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This is one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read

I’ve covered I don’t know how many protests over the years. Luckily, all of them have been peaceful.

The wildest scene I’ve witnessed was probably a neo-Nazi rally at the state Capitol several years ago (actual Nazis, in the tan uniforms and sieg heil salutes and all). Besides this week, amid credible threats of violence against all 50 state capitals, that Nazi rally was the only other time I’ve seen a fence erected around the Capitol lawn.

During the Nazi rally, the police fence created two different pens — one for the small number of Nazi supporters, and the other for the packed crowd of counter-protesters. Once you were in one pen, you weren’t allowed to go to the other. That was one of the ways police maintained peace.

But the press badge hanging around my neck allowed me to move freely between the two pens so I could get quotes from both sides.

In every scene I’ve covered, with people screaming at each other and waving signs and whatever else, I’ve felt protected by my press badge. It told demonstrators and counter-demonstrators alike I wasn’t on either side, and it allowed me to move between camps and talk freely to everyone — and most people talked to me politely, knowing I worked for a newspaper. The press badge told police I wasn’t there to cause ruckus, only to take pictures of and shoot video of others’ ruckus.

That is one reason the ethical guidelines of news organizations have always called on journalists to wear such a badge, to quickly and easily identify themselves as reporters. Even in war zones on foreign soils, a press identification has given reporters some protection from violence by identifying them as an observer, not a combatant.

Now, after the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol — where multiple journalists were physically assaulted and among the graffiti left behind were the words “Murder the Media” — the guidance is the opposite.

Poynter, an international journalism advocacy and training organization, recently released guidance to newsrooms telling them to be cautious about identifying themselves when covering such crowds (read the full guidance here: https://tinyurl.com/y6lf4on7).

The guidance, as it always has, says journalists should not use deceit to gain access to anything. We don’t say we work for someone we don’t work for, and we don’t pretend to be anything we’re not.

But Poynter now advises journalists to be careful about admitting they’re something they are.

“Most news companies have advised their employees not to wear gear, drive vehicles or display lanyards that indicate employment in the media sector,” Poynter says. “But you have to keep that identification handy to identify yourself to law enforcement executing a curfew or otherwise blocking your movement.

“If you are in public and someone demands to know if you are a journalist, you are not obligated to answer.”

Poynter also advises journalists to stay on the edges of crowds, to avoid interviewing anyone alone, and to use a smartphone instead of a professional camera — which might attract attention and violence — to capture pictures and videos.

It’s hard to explain just how earth-shattering that advice is. It’s like McDonald’s training their cashiers to no longer be friendly and say hello when a customer approaches the counter, or like a pizza delivery place telling their drivers not to worry so much about the “30 minutes or it’s free” thing.

That news organizations deem it necessary to change their approach to their business is a sad testament to the world in which we live.

Our modern world and our future history demand objective observers who can tell the various sides of our story without fear or favor. Journalists need to be able to talk to protesters and counter-protesters alike to tell their story, so Americans can better understand the motivations driving their fellow countrymen and countrywomen to action, so they can better understand where they themselves fall in that spectrum and decide how they want to act.

But, if an entire group of people view the press not as an observer, but a combatant, and the press feel the need to approach that group more cautiously, it only hinders journalists’ ability to tell that group’s story to the masses.

Journalists still are doing so.

Demonstrators at the Capitol siege were quoted in news stories, and armed demonstrators were interviewed by reporters at state capitols around the nation last weekend.

As Capitol rioters are arrested and move through the criminal justice system, their defense will be recorded in newspapers as fully as their prosecution.

Because, whether flying their press badge or not, journalists know their role in democracy, and they’ll continue to do their jobs.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.

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