📸 Ethics of covering a protest
How do we do no harm when documentation can hurt others?
August 31, 2020 | Letter No. 10
I cut my teeth as a reporter at an alt-weekly in Jackson, Mississippi. Perhaps it was our editorial voice. Perhaps it was that the state was eating up anti-journalist sentiment from D.C. But consequently, I’m pretty thick-skinned when it comes to people confronting me on the job.
Sunday night, I documented night three of the Iowa Freedom Riders’ protests in Iowa City. And as is their way, I was across the street from the MidwestOne building as protesters spray-painted the windows of the first floor.
Back in June, before Iowa City passed the 17-point IFR resolution, protesters spray-painted without much cover. They, of course, had masks—some balaclavas—but for the most part, acted independently at intersections painting as they walked.
But fast forward to Sunday, a painter would shout, “I need cover” and protesters would run after them. Using a combination of the body, opened umbrellas, and signage, they obscured the painters in a kind of amorphous blob dressed in black.
Already this weekend, two protesters were arrested for spraypainting, one Saturday and another just before Sunday’s march began. While both police complaints say the arrest manifested from security camera footage and officer ID, the crowd was particularly sensitive to press carrying cameras.
While I tried to describe the people-clouds in words (that skill I’m supposed to have cultivated), I knew a picture would do a better job. In front of the MidwestOne building, a group got particularly irate when they saw me point my phone at the protesters.
Having covered a couple of these now, I’m used to the “fuck press” meme. It makes sense. They are protesting the police and getting attention through means that are literally against the law. When defunding the police is a chant, they risk further antagonizing the police and the treatment they might receive in custody. While capable of a lot as a group, individually protesters are vulnerable. And doubly so, when the front page of the newspaper has them kicking in a police department window.
They carry this vulnerability around with them.
Since June, I’ve been really challenged by our conversation in the newsroom surrounding how to ethically cover these protests. On one hand, there is real potential to do harm if we aren’t careful. On the other, we have a duty as a newspaper to document these times. And in debating these moral goods and listening to the protesters we’re trying to document, we’ve come up with some approaches.
Normally, if someone is quoted in an article, they get named. End of story. We do this so that readers know what is being said is coming from a source. Despite what T.V. makes you think, we rarely quote people anonymously. But I can count on one hand how many named IFR organizers have appeared in my stories with quotes attached. This was particularly important to me after Mazin Mohamedali was arrested. He was one of the named IFR organizers and he was picked up. To prevent harm, it’s important we are careful about who we are quoting on the loudspeaker.
Since June, photographers, in particular, have had a lot of run-ins with protesters about the inclusion of faces in the frame. Obviously, photos can be incriminating, opening protesters individually to being picked out. My rule on this is actually one protesters gave me. I don’t have the know-how to blur faces on the fly, but I can avoid shots with faces. It’s small. Inconvenient. And sometimes isn’t enough. But this no-face rule has been useful as I try to avoid harm while still out documenting these instances.
The hardest part of these situations is I could still fuck it up. As someone explained to me on Twitter, I may not always know when a detail shot of a hand or clothing becomes identifiable. And so not only do I have to be careful, I have to be prepared to be held accountable. Even if I think my actions were right, I have to be open to being wrong.
That means understanding when I hear “fuck press,” it’s not necessarily me they’re talking to. But it is also me. When they confront me, they’re speaking to fragile, vulnerable moment. One where they don’t have a choice but have to hope that we are taking our jobs seriously. That we are taking their safety seriously.
I don’t know what doing this right means. But it feels like sitting with that reality gets me closer than any rule.
Your friendly neighborhood reporter,
Zachary Oren Smith
Daily Iowan: Back at it with the white vans!
We are one week into the University of Iowa being back in session. Now, I like you have not been a fan of the dramatic rise in infection rates. However, if it comes with one silver lining, it’s that Iowa City gets a ton of new eyes, ears and minds writing about this place.
The Daily Iowan is back. If you haven’t already, subscribe to their newsletter and follow them on social media. They’re an invaluable source of coverage in this area and lest you forget, they’ve got receipts for being the best newspaper in the state. I stan for student journalism big and small. And I couldn’t be happier to have such a high-quality source of coverage cutting their teeth here among us.
I spend an inordinate amount of time on Twitter celebrating our local press corps. Between my coworkers at the P-C, the folks at the Gazette, Little Village, and Iowa Public Radio, I’m overwhelmed by the talent. All the time, I become better from watching these folks do their thing.
If you or someone you know is getting started in journalism nearby, make sure to reach out to me and all the other folks in this market. It continues to make a huge difference in my work.
Also, a huge shout out to Josie Fischels, Katie Goodale, and Claire Benson for putting in a long night covering the Sunday protest with me.
Take Three (kind of)
📢 The IFR called for four days of protests:
Night 1: On Friday, at the intersection of East College and Gilbert streets, a car tried to drive through the crowd of protesters and reversed, hitting multiple people without seriously injuring anyone.
Night 2: On Saturday, protesters held a vigil for Makeda Scott, a Black recent UI grad who drowned in Lake Macbride.
Night 3: On Sunday, I wrote about the IFR’s return to spray-painting as a tactic after abandoning it back in June.
Night 4: Stay tuned, I’m covering Monday’s protest too.
😷 Infection rates have spiked since last week. On Friday, Faculty, staff and students met last Friday calling for class to move 100% online.
🎒 On Saturday, the Iowa City Community School District's Board of Directors voted to take classes fully online. Athletics are set to pause in the meantime after the Iowa Dept. of Education asserted that fully online schools cannot have in-person extracurriculars.
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Zachary Oren Smith writes about government, growth and development for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Reach him at email@example.com, at 319 -339-7354 or on Twitter via @Zacharyos.