I attended yesterday’s web chat about reporting at political convention protests. The chat,
sponsored by Harvard’s Citizen Media Law Project, the International News Safety Institute, and the Free Press organization, was chock full of practical advice served up with a generous helping of what-it’s-like personal accounts.
Natasha Lennard, who has worked for the New York Times and now writes for Salon.com, described how she was among 700 people kettled and arrested in the Occupy Wall Street protests. She said that for the NYPD, if you are in the wrong place, it doesn’t matter if you are press.
“If you stick with the crowd which is what you feel you should do to get the story, you end up in a very precarious situation yourself,” Lennard said.
Andy Sellars, an attorney with Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center, made the point that when the police are ordering people to move, it helps in many cases to self-identify as a member of the press, but it might make reporting more difficult as you may wind up getting moved far away from the action.
For unaffiliated citizen journalists, Sellars said that it may be a good idea to use a homemade credential. But he warned not to copy anyone else’s credentials. Using credentials intended to look like they were issued by the police, for instance, may be unlawful in itself and, at any rate, is likely to make you a special target of for officers.
John Knefel, an independent journalist who has a radio show with his sister on Radio Dispatch, described his arrest at Occupy Wall Street. After being thrown to the ground, he was arrested and held for about 37 hours.
It was an ordeal, and Knefel singled out New York’s jail food for special scorn. While the arrest didn’t deter Knefel from attending and reporting from events, he said, it make him less likely to rush to a specific location where arrests were happening.
“Clearly it’s meant to have a chilling effect,” Knefel said. “That’s the goal here. It’s to make activists want to stay home. It’s to make journalists want to not cover things or to not cover them as directly or as intimately as they may want to.”
With a view toward the upcoming major-party political conventions in Charlotte, N.C. and Tampa, Fla., Sellars noted that local laws prohibit certain items. In Florida, prohibited items include tripods and bipods. There are also prohibitions on glass, ropes, and masks.
Natasha Lennard’s practical advice included going the site early to give yourself an internalized map of the relevant portions of the city. Knowing what side street you can duck into could help you avoid getting stuck, she said. She also rattled off a list of items to bring with you. She recommended packing milk of magnesia for cleaning away pepper spray, a bike helmet to wear if the batons come out, a bandana to pull out in the case of tear gas, and a lawyer’s phone number – inked on your forearm.
Lennard noted that you should not expect your cell phone to work if things get heated. Cell sites could get overloaded precisely when you most want to make a call or get information out.
Another web chat on the same topic is scheduled for Thursday, August 23 at 8 p.m. Eastern. To attend, go to the Free Press website. You don’t need to sign up in advance.