How to Prepare for Confrontations as a Visual Journalist

    by Denise McGill
    December 1, 2015
    Photo by Paul Reynolds on Flickr and reused here with Creative Commons license.

    EdShift explores media trust, ethics and diversity issues after protests at University of Missouri. Click the series logo for the full set of posts.

    Journalists and protestors clashed at the University of Missouri on November 10, and thanks to social media, we all got a view of it in a widely circulated video shot by Mark Schierbecker.

    "When a student gets arrested, he/she usually faces sanctions from the university. Advisers and professors should be prepared to advocate for the student. Plan to attend hearings to verify that the student is not a threat to your school."

    Despite some hairy moments in the video, things worked out well for student photojournalist Tim Tai. He acted with composure, and university staff who confronted him are now the subject of official complaints. Tai succeeded in posting photos of the event. His client ESPN used Tai’s images liberally across several of their publications.


    Video courtesy of Mark Schierbecker on YouTube.


    Scheirbecker’s video shows a poignant example of conflict, but most visual journalists handle some level of opposition on a regular basis. In my own 25 years of experience behind the camera, I’ve seen an alarming increase in restrictions and arrests of visual journalists in the United States.


    Those of us who carry cameras are the visible face of the “distrusted media.” Of all the journalists on location, we are the most likely targets for citizens’ anger or police restrictions.

    As teachers, our role is to help students plan for the worst but hope for the best.

    Planning for the Worst: Prepare Ahead of Time

    Loret Steinberg has long advocated that journalism schools need to do a better job preparing our students for moments of confrontation. She says it is a part of the “stewardship of our profession.” Steinberg is associate professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she helped students cover the Occupy Movement in 2011.

    Steinberg discussed that coverage when she led the panel “Law and Educators” at the 2012 Northern Short Course in Photojournalism, in Fairfax, Va. Many of the following principles come from that presentation.

    Use the buddy system. Video one another if a colleague runs into trouble. Be ready to hand off equipment or even drag one another out of a tight spot.

    Bring extra memory cards and change them frequently. Stash exposed cards in a safe place like a shoe. Or hand them off to a buddy.

    Have emergency phone numbers ready. Steinberg suggests students write her number and an attorney’s number on their arms inside their sleeves.

    Document your role. If students don’t have credentials, make business cards with their name and title “Photojournalist.”

    Know everyone’s rights. Steinberg gives each of her students an ACLU bust card, a pdf file about suspects’ rights.

    Hoping for the best: Strive to get the image or video without confrontation

    Visual journalists’ goal is to tell the story and get it to their employer/publication/teacher on deadline. Every photographer figures out her own way to build rapport, find the best location and make images to get the job done. It’s part of the job description.

    Know the law. Remember “photography is not a crime,” but trespassing is. Don’t break the law.

    Recognize discomfort. We have to aim our big clunky cameras at the subject’s face, usually at close range. I’m the first to admit it can be annoying, even when I’m acting well within my lawful and ethical boundaries. I spend a lot of effort putting my subjects at ease.

    Understand people’s perceptions of media. Most stories are about regular people who have little experience with mass media. In general, they want someone to listen to them. They believe in the First Amendment, but they haven’t studied it recently. They also know at least one horrible story about an average citizen getting screwed over by the press. You can choose to conduct yourself as the listening type of media or the scary type of media.

    Remember your effect. Just as you are judged by the actions of journalists who have gone before you, others will be judged by your actions. On that day, Tai’s actions reflected on the Missouri School of Journalism, his university, his client ESPN, the entire photojournalism profession, and last of all, on his future career prospects.

    Photo by Tony Webster on Flickr and reused here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Tony Webster on Flickr and reused here with Creative Commons license.

    On location: Changing conditions are the most precarious

    Things can turn quickly. Looking through this gallery of Tai’s images at ESPNPhoto, we see that Tai moved freely, getting close to key protestors who clearly accepted his presence. Until they didn’t.

    Be aware of your surroundings. In the full video (embedded above) we see that Tai and protesters were at a peaceful impasse until someone off-camera riles up the crowd to turn against Tai. (The voice belongs to Melissa Click, assistant professor in Missouri’s Department of Communication.) More often than not, the first person to object to the photographer is not the person in the frame. These people are often the most disruptive to the assignment.

    Confrontation: Should I choose to stand my ground?

    Standing up for your rights may or may not help your goal. Losing your cool never helps. Your employer does not want you to become part of the story on a regular basis. As a general rule, get your shot quickly and move on.

    Are you associated with a publication that will bail you out of jail or pay medical bills related to a confrontation? Backing down is not a cowardly act, especially for students.

    Special issues for teachers

    It’s our duty to help students assess the challenges they face in coverage. During Occupy Rochester in 2011, police were arresting protestors. So Steinberg counseled her students to dress professionally. Look like journalists, not activists. They wore visible credentials and clearly identified themselves as photojournalists.

    My own challenge at the time was to help students to clarify the difference between editorial vs. advocacy photography. If a student is taking photos for the school newspaper, she/he shouldn’t turn around and participate the in the Occupy movement. This seems obvious, but I find this line is often blurred for my students today.

    On November 18, 2015, protestors at Smith College held a sit-in to support activists at the University of Missouri. It changed the media landscape again. See Time magazine’s article “Smith College Sit-In Bans Media Who Don’t Promise ‘Solidarity’.” In this case, maybe it’s a good thing to look like an activist? It’s up to us as teachers to help students explore these new murky waters with honesty and integrity.

    We as faculty need to oppose any infringements on the First Amendment before an event, not during it. Get with other journalism professors. Let your university know that all students should be welcome at student events.

    After a confrontation

    Review cases and debrief at school after students cover an event. At Missouri, Tai was fortunate to have immediate support of his dean in an open letter.

    We as teachers are responsible to support our students facing institutional challenges. When a student gets arrested, he/she usually faces sanctions from the university. Advisers and professors should be prepared to advocate for the student. Plan to attend hearings to verify that the student is not a threat to your school.

    Now more than ever, help your university administration know how photojournalism works. Usually our students are upholding principles esteemed by the university, but our own institutions have increasing restrictions for photography on campus. We have an obligation to help students negotiate this territory.

    Denise McGill (@mcgillmedia) is an associate professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of South Carolina. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and a master’s degree from Ohio University. She teaches visual communications and is excited about her current documentary project, thegullahproject.org


    Tagged: columbia missourian Concerned Student 1950 espn first amendment missouri mizzou photojournalism student protest visual communications Visual Journalism youtube

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