Taking photos or video of protesters and people marching or demonstrating in public spaces is a right afforded to journalists under the First Amendment. In the United States people have a right to information. Journalists help fulfill that right to information by responsibly reporting on what is happening in communities across the country. During protests, marches and rallies, this means documenting who is protesting, what they are saying and what they are doing. This also means documenting what the police are doing in these situations, how they are responding and what they are saying.
In all reporting, journalists should be trying to minimize harm. This means weighing the public’s right to know vs. the potential harm publishing information may cause. Unfortunately, publishing information is likely to always cause someone, some kind of harm. The question is does the harm caused outweigh the public’s right to know? Or does the public’s right to know outweigh the potential harm caused?
For journalists, professors and journalism students: The answer is not to stop recording, reporting or taking photos at protests and rallies. The answer is to do so responsibly, fairly and with respect. While images of pain, anger and excitement can be powerful, remember the people in them are experiencing these emotions in real time. Documenting this is part of our role and duty to the public and the people in these public demonstrations are an important part of the story.
While gathering information, covering these events and deciding whether or not to share images or video that clearly identify the individuals involved, keep the following in mind:
- Where are you? In public spaces, people have less of an expectation of privacy. If you are in a public space, like a street or sidewalk or park, understand that your expectation of privacy is limited. Journalists should also keep in mind that just because it is a public space and it is legal to record video or take photos, that does not always make it ethical. Remember: What is legal is not always ethical.
- What is the goal in your coverage? If you are assigned to document what is happening, you will probably need a variety of images and video that show the whole story. In that case you’re probably going to gather wide shots, medium shots and closeups. Not doing so would be a disservice to your community. Get shots that show the full context of what is happening, not just “action shots” of arrests, looting, etc.
- Are your photos/video being used in context? If your headline is talking about looting, don’t run a photo of people marching below it. Don’t lead with an image of a burning building if you’re talking about thousands of people showing up to peacefully protest.
- Is it clear you are a journalist? Try whenever possible to identify yourself as a journalist while taking identifiable photos or videos of individuals. That could be done verbally, maybe it is with a clearly identifiable press badge or maybe it is with a camera and a mic flag.
- Who is there? Is the group a bunch of high school students? Are they all adults? Is it a mix of both? Are the people being harassed or threatened? Are the people there representative of groups who are sometimes threatened in the community? Depending on who is there, you may decide to provide a certain protection by not clearly identifying them.
- Do I have control over where these images/video may end up? You do have some control, but not complete control. We can’t always control where they are shared, if they are altered or what people do after seeing them. Just being aware of this fact can help you make decisions about what to capture and share.
- How will it affect my coverage? While protecting their identity isn’t required if the protest is on public property, I don’t see harm in doing so if revealing their identity doesn’t add much to the story.
- Are the people leading chants or organizing the group? When considering what images to use think about an individual’s role in the event. Individuals leading chants or group organizers have already put themselves in a leadership role vs. someone who’s simply marching.
- Are people being peaceful? Whenever possible, get permission, especially for closeups. Are people in pain, injured or visually upset? If so, capturing those images can be powerful and necessary. Is it possible to get permission from them later?
- Have you been asked to take down images/videos after they’ve been posted? If you’re contacted to remove a photo because someone is being threatened, will removing the photo or video change the story or context of the reporting? Can the image or video be replaced with another one?
- Is it necessary to show close-ups or zoom-in? This is absolutely sometimes necessary. But as police are zip-tying an individual’s hands, do you have to zoom in? Do you have to have a closeup of one individual getting arrested? If you do, can you get permission from them at the time or work to identify them later and get that permission?
- Have people asked to not be included in your story? While you were out gathering images, did anyone ask to not be included? If so, is it possible to respect their wishes? I know this is not required if they were taken in a public space, but if you have other images or video that are just as powerful, can you respect their wishes?
- Can you shoot from a different angle? Is there another location where similar things are happening where you can capture similar video or images without clearly identifying people or including people who have asked not to be included?
- Where is this image or video going? If it’s your lead image or the image that is going to be shared on social media when people share your story, think very carefully about the power behind that. A lot more people see an image like that compared to an image embedded within a story. Is it appropriate for a closeup image of an individual who is in pain, injured or clearly identifiable to be that lead image? It might be, but weigh the harm caused by the public’s right to know. Don’t just use it because it causes emotion or elicits comments. Can those more prominent images include people who have given you permission? Again, permission isn’t necessary, but if you have powerful images where people have given you permission, consider using those instead.
In these situations so much is happening so fast. While you are putting stories together it may not always be possible to think about all of these elements. But when time allows, let’s think carefully about the images and videos we use. And if time is not on our side, if we are even just aware of the impact our images and video have once released in the public, that can make our coverage better.
As journalists I think we can also use our voices to educate people about what protesting in public means and what our role in these events is. Maybe we volunteer to talk with organizers about privacy rights and what journalists do while covering rallies and protests. It might be too late to do that while protests are happening, but maybe we can make the time in the future, before the next event or after these events. If we each take time to reinforce the role we play in all of this and why it’s important, I think we can limit some of the hostile situations that sometimes occur between the public and journalists.