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An organized protest can offer a glimpse into a nation’s psyche.
Opposing views, often separated by barricades but close enough to touch, converge — sometimes in flash points of chaotic clashes or eruptions of violence. The collective emotions and beliefs of thousands can be seen on signs and heard in chants as demonstrators march through city parks, roads and highways. Occasionally, those cries can burst through the threshold of societal stagnation of a particular issue and lead to real change.
Our reporters have been on the ground in cities across the country as thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and racial inequality in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis.
How do you prepare for protest coverage?
ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS The preparation really starts during the day. I talk to various government and law enforcement officials about what they’re seeing and expecting, and what I can expect as far as a government response. I also look around social media to see what the chatter is, what the sentiment is, to gain an expectation of what the reality could be out there.
As far as equipment, I’ve obviously been bringing a mask, which is new. But I’ve been covering protests for a couple of years now, so I know to always bring a portable charger in case my phone dies. I bring extra pens, pencils and notebooks, and as of yesterday, I’ve been covering this with some colleagues, and we’ve had goggles as well, in case there is some kind of chemical threat like pepper spray.
One of the first things I’ll do when I get to a protest is identify a business or corner store as home base — a place I can head to in case things go bad. I’ve also been wearing a press badge to distinguish myself as a reporter. We’re also lucky to have a security team that we coordinate and communicate with.
What strategies do you use while reporting in the field at these protests? Are there particular details you look for in a scene that steer your reporting?
KANNO-YOUNGS You have to be willing to get a bit uncomfortable in pursuit of actually documenting the reality, the truth, of a situation.
You’re going to have many people there who are suffering trauma, who are perhaps distrustful of the media, and I think one thing I needed to accept was getting over that wall of going to someone who didn’t want to speak to me and convincing them to. That has helped me not just in these protests but others too, including a recent pro-gun rights rally in Richmond, Va.
As far as details, when I’m talking to someone at a protest, I genuinely want to focus on listening more so than talking. I’m also checking the surroundings around them: What is the emotion of the crowd like? What was the person doing just before speaking to me? What are they going to do immediately after? It’s not just what they’re doing there, but what has been leading them up to this point. Treat each “man on the street” interview as if he or she is the entire story. Have empathy for these subjects as you talk to them. Each one of these people that you are talking to has a story.
If you are centered on amplifying narratives and voices that otherwise might not be listened to, and you’re listening, but also checking the accounts of those in authority, then you can see all of the examples of that by going to one demonstration.
What do you do when chaotic or violent clashes begin to erupt?
KANNO-YOUNGS The tough thing about these situations is you can’t plan for what’s going to happen. Things can unravel quickly, and I don’t have a strict formula. My first instinct is always to show my press pass to authorities who are maybe looking at me or moving forward aggressively. And to be honest, on Monday, that wasn’t working. At that point, I turned away and tried to get to another area. I try to not get too close to an area where I’d be putting myself in danger, but instead position myself at a viewpoint where, if things got out of hand, I could still be a witness.
It’s about identifying a position where you can be somewhat confident in your safety, but also close enough to bear witness to potential abuse of authority and potential news. That’s a fine line and it’s not always easy and, to be honest, I don’t always get there. It helps to have a colleague on the scene with you. I’ve been lucky to report on these protests with Thomas Gibbons-Neff, our Pentagon reporter. When helicopters lowered to rooftop level on Monday, he was able to help me describe the wartime maneuver they were making. We discussed a couple times whether or not we were reporting from a safe spot.
Your commitment to a story, to keeping yourself safe, and listening to your gut instinct can all kind of conflict. But what’s most important is to be aware of those things and prepare before things go south: like designating a landmark location to meet and relaying where you are to your team.
As a journalist of color, how has your identity posed challenges as you cover a story that is so intensely driven by issues of racial inequality?
KANNO-YOUNGS Being a black journalist, I’m going to come to the situation with a perspective and a background that other reporters may not have. I don’t think it’s wise, and I don’t see why I would try to ignore that background. In fact, I think that approaching these situations with that perspective can actually get at one of the more crucial necessities when it comes to this reporting, which is empathy — to have the ability to understand, not just transcribe, where a person who is experiencing the trauma of the situation could be coming from.
Does that mean that I’m in any way ignoring the position that an officer could be in or that I am disregarding a value of balanced reporting? I don’t think so. I think it just allows me to have a deeper understanding of the reality of the situation. And when it comes down to me going back and writing, I’m fully confident in my abilities to approach it in a balanced way. Oftentimes, I’ll find that when I look at my notes, I’ve tapped into an area of that interviewee’s thinking and experience because I was able to relate to them in a specific way.
Why is it so important to cover a story like this so deeply and comprehensively?
KANNO-YOUNGS In these particular demonstrations the past few days, I have to acknowledge that there have been documented reports of abuses of authority toward journalists, who are under attack as well. I think it’s important to document any of those incidents against journalists, but also against anybody else.
But speaking generally about covering protests, there’s that cliché that reporting is documenting the first draft of history. It’s a cliché, but if that moves you, then how could you not want to be there to report on this? Protests are the early seeds of a movement that could shape the future of this country, that could determine policy change, that could determine who will be in power. But at the very root of it, it also shows the mind-set and the feelings of the people in this country right now. And if you are someone who is dedicated to documenting and relaying that truth, then this really is the root of our reporting. This is a prime example of why we do what we do.
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