“Clay, I’ve gotten six calls from Delray police,” my long-suffering editor said into her cellphone. “What are you doing out there?”
What I was doing on that October day in 2001 was covering the funeral of Bob Stevens. Or trying to, at least. Stevens was the tabloid photographer who was killed with a lethal dose of anthrax in the wake of the unrelated attacks of 9-11. I was assigned to the funeral.
The problem that day was that Delray Beach, Fla.,’s finest was essentially working as private security for the funeral party. (I found it ironic that the National Enquirer wanted the press to respect the privacy of those grieving, but I digress…) I was stopped, questioned and not allowed to enter. So I walked all around the building — careful to stay off private property — looking for some vantage or someone to interview. I was followed every step of the way by a policeman.
I thought of that this week in the wake of new concerns for the safety of journalists and the sanctity of journalism in our own country. Several journalists were arrested during protests surrounding the inauguration of President Donald Trump and they have been charged with felonies. That is somewhat unusual, though not unheard of. (It is interesting to note that the District of Columbia paid out $17 million — including $115,000 to each of several student journalists — for unlawful arrests at a 2002 protest.) …
We know there will be more protests. We may have occasion to cover them. So how do we go about it in a legal and effective way, and what if we are confronted by police or arrested?
The first thing to remember is that you are a professional. Act like one. Remember you are representing your employer. As soon as possible, contact an editor or your publisher and follow orders from above. Do not make the situation worse by antagonizing first responders. Be calm. Follow legal commands. Do not resist arrest.
That doesn’t mean you can’t do your job. Wear a press pass. Attempt to make contact with whomever is in charge of police at the scene. Conduct interviews. Take photos. Use social media.
The Committee to Protect Journalism has some wonderful resources that are worth looking at now, before you need them. (It suggests carrying a lime to riots so you can neutralize chemical sprays, if necessary. Who knew?) Keep in mind that much of the information is aimed at reporters covering disturbances in dangerous places around the globe. I don’t think you necessarily need athlete’s foot cream in your bag…
Above all, talk to your editor before covering any kind of protest. Have a plan and know what you will do before things get tense. Call me if you have questions now.