7 Takeaways From a Candid Conversation About Protest Coverage

“Is This Really a Turning Point?”

Photo by Katie Hartwig
Photo by Katie Hartwig

Editor’s note: This story, which we published late last week, remains top of mind, so we’re giving it a bit more “air time.” It’s about the myriad issues news executives are confronting on the street and in the newsroom as protests and demands for lasting change persist around the nation.

Next week, we will report on a related challenge: balancing “authenticity” and “transparency” with traditional journalistic notions of “objectivity.” How much should a reporter’s life experience or deeply held moral convictions be shared on social media — and even allowed to influence coverage?

That’s coming next Thursday. In the meantime, we’ve assembled some thoughtful takes on this issue in our Recommended Reads.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a story unlike any that America’s local TV newsrooms have had to tackle. And just as they were rising successfully to its multiple and unforeseen challenges, along came another cataclysmic event — this one sadly familiar.

But the fact that we’ve been here (way too many times) before doesn’t make covering the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests any less complex or daunting.

The Carole Kneeland Project for Responsible Journalism, a nonprofit organization that provides continuing education for TV and digital news managers, has been organizing weekly pandemic-focused Zoom calls among news executives who’ve been through the program as well as other guests. (I reported on an early gathering here.) This week, the conversation pivoted to the current events and the larger issues of social justice that they raise, and I asked for permission to listen in.

“Now is the time where our journalism can make the biggest difference and create a better community that we can serve.” Those inspiring words came from Kevin Benz, a local TV and digital news veteran on the Kneeland faculty. “We have to get it right because we are the eyes and ears of people on this — people who are not in the streets, people who are watching us,” said Christina Taylor, another faculty member who’s an expert on diversity, cultural biases and the use of language in newscasts.

All in all, there were about 30 people in the conversation, all of whom agreed to be quoted. Here are my seven top takeaways.

1. Watch your language.

Words always count, but perhaps never more than in highly charged stories like this one.

“We really are trying to be deliberate in how we’re looking at looters, how we’re looking at protesters, the words we’re using for protesters versus demonstrators versus marchers,” said Michelle Germano, news director at ABC-owned WTVD in Raleigh-Durham NC, who has assigned an executive producer to run point on language. “Those are all different words that have different connotations. And so we’re having that ongoing dialogue in every editorial meeting.”

“Make sure we’re describing people according to what they’re doing. Looting, arson, vandalism, these are criminal acts. And these are criminals that are doing them,” said Kevin Benz. “We should be describing them as criminals, not protesters. To describe them as protesters is to perpetuate a negative stereotype that when black people take to the streets, they burn their [own neighborhoods] down. And that’s just not true.”

“Have an honest talk with your anchors and your reporters about the language they use while they’re on the air,” Christina Taylor advised. “Tell them they can describe what we’re seeing and don’t characterize. And certainly do not criticize it. Avoid inflammatory words.”

2. Reflect the reality, not just the extremes.

Don’t let the most dramatic incidents overwhelm accuracy and perspective. “If the protest is mainly peaceful, that’s what we want to make sure our words say,” said Germano. “A couple of people might not [determine] the tenor of what the whole march is about. It could just be a couple of bad eggs. And so we don’t want that to overshadow [the reporting] if the true messaging is peace.”

Moreover, stick with what you can see and what your reporting reveals — and avoid the temptation to embellish.

“Instead of saying ‘The protest has turned violent,’ unless you know that it was a peaceful protest [and] you were there and then it became violent, use a different word or use a different phrase,” Taylor said. “If you’re seeing people looting, don’t say ‘Protesters turned to looting.’ Say ‘People are looting.”

3. Dig deeper.

With the pressure of deadlines, not to mention the ongoing restrictions related to COVID-19, it’s sometimes hard for reporters to get below the surface. But viewers are counting on us to do it.

“Don’t just listen to the voice of the governmental officials or the police officials,” Christina Taylor said. “We tend to kind of go where the officials are, because that’s the easy thing. If you want to add context, go find the right voices.”

Melissa Luck, news director at Morgan Murphy Media’s KXLY in Spokane, had a good example. She and her colleagues noticed a charismatic young woman — someone they didn’t know — who took on a powerful leadership role in the protests. Luck’s team spent three hours the next day tracking her down to tell her story, which became the most widely read piece on their website this week. “This is a regular person in our community who has some sort of force that made people want to listen to her,” Luck said. “So it was a pain to find her, but I think it was worth it.”

Screenshot of news report by KXLY, Photo by Katie Hartwig

4. Protect your people.

Most of the protests have been peaceful, but every news executive worries about keeping crews safe. One station is sending them out in unmarked cars and using cell phones instead of news cameras; another is considering not sending teams out after dark; yet another hired “military-grade” security guards.

Allison Duff, assistant news director at TEGNA’s WBIR in Knoxville TN, tried a different approach. “We did have a couple of incidents Saturday and Sunday night where things got destructive, and we had some arrests, but it’s kind of been our policy to not get into the crowd and to find rooftop vantage points where you can still get the pictures and the shot without being in a position where we feel like we would need armed guards.”

“We’ve made the choice to not physically go to certain areas [and to] rely on social media, rely on other forms of access to video for events we couldn’t attend, simply because for staffing reasons, I had to keep people in pairs,” said Raquel Amparo, news director at Univision’s Dallas-Fort Worth station. “I don’t care if we missed that shot, if it means that I can keep two of you together, so there’s some sort of a buddy system.”

Several participants on the call mentioned the “understanding gap” between staff members on the street and producers and executives who might be stuck at home or in the newsroom. Mario Orellana, assistant news director at Graham Media Group’s KSAT in San Antonio, said that “last night was the first night we had one of our EP’s actually go out with the crew to experience what’s going on.” He also coordinated interviews and served as a “third set of eyes.”

Christina Taylor reminded the participants that crews and reporters want to cover the news and are reluctant to step back, so “it’s up to you to just push them and make sure they understand that your expectation is that they come home safe — not that they get the story no matter what.”

A quick sidebar: There have been more than 200 documented attacks on journalists by law enforcement officers since the protests began. (See reports from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NiemanLab and bellingcat.com.) Here’s just one example involving a local TV news crew. James Dobson, a photographer at Gray’s WAVE in Louisville KY, taped an officer firing pepper balls at him and reporter Kristin Rust during live coverage of last Friday night’s protests; both were hit and slightly hurt but kept reporting. The station’s GM and Gray’s co-CEO filed a strong public protest condemning the police action and demanding an investigation. A department spokesman later called Rust to apologize, and the officer has been “re-assigned” pending an inquiry. While this didn’t come up in the Kneeland call, it’s another example of how management can step up to support the people in the field — and a reminder of how important it is for journalists to be properly credentialed and identifiable to police, although of course that wouldn’t prevent a deliberate assault.

A Louisville KY police officer shoots pepper balls directly at a WAVE crew (screenshot from the station’s live coverage, which you can see here)

Okay, end of sidebar — back to the Kneeland call takeaways.

5. Build diversity into your newsroom culture.

When stories about race relations bubble up or boil over, it’s natural for news executives to seek out their colleagues of color for advice and insight. Christina Taylor offered two important caveats.

First, be mindful of the impact the story is having on your minority staff. “Journalists of color in your newsroom right now are tired, they’re anxious, they’re emotional. They’re trying to process what’s happening with their own experiences with police and with racism in their lives. So make sure they’re okay, and then use your judgment and decide, is this the right time to ask for some guidance?” (See “Dear newsroom managers, journalists of color can’t do all of the work” from Poynter.)

But perhaps even more important is to include your minority colleagues regularly and meaningfully in editorial decision-making year-round, not just when “relevant” stories break. “It’s unfair to ignore them at other times, but go to them when things are urgent,” Taylor said.

6. Practice thoughtful engagement with viewers.

“Conversation” and “transparency” are all the fashion, but participants on the call had mixed feelings about how to engage with viewers in the midst of this highly charged story.

“We don’t want to engage anybody in an argument one way or the other,” said Ed Reams, news director at Quincy’s WKOW in Madison WI. “But we’ve got to find a way to help move the conversation forward smartly and intelligently. We’re doing our best.”

Christina Taylor’s advice is curt and simple: “Just stay away from the individual comments and move things forward by your coverage and by following through.”

Ryan Robertson, newly minted news director at TEGNA’s WOI in Des Moines IA, has been sharing his newsroom’s editorial approach as a differentiator, “telling the audience, ‘We are not choosing to send our reporters into the fray. We are choosing to stand back. We are choosing to observe and not be part of the instigation.’” He says it’s working. “We’ve had protesters actually name us on air and [on Twitter and] Facebook. They appreciate how we are covering things, and they’re giving us interviews while snubbing the competition right now. And the viewers are responding as well.”

But KXLY’s Melissa Luck has debated whether to share newsroom decisions around verbiage, for example — perhaps on the website or in an editorial. “I’m curious if other people have made it public to their audience, to say this is why we’re covering things this way. This is what we will and will not do. This is who we are.” So far, Luck is letting the station’s work speak for itself.

7. Now comes the hard part.

Unlike the pandemic, this is a highly visual story, fraught with drama and conflict. That’s a strength of TV news — but also a weakness.

“We do really well doing play by play on big breaking news things,” said Kevin Benz. “It’s harder for us to dive in, go deep and immerse ourselves in it. And in fact, as these protests begin to lighten up, begin to die down, this is when our journalism should be doubling down. Because this is the time that we can bring context and we can bring understanding to a community that has been watching us cover this as breaking news, as a breaking news event.”

“The real journalism is going to begin once the protests start winding down,” agreed Ed Reams.

“You know, is this really a turning point? We’re looking at it as though it is. And so what can we do to document it properly [and] make sure all the voices are heard, including ones in our own newsrooms that may be able to help our community as a whole?”

NOTE: My thanks to Kneeland Project executive director Stacy Baum for including me in this conversation.

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