Freshman journalism students are often asked to define the word journalist.
The lesson at the end of the exercise is that the definition varies from person to person. Some words make repeat appearances – like truth and bias, but the most obvious word tends to be overlooked.
In my mind, journalists are humans.
Once again, a large U.S. city is being thrust into the national spotlight as people destroy neighborhoods in the wake of a person’s death. Freddie Gray died one week after being arrested by the Baltimore police department. Sometime during the arrest, he suffered a catastrophic injury, according to CNN.
As humans, journalists should understand that they must take care of themselves when covering unpredictable situations, like street protests.
The Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is an invaluable tool for journalists covering traumatic and possibly dangerous events. During similar events in Ferguson, Missouri, the Dart Center republished a January 2011 tip sheet on covering volatile street protests.
“A press pass by itself is no protection against the probability of being caught in a barrage of rocks, police batons, gunfire, shrapnel or drifts of tear gas,” according to the document.
Several experienced journalists share lessons they learned while covering volatile street protests in the document. Some tips include:
- Be mindful of crowds and know their moods before “diving in.”
- Have a quick exit route.
- Interview leaders on both sides to show you’re just doing your job.
- Bring a gas mask. Or, bandannas soaked in vinegar, and possibly a pair of swimming goggles.
- Get enough sleep and food.
- Bring water.
- “When in doubt, don’t take the risk.”
Once journalists feel secure, their attention must turn to their jobs. They must hold on to their principles – even in unpredictable situations – to act with integrity and “ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough,” according to the Society’s Code of Ethics.
A rapidly evolving and unstable situation is no excuse for carelessness in reporting. While text, images and audio pour into a newsroom, it’s crucial that journalists continue to act as gatekeepers to serve the public good.
For example, a journalist must weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting unverified reports. They must also determine whether the good of broadcasting graphic images or audio outweighs the potential harm to the people on the receiving end of the media.
While journalists and their organizations may feel social media is the competitor to scoop, “neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy,” according to the Society’s Code.
Journalists should always take time to review the Code before major events or marathon reporting sessions. Especially in a frantic event, those few moments of reflection may lead to more responsible reporting and ultimately less harm to journalists and to the people on the receiving end of news reports.
“Scrutinize the guidelines, and a common theme emerges,” says the Ethics Committee’s position paper on covering grief, tragedy and victims. “Most important, journalists have a responsibility to report these stories in a careful – not careless – fashion.”