Fall 2020 Update: Reporting and the Coronavirus Pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic presents serious health risks to journalists and the individuals they cover. This makes face-to-face reporting during the Fall ’20 semester a unique challenge. No assignment for a Fall '20 journalism class will require that you report in person if you are not comfortable doing so.
If you do choose to report or conduct an interview in person, you must follow the Journalism Department’s updated Safety Guidelines, as well as the latest guidance from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and/or other relevant local, state and federal guidance. We encourage members of student media at UMass to follow the same guidelines.
UMass Journalism encourages our students to pursue their reporting with dedication and determination. We also expect our students to use best practices and do all they can to remain safe while reporting.
The following guidance has been compiled from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Student Press Law Center, Medill Justice Project, International Federation of Journalists, International News Safety Institute, Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and the personal experiences of professional journalists. While these guidelines are not exhaustive, they represent common-sense practices for asserting your rights as a journalist and staying safe while reporting.
These guidelines are created for students reporting for courses in the UMass Journalism Department. They may be useful, too, for students reporting for campus media, such as Amherst Wire, the Daily Collegian, UVC and WMUA as well as when you graduate and head into your first jobs.
- Access, Part 1. Like all members of the public, journalists generally have a right of access to outdoor spaces that are publicly owned and generally open to the public (these spaces are called “public forums”). These include public parks, city sidewalks, courthouse stairs, and the grounds of public institutions, such as the statehouse or the UMass campus. It is not an "invasion of privacy" to photograph someone in a place open to public foot traffic, such as the lobby of a hotel or a shopping center, even if those premises are not government-owned property. However, the owners of private property (like a shopping mall) have the authority to enforce their own rules, and a journalist who is asked to stop filming and leave privately owned property should comply promptly.
- Access, Part 2. Groups will often try to restrict access. Protesters, administrators, political staffers and others may try to restrict your access. It’s good practice to let people know you’re coming and that you plan to record (i.e., photograph, video, live stream) the event. So, when possible, schedule your interviews. If you are covering an event, let the organizers know you’re coming. Don’t just show up. Where there are concerns about access or safety, contact the organizers of a speech, protest, public meeting. Let them know who you are and what you’ll be doing. It will make your life easier.
- Access, Part 3. The Massachusetts wiretap law is one of the most restrictive in the nation. It requires anyone making, using or disclosing a recording of a multi-party conversation to have the permission of all parties. Always ask permission of all parties before you record a conversation.
- Access, Part 4. To take photos, video and audio in any private space, including homes and stores, you need to get verbal consent. Release forms are not necessary for journalism work, but if a subject asks for one you can find templates at the National Press Photographers Association website.
- Access, Part 5. If you are covering a public talk, make your presence as a journalist known to event organizers prior to attending the talk. If you are told that you aren’t allowed to audio or video record, ask calmly on whose authority this order is given. You may even ask the penalty for violating the order. You may also want to ask the speaker if the speaker minds having a student journalist record (this is best done beforehand.) One Pro Tip: Make sure the parties involved understand you’re reporting and producing broadcast or multimedia clips but not recording and posting the entire talk on YouTube. Sources may ask but journalists do not submit recorded or written pieces to sources for approval prior to publishing
- Be Prepared to Explain the Law. It is not uncommon for journalists to find themselves refused access to open meetings and public records. Be prepared to explain the law and your right to attend the meeting or to have access to the records. Be calm and confident in asserting your rights. If you are still refused access, call your professor. To learn more about Massachusetts’s freedom of information laws, see the following resources:
- Newsgathering in Massachusetts, a publication of Harvard Law School’s Digital Media Law Project.
- The Student Press Law Center provides an online public records letter generator you may find helpful.
- The text of the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law on the state attorney general’s website.
- The guide to the Massachusetts Public Records Law on the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website.
- Open meetings and public records. The Massachusetts open meetings law allows any person, including a student journalist, to attend certain meetings held by certain public bodies at the state and local level. It also gives the public the right to review minutes of the meetings. The Massachusetts public records law allows any person to inspect and/or copy the records of the Commonwealth for any reason.
- Field gear. Dress comfortably but professionally. Wear close-toed shoes made for walking. Consider using a backpack to organize your gear. Some ideas for your gear: phone/camera/tablet/laptop/recorders; multiple charging options for your devices; external hard drives; light, packable raingear; water; snacks; pen & paper.
- Emergencies. Always carry important phone numbers of people you would call in an emergency. Have your phone set to receive social media updates from important sources and authorities for the event you are covering.
- Always identify yourself. Identify yourself so that sources understand that your work is not a “student project.” Always make sure sources understand your goal is to get your story published with a media outlet. While it may not happen in every case, sources should be aware that there is a possibility that their comments will be public. Keep in mind: we don’t do hidden camera or “gotcha” journalism.
- Contacting and interviewing sources. When initially reaching out to sources, follow this script:
“Hello, my name is ____________________. I am a student in the UMass Journalism Department, and I am reporting and writing an article on___________________ that I hope to get published in an established media outlet.”
When you are ready to formally conduct your interview, record yourself stating the previous paragraph plus this:
“What you tell me will be included in a story that I hope to have published in an established media outlet or on my own blog on the Web. I’m recording this identification so that we both understand the ground rules as we move forward. Do you understand?”
- Recording an interview. You must always ask your source for permission to record. Record the preceding language and the consent from your source (audio or video). Save that recording and play it back if identification becomes an issue (sources may claim later that they didn’t know you were planning on publishing quotes from your interview). Sources sometimes have a difficult time understanding that students are conducting “real” journalism to be published for all to see, not just “student projects” which only the professor will see. It is up to you to make sure the source understands what you’re doing.
- Credentials. Wear your credentials if you have them. Make sure they are prominently displayed at all times. If you don’t have credentials, have your student ID ready to show.
- Your professor is your editor. Check in often in certain situations. Discuss your plans for reporting with your professor, and make plans for checking in if you are traveling off campus or going into an unknown or possibly risky situation. Let your professor know your plans—where you are going, when, the circumstances of the reporting, whom you are meeting. Have his/her cellphone number in your phone. Text your professor when the interview is completed. If your location changes, contact your professor. If you get into a confrontation with a source, contact your professor. If police are called, contact your professor.
- Travel/report in pairs. For some reporting, you will want to travel in pairs. Use common sense and consult with your professor.
- Protect your reporting. In certain situations, authorities might ask you to hand over your equipment or to erase recordings/photos. The police do not have the authority to do this, and you can tell them so politely. Never, however, physically resist a police officer. If you can, pop out your SD card and stick it in your sock or upload your photos/recordings/notes wirelessly to a remote location. Familiarize yourself with the legal protections of the federal Privacy Protection Act, which limit the ability of government officials (including police) to search and seize journalists' recording devices, and be prepared to cite the Privacy Protection Act if ordered to turn over a camera, smartphone or anything else containing journalistic work product.
- Confrontations. If you find yourself in a confrontational interview, remain professional. Do NOT match the tone/volume of the other person in the confrontation. Remain calm and in control. If you find yourself in a situation where you feel unsafe, quickly remove yourself. You can always go back later.
- Threats. If anyone ever threatens you physically, contact the police and let your professor know. If you find yourself in a threatening situation, get yourself out of there. You can go back later if necessary.
- Harassment. “Harassment is harassment,” said UMass Deputy Police Chief Ian Cyr recently. If you’re being harassed online, by sources, by authorities, by students, by administrators, we strongly encourage you to report it to either a confidential or private campus resource (faculty and staff are mandated reporters). Learn more at the UMass Title IX website.
- Appearance. Understand that as student journalists, your face can work against you if you are a traditional student. Sources/public officials/police may not take you seriously because of your age. The best way to build trust and credibility is to dress the part and act like a professional. Don’t show up to a crime scene or event wearing a baseball cap and Red Sox T-shirt. Business casual attire helps.
Crowds offer their own unique reporting conditions. Here are some general guidelines.
- Agreements. Never agree to support a cause as a condition of your reporting. You attend protests to observe, NOT to participate.
- Background. Whether you are covering a city council meeting, profiling an athlete or covering a protest – doing background research beforehand will inform your reporting and improve your story. There is an historical background to the student protests occurring in this country. Yes, you will inform yourself of this background through interviews, but you should also research and attempt to understand the background before you go into any interview/situation.
- The role of journalists. Don’t expect people to understand or care about the work of journalists. You have the right to access public spaces, but in many cases, negotiation will be required. In some cases, it’s okay to walk away, observe and return later. When in doubt, call your professor.
- Hostile crowds. Crowds can be hostile to anyone who doesn’t belong. Make sure you can get out. Make sure your car/truck is parked in a spot where you can jump in and get out quickly.
- Watch the crowd. If they’re ignoring you, great! If they’re helping you, even better. But, if the crowd thinks you’re the enemy, either stay close to the police or leave.
- Police. Obey police commands. If you are arrested during a sweep of a crowd, call your professor. If you are interrogated at the jail, ask for legal representation and don’t answer questions or talk further.
- Watch the police. If they pull out, you’d better be ahead of them. If possible, find a vantage point where you can see and report and keep a clear avenue of escape.
In legal terms, stalking is a criminal activity that consists of the repeated following and harassment of another individual. It is a crime that involves a series of actions that occur over a period of time, rather than one individual act. For instance, receiving a single love note or having someone waiting for you outside of your house or class would not necessarily be criminal. But when these actions are coupled with the intent to instill fear or cause injury, they may constitute a pattern of behavior that can be illegal.
Some journalists may experience stalking at some point in their career. It could be a fan who is way too eager to meet the journalist and crosses the line. It could be a source who is unhappy with a story and begins to trail the journalist to intimidate. It can also be a person a journalist casually meets in the field who tries to take the relationship to another level. In any case, stalking is a serious issue, and you should know what to look for and how to protect yourselves.
The following are tips from CBS News on how reporters should handle a potential run-in with a stalker.
- File a complaint with law enforcement as soon as possible. Not only will this start a record of the case and help determine whether a restraining order is needed, but the police will also put you in contact with a victim specialist, who can help you devise a plan for safety.
- Turn to support groups or counselors if you are having difficulties coping with the situation.
- Tell friends, family and co-workers about your situation, and warn them to be suspicious of any inquiries about you.
Keep a Record
- Save all letters, gifts, or other items relating to the stalking. Have witnesses submit affidavits, and keep a journal to document details and provide a timeline of events.
- Save all evidence in a safe place away from your home. Stalkers sometimes break into victims' homes and it may get stolen if stored there.
Establish a Safe Place
- If you feel you are in danger, go to a police station, a friend's home that is not known to the stalker, a shelter or a public place where the stalker would be less likely to act out.
- Keep the phone numbers for these places handy. Always remember that you can call 911 in an emergency.
Mental Health Strategies
Journalism can be a stressful field. Consider adding these self-care practices, suggested by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia Journalism School, to your daily routine.
- Eat regular meals. Improper nutrition can impact your ability to work effectively.
- Get a full night’s rest. Lack of sleep can affect your ability to work effectively and be able to concentrate and make the right decisions.
- Try deep breathing. The practice of breathing can help calm and ease any tension you may have or experience.
- Exercise (run, walk, yoga, etc. – whatever exercise you enjoy doing). This can help to relieve any stress you may be experiencing.
- Family. Keep in touch with family and friends and talk with them about your experiences.
- Acknowledge your feelings. Don’t keep your feelings bottled up. Talk with your professor/editor/advisor, family and friends.
- Get professional help if you need it. The UMass Center for Counseling and Psychological Health is a good resource for UMass students.