voiceless

Every activist I spoke with for this article expressed frustration with journalists who show up to cover protests without making any effort to understand the communities protesting. Whether “parachute journalism” or those just seeking video of riots for attention (“riot porn,”) this behavior leads to distorted coverage through a lack of understanding of the dynamics at play in the street. Whether the journalist has bad intentions towards a protest or not, not doing the necessary footwork to develop a relationship with sources on the ground will make responsible coverage impossible.

If a journalist hasn’t taken the time to understand the social movement they are reporting on, it isn’t merely bad journalism, it’s engaging in unethical and potentially dangerous behavior that misrepresents a complex reality.

“Journalists often think they can drop in to a community or event and get candid responses,” said Håkan Geijer, a medic based in Europe and author of Riot Medicine, a book for street medics working at protests. “This is often met with standoffishness or mild hostility because activists don’t know if it’s safe to share things without being misrepresented.” 

“Establishing trust takes time and a track record of doing good reporting on theirs or similar causes,” he continued.

Before covering a specific protest journalists should consider reaching out to the organizers to ask if they have any specific thoughts or concerns,” said Ella Fassler, a writer, researcher and activist. “But they should also keep in mind the views of the people with the megaphone are not usually indicative of everyone there. Ideally, a community will learn to trust a particular journalist.”

Understanding the real power-dynamics of a community, their obstacles, and their goals, isn’t only an ethical imperative for someone trying to present a complicated truth, it also makes for a much more compelling story.

Official sources will have no problem getting their story before an audience. Police and government officials hold nationally televised press conferences, have social media accounts with hundreds-of-thousands if not millions of followers, and possess direct access to both national and international legacy newsrooms, as well as pundits who specialize in amplifying their claims. The State already possesses the ability to dominate a news cycle, and they are not reliable sources for what is happening on the street. 

A much more compelling, often-overlooked, and essential part of documenting social movements is the story of the groups and individuals in the streets who do not control the levers of power. Theirs are the voices that lack amplification. Whether a journalist is covering riots or a peaceful rally, these sources are a basic and integral factor in creating quality work.

In the most of basic journalistic terms, they are the who and the why. They are the ones whose story is likely to go untold, and they are the voices street-journalists should be amplifying.

Speak truth to power

At it’s best, journalism is a safeguard of democracy, a tool to empower the citizenry with information. It’s purpose is to question power, not uncritically amplify those who possess it.

“The most important advice I ever got from a journalism mentor was ‘cops lie,’” said Lindsay Beyerstein, an investigative journalist in Brooklyn. “In most jobs, your supervisor is likely to be very concerned if she catches you blatantly lying to the public…Not so for cops. Even under oath.”

Journalists covering civil dissent have a special obligation to fact-check statements from authorities. In every protest I have ever covered, in any country, State forces have planted disinformation as well as lied to press, and the US has been no exception

“One of the biggest mistakes that journalists make is taking police statements at face value and acting as the PR wing of the police department,” said Geijer. “This erodes trust activists might have for them.”

It also presents an inaccurate view of a complex reality. This has started a conversation within media about whether the old rules of “neutrality” still apply.

“Journalists are always choosing a side between the oppressor and the oppressed based on what and who they decide to film and whose safety they prioritize,” said Fassler. “What they don’t realize is one moment of recklessness on their part could result in someone being thrown into a cage for decades.”

“Journalists need to be honest with themselves about the role they are playing,” said Bobby London, a writer and protest participant in L.A. “Unbiased isn’t a thing. Any action a journalist takes is serving some aspect of the power dynamic.”

“I’m more interested in rigor in journalism than neutrality,” said Beyerstein. “Demand evidence.”

A Changing Role

In the 20th century, the media were the gatekeepers of global news. That has changed. A video from a citizen reporter on the ground has the power to capture global attention, and the media often follows.

Some activists I spoke with feel legacy media no longer plays a productive role. Unlike during the U.S civil rights movement, when protesters often tried to attract favorable press by engaging in direct actions designed to provoke a response from law-enforcement, some modern activists feel they are capable of drawing global attention without help from journalists. 

“We don’t have to get the media to cover us anymore,” said London, from L.A. “That approach is outdated. Now direct action reflects achieving an objective rather than playing to an audience.”

Many activists are wary of photographers at demonstrations due to misrepresentation or State persecution. Local police departments in the United States have repeatedly requested footage of protests for the purpose of arresting those who attended. The FBI has used photographs posted on social media to retroactively charge demonstrators, and the power of Open Source Investigative Techniques, or OSINT, has been fully embraced by both law-enforcement and intelligence to both expose and infiltrate domestic activist groups.

“Journalists may think they are acting in a manner that preserves the privacy and safety of the subject, but this requires making assumptions about the ability of State and non-State actors to employ OSINT to identify the subject,” said Geijer, the street medic.

“Most people, journalists included, are not capable of accurately assessing these things. This leads to photos and video being used to dox (reveal the identity of) or prosecute the subject.”

Fassler stressed that journalists need to be aware how even benign photos taken at protests can have consequences for activists who are later arrested. “I was a former J20 (a protest in 2017 in Washington DC) defendant who faced seven felony charges,” she said. 

“I watched the government enter movement media as evidence to convict my co-defendants during trial. Oftentimes the photos and videos didn’t expose an individual’s face but other photos allegedly did. Then the prosecutor and detective would attempt to cross reference the images to prove someone’s identity.”

Ramifications and criminal charges stemming from those protests continued for two years, and resulted in the home of at least one activist, (who wasn’t even at the protests,) being raided by D.C police. The Department of Homeland Security was recently exposed running active surveillance of both journalists and protesters at Black Lives Matter in the United States as well. 

“I view anyone with a camera at a protest as a threat,” said London.

Other activists offered a bit more nuance. “True safety would mean next to no photos,” said Geijer. “That said, some risk may be acceptable if the benefits outweigh unlikely costs. 

“If journalists want to understand this dilemma better they should consider reading up on modern OSINT and how [protesters have been] doxxed, indicted, threatened by counter-protesters and prosecuted…to help them better understand what may happen after they take a photo.”

The cost-gain tradeoff of protester security versus obtaining a powerful image that may drive a story is a complicated one that must be carefully weighed. Just as often as they may harm however, protest images have also been a critical tool for holding the police accountable.

Propublica recently published an in-depth investigation using images from live-streams and videos posted on social media to expose 68 instances of the U.S police either initiating violence on Black Lives Matter protesters or making dishonest claims to the public. 

A protester live-stream in Seattle drew millions of views during the early weeks of the protests, considerably heightened national press attention, and exposed Seattle police as lying about deploying tear-gas against demonstrators only in self-defense. 

In Buffalo, New York, footage taken by public radio station WBFO of an elderly protester being gravely injured by police for no discernable reason attracted international news coverage and sparked an investigation of the officers responsible.

The death of George Floyd, captured live on video, was the catalyst that ignited the biggest protests in the United States in over 50 years. 

Images often possess a power that words lack.

“I’m skeptical that media is completely outdated in this regard,” said Beyerstein, the investigative journalist. “We’ve lost the monopoly on interest and imagination certainly, but good journalism still matters.”

Everyone interviewed for this article strongly suggested journalists explicitly ask the permission of everyone included in the frame of a photo when possible, and that coverage of protesters using Direct Action Civil Disobedience tactics be edited to protect their identity. 

Journalists operating in conflict zones have often operated with this basic assumption, and my personal experience in the field covering violent protests in multiple countries has deeply confirmed this. 

Live-streams are particularly problematic as transmission is instant, with no editing filter available to ensure protester safety. Journalists who use these tools should do so extremely carefully and understand that they may face pushback or even violence from protesters rightly concerned about possible consequences.

“The most important considerations for a journalist to keep in mind are, vulnerable and marginalized people do not have the protection, the platform or the training possessed by police or State forces,” said Beyerstein. “Some journalists view anything happening in the ‘public sphere’ as fair game for coverage, and I want that rule to be true when I’m going up against the powerful.”

“But in the arena of the street protest, we need to understand there are ethical questions beyond what is ‘legal’. Are we endangering someone? Are we lifting up marginalized voices? Or are we attacking and silencing them? Our actions have consequences.” 

Both the right of the citizenry to dissent and the duty of the press to inform are paramount to a free society, and more often than not the issues are deeply related. “Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people.” wrote Justice Hugo Black, in the landmark decision to allow the publishing of the Pentagon papers in 1971.

The truth is worth struggling to uncover, and in doing so we owe an ethical obligation to our sources. In their treatment of street-protest, States virtually always err on the side of injustice. 

It is our job to correct that. 

Notes and Resources: Safety is a primary concern for journalists covering civil unrest. A number of organizations provide guides, aid, training, and resources for those in the field. I strongly recommend reaching out to them to learn more as well as basic data security. Field journalists should be aware that being arrested or having equipment seized by police or State forces can dangerously expose sources or protesters and should have a contingency plan for this eventuality. 

The street-medic interviewed for this story, Håkan Geijer, has a free, very comprehensive, and open-source guide for first aid in the field (whose title was the inspiration for this article) called Riot Medicine, which can be downloaded here

Resources for Reporters Covering Civil Unrest

Useful resources for reporters covering civil unrest:

  1. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ): provides information including downloadable manuals on safety and security, insurance, gear-rental, and protection on behalf of journalists worldwide.
  2. Reporters Without Borders (RSF): Information on reporting safely globally, links to HEAT (Hostile environmental awareness training), health-insurance, gear and real-time assistance in the field
  3. The Red Cross: The Red Cross offers security and first-aid classes to aid-workers and journalists in most of the regions they operate in. These classes are a great resource for understanding local threats in an area you may not be familiar with as well as rudimentary medical training in the field.
  4. Fundacion Para Libertad de la Prensa (FLIP): FLIP is an organization similar to RSF, concentrated in Latin America. They have helped me when I was detained by Venezuelan officials. In addition to other services, they have contacts in most Latin American governments.
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