How to Be a Citizen Journalist Without Getting Killed

Last night, while the local news affiliate was off refueling its helicopter, police fired tear gas into a crowd of Occupy Oakland protesters. Which made citizen journalists, who captured and distributed the action even while being assailed, themselves, suddenly indispensable.

With Twitter and live-video-streaming services like UStream becoming an important tool for reporting events like the one in Oakland, it's a good idea to learn the best ways to cover what's happening as it happens.

But before you grab your iPhone and head to the nearest riot, here are some tips to help keep you safe, and to help you bring your photos, videos, and words to the masses.

Safety

Tear gas and rubber bullets are painful. They're described as non-lethal weapons, but that doesn't mean they can't do serious damage. Here are tips to help you survive riot containment procedures.

  • Bring a Buddy

    Find a friend that shares the same passion as you do about reporting on their topics. Someone that's kinda sorta into this will quickly bail when all hell breaks loose. You can watch each other's backs if things get nasty and if you've ever shot video, you know that you can get blinders while trying to get the perfect shot.

  • Tear Gas

    Unless you have a gas mask, tear gas is going to mess you up. Be prepared. The police will usually warn a crowd before it shoots chemical agents at them. You have two options, leave the area and stay safe, or stay and continue to cover the event as it unfolds. If you're like me, you'll stay.

    Before you head to any event with the potential for conflict, grab a bandana and soak it in cider vinegar. Store that in a zip lock bag. Grab a pair of tight-fitting swim goggles from the local sports store. Finally, saline solution will be your best friend once everything dies down. As soon as you suspect that tear gas will be unleashed, try to move upwind if possible. If you have contacts, take them out. Put the swim goggles on, these will protect your eyes. Get your vinegar rag ready, you'll breath through this once the gas has been unleashed. Get your photos/video and quickly move away from the scene. If you don't have the vinegar bandana, breath through your shirt. coughing and spitting will help get the agent out of your system. Whatever you do, DO NOT RUB YOUR EYES. This will make it worse. Once you're in the clear, use the saline solution on your eyes. If you don't have saline solution, Egyptian protesters allegedly used Coke/Pepsi to rinse tear gas out of their eyes. If you have any chemical burns from the gas, seek immediate medical attention.

  • Rubber Bullets/Bean Bag Bullets

    Step one, try not to get shot. You're there to document the event, so do not throw rocks, fireworks, or used tear gas canisters at the police. Being a good journalist does not mean you won't get shot, it just lowers the chances. To be prepared anyway in case you're caught in the crossfire I recommend getting protective equipment from people that spend the weekend getting shot. Paintball gear is relatively inexpensive and easy to order from the Internet or pick up a sporting goods store. Pick up a chest protector, slide shorts, and face mask for the best protection. In a pinch, put the thickest sweater you own under your clothes. If you're in a situation that escalates out of control, free weekly newspapers shoved under your clothes can offer some protection from containment bullets. Whatever you end up wearing, remember that if you get struck, it's going to hurt, BAD. Have your buddy help you move to safer area or get medical attention if you're seriously injured.

  • Know your Surroundings

    Don't rely on Google Maps on your smartphone to work. Print out a map of the area and keep it handy. If you can, get that puppy laminated. If you need to find an escape path, this will come in handy.

  • Listen

    Don't get caught up in the chanting when the police are making announcements. Listen to what they are saying. Not only is this important for your coverage, it can help you avoid getting stuck in the center of a tear gas attack, or getting shot with rubber bullets. Also stay close to the leaders of the movement. What they say will also be important to your coverage, but could also keep you safe.

  • Pepper Spray

    Buy some, put it on your keychain or in your bag. This is for self-defense only. Use of pepper spray on an individual is a felony in some states, so seriously, don't mess around with the stuff.

  • Communication and Rendezvous Point

    Text messaging works best in loud situations. GroupMe is a great tool for group messaging and will work on any mobile phone once set up. Set a meeting place for your group at a specific time.

  • Coverage

    Remember you're not the nightly news, you're agile and able to get to areas the local news anchor won't want to go. Use this to your advantage.

  • Backpack

    Bring a small tight-fitting bag. If needs to be able to store your equipment in case you need to make a run for it.

  • Two-Person Coverage

    One person takes photos, while the other gathers information and tweets. Share a Twitter and photo/video uploading account between the two of you. There's nothing worse than tweeting an update and missing a spectacular photo.

  • Stay Close

    Stay close to the action, but try not to get in the way. Make sure your photos/videos and words correlate. Talking about a huge police presence , but only photographing one police officer is confusing. Listen to the police commanders and whoever is heading up the activists. This is the information people want to know.

  • Talk to the Protesters/Activists

    They can help you get the best photos if they have a plan. They can instruct you to run up the block because they're getting ready to march down a street. If possible, talk to the leaders of the group. Ask them to give you a 30-second summary of what they want and why they are there. They'll go over 30-seconds, but giving them a time limit forces them to consolidate their manifesto into something tangible.

  • Talk to the Police

    Inform the police that you are a journalist, There is a chance they could give you information that will keep you out of danger. Also making your presence known could be beneficial if shit starts getting crazy. If the police ask you to leave the area, turn off your camera, or generally try to bully you, document this. This information could help you if you get arrested. If you are arrested, chances are you'll just spend the night in jail without any charges. If things get serious, contact the ACLU.

  • Photography Tips

    A DSLR with a fast lens is great, but most of us will be using a smart phone for up-to-the-minute reports. Wide shots of action are better than shaky close ups. Understand that the zoom on your phone is a digital zoom so it's pretty worthless. You might as well take the wide shot and crop it down later. The flash on your phone is only useful for about 10 feet. Turn it off for wide shots. Because bringing a tripod is out of the question, steady yourself against a wall or pole when taking photos in low light. Even in bright light, the adrenaline coursing through your body can cause you to create a whole album of blurry pictures. Use a wall.

    If you do have access to a nice DSLR, try to get an Eye-Fi card that will send photos to your smart phone. Make sure to send low-resolution images to your phone and keep the high res on the SD card. There's not need to stall your transfer and upload of photos by sending large photos to your device.

  • Video

    Unless you're describing action, shut up. You're there to document what's going on. Talking about how tired you are, or how awesome it is to be there is distracting and serves no purpose. If someone announces something, let them finish and reiterate what was just said in case viewers couldn't hear the announcement.

    Wide shots are your friend. Whipping the camera around for no reason adds nothing to your video. Keep a wide shot of the action. Use slow pans to show areas to large for a wide shot. You can whip the camera if something off screen is exciting, but don't make this a habit. As with shooting photos, if you need to steady yourself use a wall or pole.

  • Battery Case

    All this photography and video is going to eat through your battery. Get a battery case for your smart phone. Nothing worse than being two-hours into a great streaming video and have the feed cut out because the battery died.

  • Twitter

    Short descriptive tweets with photos or links to video work best. For example:

    The police have fired tear gas into the crowd of protesters.

    is better than:

    OMG I can't believe the police just used tear gas on us. Protestors are running everywhere trying to escape the gas.

    The photo should show the action while the tweet describes the situation that caused the action.

    Remember to add the event's hashtag to every tweet. This is how people are searching for news of the event on Twitter. For efficiency, copy the hashtag and paste it into every tweet instead of typing it out.

  • Remember, you're not the nightly news. You don't need to stand up in front of a crowd and tell us all what's happening. Report from the scene quickly and efficiently. Use your speed and agility to your advantage. While the local news is up in their helicopter reporting from the studio, you can be showing what's actually happening to the men and women on the ground.

    Good luck.

    Photo Credit: @Adreadonymous


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