Tips for reporting on anti-police violence protests in the U.S.

byDavid Maas and Taylor Mulcahey
Jun 1, 2020 in Journalist Safety
Police car

It’s been a week since a white Minneapolis police officer pinned his knee against George Floyd’s neck, killing the 46-year-old black man

In the days since, protesters have taken to the streets in cities across the U.S. to demand justice for Floyd — and an end to the racism that has perpetuated systemic inequalities in the country.

The inequalities aren’t just reflected in the recent murders of black men and women like Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. The COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. has disproportionately affected people of color. The economic fallout from the pandemic has hurt communities of color most. These are just today’s most glaring examples.

As journalists turn their attention to covering the protests, it’s important they do so responsibly. 

This extends to all aspects of their reporting. Language is crucial, context is essential and the facts are paramount. In light of the nearly 100 attacks against journalists covering the unrest, safety and security needs to be top of mind, too. 

We compiled tips and resources for journalists reporting on the protests:

(1) Stay safe.

Safety and security should be the top priority for yourself and your team. Many journalists were harmed reporting on the weekend’s protests. Covering the unrest will likely put you in harm’s way. 

While it is important for you to get the story, you should take steps to mitigate the risk to yourself and others. 

“Your goal should be to get close enough to observe the scene without endangering yourself or others or interfering with security or rescue operations,” writes Al Tompkins in an article for Poynter. This resource is a must-read ” offering practical tips for journalists going out in the field to document the unrest. 

On Sunday, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ issued a safety advisory that details the threats and considerations for journalists.

Below are additional expert resources for safety when covering civil unrest:

(2) Choose your words carefully.

Journalists tell the stories about what’s happening. As a result, they have tremendous power in shaping the narrative around events. Journalism helps drive how the public understands and perceives social movements. Every word we choose is significant.

Research from Danielle K. Kilgo at Indiana University found that newspapers in Texas were more likely to call protests related to anti-black racism “riots,” and more likely to write positively about the aims of protests related to health and immigration, demonstrating the deep-rooted bias of reporting.

Stay away from the term “riot,” writes Associated Press reporter Aaron L. Morrison on Twitter. He advises using the term “civil unrest” instead.

National Public Radio’s Public Editor Kelly McBride suggests retiring the term “unarmed black man,” or at least using it sparingly and with intention. “Indeed the entire story of unjustified violence by white people against black people is rooted in more than whether the black man did or didn't have a gun,” she writes. To better understand why journalists should cut back on usage, read her full piece.

Journalists also have a tendency to internalize police jargon. They incorporate it in their stories in a way that ends up masking the truth about an incident of police violence, writes Adam Johnson in a 2016 article for FAIR. Examples include “officer-involved shooting,” “suspect/subject,” and “altercation.” To better understand the use and connotations associated with these terms and phrases — and why they should be retired — read Johnson’s article

[Read more: Tips for staying safe while covering violent protests]

(3) Avoid using passive voice.

As a rule, journalists should rarely use the passive voice. Professional reporters know this. So, why does the passive voice rear its head when we write about police violence? 

“Active voice takes ownership (someone did something) while passive voice makes ownership more nebulous (something was done by someone). It distances the wrong thing away from the subject,” writes Chicago-based journalist Joshua Adams

Already, we’ve seen this play out in coverage of the violence during the past weekend’s protests. Just check out this tweet from writer Rebecca Traister. Washington Post opinion writer Radley Balko takes a comprehensive look at this “curious grammar” in this 2014 article.

Review your stories, headlines and social media posts, and eliminate passive voice as much as possible.

“I would argue that they have an ethical, professional, and moral obligation to remain in active voice and attribute agency clearly to the reader,” writes Adams. “It’s subtle but it’s important.”

(4) Situate the story within the larger context of police violence.

Protests across the U.S. dominated headlines over the weekend. Images of protesters, fires and damaged property fill the front pages of newspapers around the country.

While journalists need to cover these events, they aren’t the whole story. The story is police violence, writes Dylan Scott for Vox. The protests, and the violence surrounding them, is just part of this bigger picture.

These protests may have begun following the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, but they exist as part of a long history of police violence towards black people in the U.S. Any story about civil unrest happening now needs to include this context.

“Editors: it is your job to help your audiences understand why a story about a protest isn’t about property damage. The story is one of pain caused, injustice left unsettled, and civil rights unprotected,” writes editor Margarita Noriega on Twitter.

For journalists new to this beat, or writing from countries outside the U.S. where this history is unfamiliar, we’ve gathered some resources below where you can learn more about recent incidents of police violence.

(5) Fact-check and amplify fact-checking resources.

Developments are unfolding quickly. While many people around the U.S. take to the streets to protest, still more are tracking what’s happening online, using social media. This creates an opportunity ripe for misinformation.

Some examples of false claims include claims that a police officer in Minnesota was breaking windows in Minneapolis to incite protesters and encourage looting. It has been proven false. 

In Washington, D.C., rumors circulated that cell phone signals were being blocked by the National Guard and other security forces to keep protesters from reporting incidents of violence by police. This was also proven false. The hashtag itself was created and promoted by fake accounts.

The list of false claims goes on and on. BuzzFeed reporters Jane Lytvynenko and Craig Silverman are working to collect a running list of false and misleading claims. PolitiFact is also fact-checking  posts about the protests.

Journalists should help amplify the fact-checking work of these organizations, call out mis- and disinformation when they encounter it online and lean on local publications who are also doing this critical work.

[Read more: Photojournalism tips for following up on protest movements]

(6) Educate yourself and your team on race reporting.

Reporting on race can be challenging. First, acknowledge this. Then, educate yourself. The more informed the coverage you provide your readers, the better situated they will be to assess events unfolding around them with clarity.

As racial justice organization Race Forward explains in its Race Reporting Guide, it’s essential you address systems in your work, and not just individuals. “A systemic analysis means we examine the root causes and mechanisms that feed into patterns. It makes for good journalism and opens up new avenues of inquiry and storytelling.”

The current protests, for example, aren’t just about George Floyd’s murder. Consider what has enabled police to kill black men and women in the U.S., at such a high rate and often with impunity. Analyze the reasons COVID-19 has killed people of color at a higher rate. Discuss why, when the economy tanks, it’s communities of color hit the hardest. 

Then, incorporate this in your reporting.  

(7) Photograph with care.

Think critically about who you’re photographing, and how your photos will affect the subjects of your work.

“The ethics of photographing protests against police brutality has been called into question as we become increasingly aware that photos are often used as evidence by police forces. We live in an age of surveillance and journalists must think deeply about our role in social systems,” reads a statement by the Authority Collective.

Photos can unintentionally direct harm towards demonstrators, including doxxing or arrest. 

While it is photojournalists’ role to visually document what’s happening, the Authority Collective encourages employing creative methods to do so, such as photographing silhouettes, masked protestors or the back of someone’s head. Focus energy on the larger story, such as the peaceful protests accompanying those that are more violent.

We know it’s a challenging line to draw, but we encourage you to explore the debate, and to follow organizations like Authority Collective, Women Photograph and Diversify Photo that are engaging in discussions on the ethics of photojournalism at anti-police brutality protests.

We’re learning too. If we missed anything, let us know and we’ll update this article.


IJNet staff Katya Podkovyroff Lewis also contributed to this article.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Matt Popovich.