Protecting the press: 5 tips for covering protests and unrest

By Eric Peterson, SPJ Headliners president

American flag in focus

When anger and outrage spill into the streets, journalists have always been there to document history, and 2020 was a year of historic outrage.

In Utah journalists had to contend with militia members showing up in tactical gear and assault rifles slung over their shoulders. On Jan., while chaos reigned at the nation’s capital a Salt Lake Tribune photographer was pepper sprayed at the Utah state capitol at a demonstration dominated by militia members and pro-Trump supporters.

In Colorado, reporter Madison Lauterbach, worried more about police, having been tear gassed by law enforcement and having pepper balls shot at her feet even as she identified herself as press.

Here are five takeaways from journalists’ discussion of covering unrest in 2020 and the lessons learned as part of the Society of Professional Journalists Region 9 Conference.

View the full discussion here.

Have a Plan

Covering protests now more than ever requires planning and communication. Photographers now work in pairs, with clear plans for exits from difficult situations. Spenser Heaps the deputy director of photography at the Deseret News in Salt Lake City says their team used the Life360 app to allow editors to track the location of photographers covering protests.

“Our number one message as editors to our photographers is ‘you are the boots on the ground so we’re not going to make a habit of second-guessing your judgment, you’re the one there, you have the power to say we’re leaving,’” Heaps said.

Deescalate and Fall Back

John Wilson, the Chief Photographer at KSL-5 TV, noted that at a certain point the protests for police reform over the summer became more hostile to the press. At one demonstration protesters used black umbrellas to block cameras from documenting the events. Wilson realized that it didn’t make sense for journalists to get into confrontations with protesters and insert themselves into the story and so they fell back and covered the event but from a less than-ideal distance.

“That’s the tough balance we have to do as a journalist,” Wilson said.

Establish Trust

Madison Lauterbach, editor and founder of Ms. Mayhem, a Denver-based online news outlet found her organization established trust with protesters by working hard to always shield identities of all protesters if they could not get express consent.

“I think that’s the most important thing about being a journalist to conveying to sources that you are safe to talk to,” Lauterbach said.

Explain Our Role Better

Trent Nelson, longtime photographer with The Salt Lake Tribune noted that he had wished at the time that his organization had done more to articulate why photographers document public demonstrations the way they do.

“I wish we had sat down as an organization and had written out an answer with our best minds to say why we’re doing this,” Nelson said, noting the paper is now working on that message.


All agreed that it was difficult for reporters to cover protests for weeks at a time and often struggled with the adversarial and combative protesters they often dealt with. But Nelson with the Trib notes it’s important for journalists to ground themselves in understanding the privilege of their work.

“My inconvenience at being blocked from taking a photo is probably pretty minor compared to what they’re dealing with,” Nelson said. “I have often thought of all the mothers I’ve photographed over the years just devastated at the loss of a child. I can take some solace that these people allow us to document their worst moments and hopefully some good can come of that.”

Image credit: Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s