Reporting Safely
and Ethically

Safety and Security Legal Resources
Ethics Mental Health More

Being a journalist can be rough, especially during times of turmoil. While the most difficult situations for journalists have historically been covering war zones, recent events prove journalists in the United States now face threats and danger while reporting on their home turf.

To all journalists, everywhere, thank you — for your work, your dedication, your patience, your care, your camaraderie, your amazing ability to set aside your own emotions and pain, if only while on the clock. Thank you for your laser-like focus on getting out our first rough draft of history.

We all saw the chaos at the Capitol, as journalists in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere did their jobs under difficult circumstances and in some cases under attack themselves. More recently, protests in Minneapolis are once again in the news and journalists are covering the stories and being closely watched and critiqued by officials and the public alike.

Regardless of the story or location, SPJ has compiled these resources from our experts and our great partners, in hopes they will be helpful and keep you safe.


Safety and Security

Often when protests turn violent, journalists can get caught in the crosshairs and even become a target for violence and destruction. That’s why it’s important to prepare every time you go out in the field. Remember your safety is what’s most important. Please be careful and stay safe.

Quick tips:

– Before you go, ask yourself if it is necessary — It is natural for journalists to want to go where the news is happening. But are there other related stories before or after the event, or in a different location that need to be told (at your state capital vs. Washington, D.C., for example)? If plenty of other journalists are telling the main story, it might be better to look for other unique angles.

– If you decide to go, have a plan — What will you do if cell phone service is cut off? Write important phone numbers (editor, lawyer) on your arm in case you are separated from your gear. Take snacks, water, masks, phone chargers, but don’t overload yourself so much that it gets in the way or you can’t run with your gear if necessary. Be mentally prepared for physical conflict. What will you do if you or a colleague get injured? Situational awareness is a must. Be aware of what is happening around you at all times. Where are exits? Look at the terrain and how you can use it to protect yourself. Make note of landmarks and street closures, realizing areas may be completely closed off later. Announce to police what you are doing and tell them you will move if they tell you to.

– Bring safety gear — Basic personal protective equipment includes a helmet, mask and protective eyewear. More advanced equipment includes a first aid kit, boots, mask, ballistic vest and helmet.

– Team up — Remain calm and help each other. Partner up if possible, even with journalists from competing news outlets. Ask each other how you’re doing after a traumatizing event. Make sure everyone in your group gets home safely.

– Clean up — COVID-19, tear gas and other chemicals are a threat even after you get home. Wipe down and clean all your gear so it doesn’t get into your home and affect family or roommates.

More information:

– International News Safety Institute’s guide on covering demonstrations and civil disorder
– CPJ’s resources for safely covering U.S. election events
– CPJ’s Journalist Security Guide
– Reporters Without Borders Safety Guide for Journalists
Practical advice about covering high profile news stories during protests and upcoming elections from NPPA
Journalist safety curricula from the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation offers a safety guide and modules
Suggestions on what gear can keep you safe and what to bring when covering protests and riots from Quinn Norton
– Twitter thread on verbal de-escalation by Chris Post
– Sample journalist safety gear list

Legal Resources

While many laws differ from state to state, one thing is certain: You, as a journalist, have the right to report on events happening in your community and our nation’s capital. Journalism is protected by the First Amendment. Know your rights and report violations.

More information:

– Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press legal guide on "Police, Protests and the Press"
– RCFP legal hotline at 800-336-4243 or rcfp@hotline.org
– NPPA’s tips to prepare and know your journalistic rights on evidence
– CPJ’s Guide to Legal Rights in the U.S.
Right to Photograph and Record in Public
– If you get arrested, SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund helps provide journalists with legal or direct financial assistance


Ethics and Reporting

The words and phrases you use when reporting have an impact on how your stories are perceived. It’s important to remember to provide context and explain editorial decisions to your audience.

More information:

– Use the SPJ Code of Ethics to guide your reporting
– SPJ’s Ethics Hotline can be reached at 317-927-8000 ext. 208 or ethics@spj.org
Trust-building tips for covering attacks on democracy from Trusting News
Election SOS First Aid Kit: Messaging on Violence provides recommendations on how to describe and contextualize the events of Jan. 6
Guide to photographing protests from conflict photographer Cengiz Yar
Navigating the Hate Beat: Slides from IRE19 on how to cover hate groups and other issues
– SPJ’s Utah Pro Chapter offers five tips on covering protests and civil unrest.


Mental Health

We know reporting while being physically and verbally assaulted, amongst other things, can take its toll on your mental health. Please take care of yourself and your colleagues. Seek help if you need it and review mental health resources. Remember that it is important to rest and take a break away from coverage. Know your limits. Drink water. Eat food. Talk to someone you trust.

More information:

How to guard your physical and mental health while covering the inauguration from Poynter
Twelve Self-help Tips for Coping in the Aftermath of the Attack on the U.S. Capitol from National Mass Violence and Victimization Resource Center
Tips for coping after reporting distressing and traumatic stories from the International Journalists’ Network
Guide for Editors and News Managers on Working with Freelancers Exposed to Trauma from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma


Other resources

There are many other important things to keep in mind when covering protests and riots. Remember you can never be too prepared and SPJ and other organizations are here to help.

– International Women’s Media Foundation Journalism Emergency Fund for journalists reporting at events related to the highly charged political unrest and polarization in the U.S.
Resources for journalists covering the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. Capitol from the Lenfest Institute
U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents press freedom violations
– Journalist’s Toolbox resources on covering protests