Thoughts on arrests of journalists simply doing their jobs

We’ve had a flurry of incidents lately where SPJ has objected to the unwarranted arrests of journalists at street protests or crime scenes.

-In September, a television photojournalist in Milwaukee was arrested while filming a crime scene from behind a police tape.

-In October, a reporter from an alternative weekly in Nashville was swept up in a wave of several arrests made at an Occupy Nashville demonstration on a public plaza.

-Also in  October, Milwaukee Police arrested a Journal-Sentinel photographer as she took pictures of an officer arresting students who had marched into the streets off the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.

-On Nov. 1, a photographer for a Richmond, Va. magazine was arrested at an Occupy demonstration.

-On Nov. 6, police in Atlanta arrested two student journalists who were covering an Occupy Atlanta protest.

-And this week, six journalists were detained at Occupy Wall Street in New York City and two at an Occupy demonstration in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The facts and circumstances of these cases vary, but there is one significant common denominator: All the journalists whom police arrested were trying to do their jobs.

I have some empathy for police who are coping with street demonstrations or public protests. My late brother was was a police sergeant in New Jersey. We talked about his job and mine when I was covering the police beat for The Rocky Mountain News in Denver for 12 years.

Both his experience and mine taught me a respect for police officers and the difficult work they do often under chaotic circumstances.

But reporters also often have to work in chaotic situations, which seemed to be the case in three of the four cases cited here. It’s hard enough covering a street demonstration without the added complication of being subject to arrest.

I’ve covered a few riots, and believe me, they are no fun. I’ve been tear gassed, hit in the shoulder by a fist-sized chunk of ice, and dodged a rock. In one instance, a Denver homicide detective came to my rescue when an angry crowd had formed outside a crime scene.

So while I object to seeing journalists handcuffed and arrested, I understand that in a volatile street protest, police are human and mistakes are made.

And as journalists covering these situations, I think it’s important that we adhere to some common sense guidelines.

First off, stay behind the police tape. Police have a right to create a zone in which they can control access to a crime scene. Respect that space.

What’s so aggravating about the first instance is that the cameraman was filming from the public side of the police tape when he was arrested.

Second, wear your credentials. Make it obvious to anyone who sees you that you are part of the working press.

What’s outrageous about the second Milwaukee arrest is that the photographer very clearly was wearing credentials as well as the kind of camera equipment typically used by a photo-journalist.

A police spokeswoman’s subsequent claim that officers did not realize the photographer was a journalist was incredulous at best.

Likewise, a videotape taken by the Nashville reporter clearly captured him telling officers that he was a journalist. They arrested him anyway.

And finally, don’t blur the distinctions between observer and the observed. I know sometimes we like to take the “fly on the wall” approach and not call attention to ourselves. But a street protest is not that kind of situation.

Would any of these steps have prevented any of these arrests? No, because in all these instances the journalists did what they were supposed to do and got arrested anyway.

But taking these steps helps us bolster our case when we protest the arrest of journalists who are simply doing their jobs.










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  • Mari Christie

    Great article! Sharing on FB now. 🙂

  • My first stint as a news reporter came in 1957 on Okinawa for KSAB and was rather mild, but credentials were extremely important on the Island as for all practical purposes it was a US Military Base. I learned the lesson early and it always stayed with me.

    Working for MBS, CBS and ABC News for an total of 26 years brought me into several riots, first in Mexico City in 1968 and Austria 20 years later. I’ve been hassled by the Police, but never arrested because i had all the credentials needed.

    We lived in mortal fear of being arrested in West Germany because there was no Habius Corpus, and some went to jail for over a year without any charges ever being brought against them.

    No matter whether it was bombings, riots, or just the plain old closing of the Munich Beer Hall where Hitler started his Third Reich, as long as one did the job, did not hang around to be a lookiesee, the Police were our friends. One policeman rescued me from a riot in Austria when i was being trampled by the Nazi’s and the Police alike.

    I am up in arms about the arrests in the USA, and I wish I could do something about it. Are we on the verge of entering into a police state in the USA?

    As a SPJ member and free-lance reporter, what can I do about this very serious matter?

    Dale Smith

  • John Ensslin

    Thanks Mari and Dale.
    Dale one thing you can do is tune into the next episode of Studio SPJ, our Internet radio program, and perhaps even call in. We’ll be airing sometime this weekend. I’ll be posting the time and a link to the program later this week. Til then.

  • Monica

    What about student journalists?

    I am a graduate journalism student and have been covering the Occupy protests here in Chicago. While I haven’t encountered any problems with the police or protesters, it has been a concern of mine of what to do if the scene were to become chaotic.

    I do not have any official credentials and I’m afraid identifying myself as a “student journalist” to police may not help a situation.

    What advice would you give?

  • John Ensslin, 2011-12 SPJ President

    Good point Monica.

    Some of the journalists on behalf SPJ has written letters are students. The two women arrested in Atlanta for example were both reporting for their student papers. One was wearing credentials at the time of her arrest.

    My advice would be to contact Frank LoMonte at the Student Press Law Center at They are an excellent resource for student journalists.

  • John Ensslin, 2011-12 SPJ President

    For an excellent discussion of the issues mentioned in this blog post, listen to a podcast of Studio SPJ. Here’s the link:

  • I am an unpaid blogger. Am I a member of “the press?” A lot of news is being broken by people with a camera phone uploading to Youtube. We do not have government issued press credentials, thankfully. I have sometimes set at the media table at events and I have attended press conferences. Should I, as an amateur, be treated differently by the police than a paid journalist. Also, some members of the press may also be participants in the cause, such as student journalist. Who among the press should be exempt from being arrested?

  • Fred B. Walters

    One of the points should be an obligation for editors and producers to determine priorities based on their own knowledge of issues and not be swayed by surveys of public opinion. It is assumed these gatekeepers to the airwaves and printing presses keep themselves well-informed on matters of public impact.

  • Ellen Eldridge

    Looks good!

  • Maureen Nevin Duffy

    Re: Pursue accuracy in reporting over speed of publication. Neither

    speed nor abbreviation formats excuse inaccuracy. [Are there similar requirements of editors? Most working journalists today are painfully aware of the type of pressure being applied, which puts speed as the main virtue. Of course, editors expect accuracy, too. But we have only to view the end-results in publications as prestigious as the “Gray Lady” to see which master — speed or accuracy — wins out most often. Ever observe the expanding nature of the corrections box? I think some genuine guidance here would be useful. And telling writers not to sacrifice accuracy without telling editors what is reasonable and really possible, and supporting writers, might go a long way here.]

  • John McClelland

    The advice to give corrections “the same prominence” as the original item surely gets widely ignored as hopelessly impractical. I recall _once_ in 20 years doing a follow-up story, a corrective rehash with little new info, to provide a platform for a headline similar to that on the original story. Other than a brokered deal to defuse litigation (this was not), who would even consider that now? Seek a better phrase, something like “with prominence appropriate to….”
    Corrections now need to be linked to lingering online versions of the originals. Some organizations do this reasonably well, considering. Too many probably do not even try. Find a way to encourage it.

  • Jacob Kanclerz

    “Label rumors as unconfirmed in the rare occasions it becomes necessary to report one.”

    Not sure how I feel about enshrining this in the code. What was the rationale for including this, and how many people felt strong enough to add it? I can understand the intent, given what we’ve seen breaking news coverage in this Twitter age. My only rebuttal would be that the Code sets a very high ethical bar in general. I feel like we’re lowering the bar a bit here to fit current trends in news delivery.

    I do like most of the new Code. It feels much more relevant and the additions fit for the digital age look great.

  • JHamer

    The original code said: “Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.” That sentence was deleted in the revised drafts. It should be reinstated. Journalists should actively seek and encourage feedback, criticism and suggestions from the public. Yes, sometimes it is unpleasant and annoying. But it is essential to earning public trust in the long run. Journalists are widely perceived as people who “can dish it out, but can’t take it.” They should be totally transparent about themselves, absolutely accountable if they make mistakes, and fully open to other points of view. SPJ should also form an Ethics Oversight Committee to publicly adjudicate complaints against media organizations or individual journalists in certain cases, if the complaints cannot be resolved in any other way. I say this as one who ran the Washington News Council for the past 15 years, where we heard complaints against media organizations in open public hearings. The SPJ Ethics Code was our “gold standard,” and we often quoted from it at the hearings. If SPJ is unwilling to “enforce” its own code, then the code will be seen as essentially meaningless, no matter how it is rewritten and revised. See for details.


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