There is a common saying in journalism that it is the “first rough draft of history.” While this is often true, it also means if the news gets it wrong, so do the history books.
The news media is a vital part of documenting civil unrest, but that documentation can often be flawed and put protesters in danger. Because of this, many of the recent protesters of police brutality have been wary of talking to the news media and rightly so.
Much of the coverage has solely been about the rioting and violence that has happened. However, alternative news outlets are beginning to expose that the vast majority of protests have been peaceful. This discrepancy, like many things in the U.S., has to do with money.
It is vital that protesters know how to interact with people from the news media so the correct and factual stories can get out there, and represent the movement accurately.
It is also important to know different types of news media have different practices and goals for their coverage so interacting with each type is different.
Here are tips and advice for protesters on how to interact with people from the news media and understand how the news media works.
You can give them tips
If something is happening you want the news to know about, tell them beforehand. All news outlets have tip lines on their websites that are easy to find. They can’t cover what they don’t know about.
You can approach them
If you see a reporter in the field you can walk up to them and ask to talk if you think it is safe for you. Most of the time they will be happy to talk. This is also a way to give tips.
They will ask for personal information
Most of the time they will ask for your full name. If you think this will put you in harm’s way you can refuse. Refusing usually means the reporter will try to find someone else who will let them use a full name.
“It gives credence to whatever [information] you give,” said Salt Lake Tribune reporter Paighten Harkins in a text. “People are less likely to lie if their name is attached to something.”
Harkins, who has covered many of the protests, also said it’s okay to ask for anonymity or just say no to an interview. This usually means they just won’t quote you directly, but will still like to hear what you say. This is typically what reporters refer to as ‘off the record.’
The reporter will need to know your full name, but you can request to only be referred to by your first name. This is partial anonymity.
It is rare that news outlets grant full anonymity. More often than not there is someone else who will let them use their full name.
Protests are public events
Protests are public events which means the media has the right to record or film anything that is happening. News outlets will most likely turn their attention to speeches or whoever is on a megaphone, according to Harkins.
It is possible to remain anonymous at a protest, though, but you have to let reporters know.
“If you want to stay truly anonymous, I would recommend not giving speeches,” said Harkins. “Also if you notice a reporter is photographing you, feel free to ask them not to and we can normally oblige.”
Broadcast/Cable TV News
This is your local news channel on television and one of the most prominent forms of local news there is. In Utah, that is mainly KSL News, ABC 4 News and Fox 13 News.
They can show what’s happening live
TV news is mostly live coverage where there is not much ability to edit. This means TV coverage often gets the rawest footage of what is happening on the ground. It also means people will never see what they don’t point their cameras at.
You can point them in the right direction if you think something important is happening somewhere they aren’t. Reporters will always take a tip for coverage especially in a protest.
Recording live also means they can’t blur faces or choose not to show someone’s identity. If there are safety concerns around this, either keep a mask on or avoid being in front of the camera.
They are most concerned about what looks interesting on camera
However, that live coverage means if there is fire, they will come. It’s one of the first things taught in journalism classes: fire looks great on camera. This line of thinking can be extended to any kind of destruction and violence.
“Dramatic images are money. They keep eyeballs on the screen,” said Kainaz Amaria, the Vox visuals editor, in the video “Protests aren’t what they look like on TV.”
Broadcast news is concerned with this because they depend on ratings. Essentially, they have to make sure their coverage will make people want to watch and keep watching. Broadcast news has found footage of destruction is the best way to achieve this. This means any destruction takes priority in coverage no matter how little of it exists.
“What they are showing you is what is happening right now on the ground,” Amaria said. “What those visuals cannot tell you is the entire historical context that has led to that scene on the ground.”
They are looking for a quick, passionate quote
Most TV news segments are just minutes long, which does not give a lot of time for interviews, especially ones in the field. Getting a shot of the action will often take precedence over interviews.
TV news does love a passionate quote though, and will often direct their camera at the speeches that happen at protests.
If you are asked for an interview, don’t grab or lean into the microphone. Reporters are trained to use them properly and they are in the right position to get good sound. They may also direct you to stand in a certain position to get a good shot.
Most television news is corporate-owned which again makes money the top priority.
In Utah, many major news outlets are owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through several parent companies. In particular, KSL News is owned by Bonneville International that is in turn owned by Deseret Management Corporation which is owned by the LDS church.
Newspapers now exist mainly digitally but are still primarily written stories and photography. In Utah, that is The Salt Lake Tribune and The Deseret News.
They are looking for the big picture
While television news is looking for segments that last only minutes, newspapers are mainly not live coverage and will want to know your entire experience. Because of this, it takes longer to talk to them.
“My goal is to take in the scene and gather perspectives from people in the crowd,” said Paighten Harkins. “I typically always start off by asking why they wanted to come out today and what they think of what they’ve experienced so far.”
Harkins also said with the recent protests, she has been interviewing only people of color when possible.
“Their perspectives have so often been silenced and I’d like to amplify what they are thinking right now, since these stories I’m writing are going to become part of this state and nation’s history,” Harkins said.
Sometimes there will be a particular angle or topic within the wider story the reporter is looking for.
“Last night I wanted to talk to people about the death of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal since the body camera footage of his death had just been released and law enforcement seemed to be bracing for some big reaction from people,” Harkins said.
They will ask to record audio of your conversation
The main purpose for this is to accurately quote the people they talk to. It also serves as a backup in case they are accused of misquoting.
You can ask to not be recorded. Most of the time though, those recordings are just for the reporter’s reference and will not be used for anything else or shown to anyone else.
The final question
It is common practice for newspaper reporters to end with the question, “Is there anything else you think I should know?/Any last comments?” This is your chance to say what is on your mind and tell the reporter what you really think is important for them to know.
You can contact them afterward if something’s incorrect
Unlike broadcast, news stories can be updated and changed even after they are published. If you have been misquoted or some fact is inaccurate, reach out to the reporter that wrote the story and let them know what is incorrect.
Like KSL, The Deseret News is owned by the LDS church and is known for having a religious bias. The Salt Lake Tribune has had many connections to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but is now owned by Paul Huntsman and is a non-profit.
While news radio has become less popular in the digital, it is still a prominent form of news that is audio-based. In Utah, two high-profile stations are KSL NewsRadio, which is commercial radio, and KUER 90.1, which is public radio.
They are looking for good audio
They will be looking for clear audio of chants and impassioned speeches. Like TV, their segments are often short and concise.
Meaning, reporters don’t have a lot of time. Try not to give long-winded answers that require context to dissect. Odds are, the reporter won’t be able to use the whole thing and part of your message will be lost.
It doesn’t cover the whole story
If you’ve ever listened to a newscast on-air you’d know one thing: They only last a matter of seconds. Anchors and reporters for radio stations aren’t able to get the full story in their seven-second sound bite.
For interviews, they’re looking for something snappy but meaningful. A two or three sentence answer that encapsulates the meaning of the protest.
But, of course, you can’t fit everything into that sound bite. So, find the most important nugget of news you want to give.
Your listeners can’t see what’s going on… so show them
Obviously, those listening to the radio can’t actually see what’s going on. So, as much as possible, describe what you’re seeing in terms of the protest.
If you want listeners to know how many people showed up to the protest alongside you, describe it. If you think they should see how everyone is lying on the ground facedown, tell them. They won’t know if you don’t show them.
Again, KSL NewsRadio is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through parent companies, but is not known for a significant religious bias. KUER 90.1 is owned by the University of Utah and is a local charter member of NPR.
All in all, individual reporters generally do not have a malicious intent. They are just trying to get the facts and tell people’s stories.
There are limitations to the media, though, and those limitations can create issues in the representation of movements such as these.
Reporters and journalists, no matter their platform, are trying to let people know what is happening in the world. So tell them.
Forum Editor-in-Chief Cami Mondeaux contributed to this story.