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Covering Protests As A Student Journalist? Here Are 20 Tips For Staying Safe

In recent weeks, there has been a sharp rise in pro-Palestinian protests and encampments on college campuses across the country (and world) in response to the Israel-Hamas war. While covering these protests, young journalists at student-run newspapers have faced dangerous situations, including some who have gotten injured and others who’ve been arrested.

At a May 1 UCLA protest, student reporters from The Daily Bruin (the school’s student newspaper) were reportedly sprayed with an irritant and assaulted, the culprits unknown. That same day, across the country, two Dartmouth students who report for their student newspaper, The Dartmouth, were arrested for criminal trespassing. Both student newspapers’ editorial boards released editorials in response to the incidents.

“Will someone have to die on our campus tonight for you to intervene, [UCLA chancellor] Gene Block? The blood would be on your hands,” The Daily Bruin’s staff wrote, citing the safety issues the student journalists — and student in general — faced on campus.

“If Dartmouth has any commitment to the freedom of the press, it must do everything in its power to get the relevant authorities to drop the charges against our reporters,” The Dartmouth’s editorial reads, referencing the two reporters who were arrested. “Journalists should be off limits. The College should be embarrassed.” Charges have since been dropped for both students, but many are distressed the journalists were arrested in the first place.

Student journalists have even dealt with unsafe conditions at my own school, the University at Buffalo. After a particularly intense protest on May 1, the editorial board of our student newspaper, The Spectrum (which I’m a member of), detailed the experiences of some staffers in an editorial piece. “During the raid, police shoved, berated and obstructed multiple journalists — student and professional — as they attempted to capture the historic show of force,” the editorial reads.

Student journalists should not be threatened or harmed while doing their jobs. Journalists are protected under the First Amendment; they are allowed to report on gatherings, including demonstrations and protests, and are supposed to be able to accomplish that safely. But because many student journalists continue to be put in harm’s way with little protection on behalf of their colleges or local police departments, individuals should do what they can to protect their own safety. 

Below, I’ve compiled some safety tips for student journalists covering protests, according to resources such as the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit org for supporting high school and college student journalists; Poynter, a nonprofit improving the field of journalism through ethics, teaching, and fact-checking; and the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit that promotes freedom of press worldwide. 

  1. Go to the protest with another journalist.
  2. Create and wear press credentials.
  3. Bring your personal ID.
  4. Be vigilant about your surroundings. Know the layout of where the protest is and have escape routes planned if needed.
  5. Identify yourself as press when speaking with law enforcement.
  6. Avoid wearing items that can be grabbed or pulled, such as a scarf and necklaces, or items that are flammable. 
  7. Record all events, especially if situations escalate.
  8. Make sure your cell phone is fully charged and bring a portable charger with you.
  9. Bring additional memory cards for your devices. 
  10. Back up the recordings and documents on your devices in case your devices are lost, stolen, damaged, or confiscated.
  11. Bring supplies such as water, energy bars, and a first aid kit.
  12. Consider bringing protective gear, such as googles.
  13. Have a procedure to check in with your newsroom, family, or friends regularly — and encourage them to take action if they don’t hear from you when they’re supposed to.
  14. Remain on the edge of crowds and avoid entering the middle of one.
  15. If approached by a police officer, remain calm, and keep your hands visible.
  16. Don’t pick up any canisters or other unidentified objects.
  17. If you are exposed to tear gas, allow the breeze to carry away the gas and do not rub your eyes or face. After the protest, shower in cold water and wash your clothes several times; they may need to be discarded.
  18. If involved in an arrest or altercation with law enforcement, get the badge numbers of the officers involved, and identify anyone who witnesses it occur. Note the location and time of the incident as well.
  19. If an incident occurs, contact attorneys at the Student Press Law Center. You can also submit a case with FIRE or call their Student Press Freedom Initiative hotline at 717-734-7734. Another option is calling the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press legal hotline at 1-800-336-4243 or contacting attorneys at hotline@rcfp.org.
  20. Value your safety first, more than any story you’re reporting.

These tips can help decrease the likelihood of a student reporter experiencing a dangerous or law-related incident. But even if student journalists follow these tips, the possibility of being arrested or harmed while covering a protest still remains, so please stay safe out there.

Alisha Allison is a national writer for the Entertainment/Culture section of Her Campus who started in January 2024. Alisha is a senior at University at Buffalo majoring in political science and minoring in social justice. She is also pursuing her journalism certificate. She’s has gained experience writing stories for her journalism classes, as an assistant editor on the news desk (former staff and contributing writer) for her university’s student-led newspaper, and a writer for Her Campus Buffalo. She is on the executive board for two chapters of national organizations at UB. Alisha plans on attending law school in the future. In her free time, she enjoys listening to music and spending time with her friends and family. She also likes watching television shows, movies, and video essays, and reading novels.