Student Safety Guide for Reporting in the Field

Becoming a good journalist involves developing sources, conducting interviews, gathering media, building research skills and getting outside your comfort zone. You will be expected to interview, photograph and record sources for class assignments. 

Statement from the SF State Journalism Department:

Becoming a good journalist involves developing sources, conducting interviews, gathering media, building research skills and getting outside your comfort zone. You will be expected to interview, photograph and record sources for class assignments. However, while we are still under threat from COVID-19, we are not requiring you to conduct your reporting face-to-face. Please keep in mind that there are ways to cover your sources virtually, using Zoom, Skype, phone, etc. Discuss the options with your professor. Your grade will not be affected by your decision about field reporting. If you choose to physically cover an assignment you must abide by the social distancing and PPE policies in place in the county you are working in. When in doubt, check with the local county health department. Remember, limitations can inspire creativity!

Journalism Department Guidelines for Reporting During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In addition to the standard advice for avoiding infection required by university and public health officials, journalism students and faculty in skills courses should adhere to guidelines much like those practiced by professional journalists in the field. Several organizations, including the Poynter Institute, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the National Press Photographers Association, as well as local news media outlets, have developed recommendations for working during the pandemic. We have adapted guidelines from professional journalism organizations for our students:

Staying Safe in the Field

  • To minimize the risk of exposure, and wherever possible, interview sources by phone or videoconferencing services like Zoom and Skype rather than in person. Inquire in advance about any necessary hygiene measures when visiting certain locations, such as health care facilities.
  •  Follow all of the standard hygiene requirements, such as washing hands regularly, properly and thoroughly for at least 20 seconds at a time with hot water and soap. Cover your mouth/nose when coughing or sneezing, etc.
  •  For in-person interviews, try to stand at an angle to the subject during an interview rather than face on, always maintaining the recommended 6 feet or more distance. Be particularly conscious of maintaining a safe minimum distance when interviewing elderly people, those with underlying health conditions, anyone close to individuals who are symptomatic, healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients, or workers in high risk locations
  •  Whenever possible try to interview people in an outdoor space. If you do need to interview indoors, select a location with some kind of air flow (e.g. open windows).
  •  Students who fall into the high-risk categories should not participate in any assignment that puts them in direct contact with the general public.
  •  Faculty and students should check in with each other regularly.

Equipment Safety

The potential to spread COVID-19 via contaminated equipment is real. A strict cleaning and disinfecting regime should be implemented and adhered to at all times: 

  • Use shotgun and boom microphones from a safe distance instead of lavalier clip mics.
  •  Microphone covers should be disinfected and washed at a high temperature with detergent at the end of every assignment. See guidance/training on how to safely remove the cover to prevent any potential cross contamination. Try and avoid the “wind muff” type covers if possible, which are harder to clean.
  • Use long sight lenses to help maintain a safe distance on location whenever possible.
  • Consider how you will store your equipment on assignment. Don't leave anything lying around and put everything back in its case and close it (i.e. when possible use a hard-sided flight case, which is much easier to wipe down and keep clean).
  • If possible and practical, put some kind of plastic wrapping/protection around equipment when using it. This will minimize the surface area of the equipment that could become contaminated and will be easier to clean and disinfect.
  •  Carry fully charged spare batteries with you and avoid charging anything on site, as this is an additional item that could become contaminated.
  • Always decontaminate all equipment with fast-acting antimicrobial wipes, followed by thorough cleaning, including but not limited to cell phones, tablets, leads, plugs, earphones, laptops, hard drives, cameras, press passes, and lanyards.
  •  Ensure all equipment is decontaminated again when returning it to base, making sure that those responsible for the equipment are made fully aware in advance and that they are trained in how to safely clean the equipment.
  •  Make sure that no equipment is just dumped and left lying around without being signed back in to the person responsible for cleaning.

Journalism Department Guidelines for Covering Protests, Marches, Crowded Events

Before the event:

  •  Read about the history of this kind of protest event in the community. What has happened in the past and how did it unfold? What might reignite old tensions?
  •  Prepare your equipment. Turn off features to maximize battery life (e.g. wifi search on phones). Have charged and extra batteries, use empty memory cards and bring back-ups. Use a camera strap or tie your camera to your wrist. Where possible, turn-on correct date, time and location capturing features. Top off your phone battery every chance you get.
  •  Know who to call. Write the phone number for the department’s legal counsel Jim Wagstaffe (Cell 415-254-8615) on your forearm and save in case you need legal support. If arrests occur, call in location, time and name of anyone arrested. You may also contact David Greene at
  •  Set up a schedule for regular check-ins with your professor or editor. You should plan in advance to report in for updates and safety checks.
  •  Dress appropriately. No flip-flops or open-toed shoes. Recommended: Long-sleeves when possible, Jeans, shoes for walking.
  •  Familiarize yourself with how to limit the effects of tear gas. Tear gas usually burns for an hour but causes skin irritation for a few hours. Face the wind. Fresh air will help blow excess tear gas powder off of you and will prevent it from blowing back into your mouth or eyes. If attacked, with tear gas, rinse your eyes with cold water. Rinse your clothing and body with cold water. When you can shower, use cold water first, then warm water.
  •  Pack a grab bag. Gather these things into a backpack or fanny pack: a small first aid kit, water bottle, hand sanitizer, high-protein snacks, washcloth, eye protection such as goggles, face mask (respirator mask if possible), flashlight, portable phone battery charger, and a copy of your ID or press card. Ideally, the kit should fit tightly strapped to your body and everything should be expandable. If you carry respirators, goggles or gas masks, practice using them beforehand.
  •  Tell your editor and/or professor where you will be. Set up a communication plan.
  • Never agree to support a cause as a condition of your reporting. You attend protests to observe, NOT to participate. You need to reconcile beforehand that you are there to observe and report, not participate.
  • SAFETY PLANS ARE REQUIRED before any student reports at any high-risk event like a protest. Contact your professor. You will be required to regularly check in with a professor (or Xpress Editor) while you are in the field and have a phone tree.
  • Pair up with someone else in class and stay within sight (~6-10 feet) of your partner at all times.

At the event:

  • Park strategically. If you drive to a march or protest, be sure to park away from the action. Crowds can get hostile. Make sure you can get out. Park in a spot where you can jump in and get out quickly. Be sure you have a plan for getting to and from your reporting location. Avoid parking in areas that may be dimly lit and hidden.
  • Be strategic about technology. Turn your phone’s location sharing on for your editors or colleagues. Turn biometrics off (face or fingerprint recognition). Make sure your device is fully charged, bring an external battery and at least two charging cables. Stay in touch with your professor.
  • Be respectful, to both protesters and police. Show respect, follow police orders and don’t argue while tensions are high.
  • Clearly identify yourself. Have credentials easily available. But think carefully about whether you display credentials openly when surrounded by demonstrators. Do not hang credentials on a lanyard around your neck. It can be used to strangle you in a scrum.
  •  Don’t draw attention to yourself. TV lights attract attention. The smaller the camera, the more you blend in with a crowd. However, police may mistake you for a demonstrator. Police watch hands, so avoid sudden moves if they approach you. Keep your hands visible and open.
  • Keep rolling. Document as much as you can, especially when tensions grow. Keep a “dud” memory card that you are not recording on in case somebody demands you hand over your video or images.
  • Stay on the edge of crowds. Do not venture into the middle. While in crowds, move in short steps to avoid tripping.
  • Have a constantly updated escape route in mind. ALWAYS have at least one point of escape – you do not want to be surrounded by crowds and police. In the fog of smoke or tear gas, look for curbs and sidewalks that can guide you away from the scene. When tensions are building, decide whether you will be physically closer to the protestors or the authorities. It will determine what threats you will have to be aware of.
  • Physical fitness is an important consideration in covering situations that could suddenly turn violent. Journalists whose mobility is limited should weigh the risks in advance.
  • Working alone has the advantage of lowering your visibility but also leaves you with blind spots. Whenever possible, go with a buddy or a team and keep in regular contact with your partners. If you’re alone, look out for other journalists.
  • Practice “situational awareness.” Constantly scan your surroundings as crowds move. Monitor audio but keep an ear open for changes your microphone may not detect. Is someone moving up behind you?
  • Be aware of basic first aid skills. Tear gas usually burns for an hour but causes skin irritation for a few hours. Face the wind. Fresh air will help blow excess tear gas powder off of you and will prevent it from blowing back into your mouth or eyes. Rinse your eyes with cold water. Rinse your clothing and body with cold water. When you can shower, use cold water first, then warm water.
  • Consider wearing a light body-armor vest and protective headgear, depending on the threat level. But do not use these as props to exaggerate the threat. Protective gear may give you undue confidence to take avoidable risks. It may also make you a target.
  • Stay in constant contact with your newsroom. Freelancers should have someone who knows where you are and where you are going. Newsrooms should have a point person who is keeping close track of where journalists are. Consider using GPS location apps that map people’s movements.
  • Don’t touch tear gas, flash-bang or smoke canisters. They can be hot, could explode or might have harmful residue on them. If you pick up a canister, authorities may assume you are a demonstrator.
  • Do not signal police plans or movements on-air or online in ways that might compromise their safety. Demonstrators sometimes monitor social media posts to find escape routes.
  • Be especially careful in how you report what you experience. Don’t repeat rumors. Verify and attribute everything. When you cannot verify information, ask how the source knows what he/she knows. Be skeptical of crowd estimates. Event organizers and demonstrators have agendas. So do authorities. When police use force, they may have a reason to claim crowds are large and out of control.
  • Don’t trust eyewitnesses as the “truth.” Did they see what they think they saw? Are they telling you everything? Does the witness have an agenda? Was it dark? How close were they to what they saw or heard? Witnesses often are wrong. Compare versions of the event to ask why different people saw it differently.
  • Limits subjective adjectives and stick to factual descriptions. Avoid words like “big” and “huge,” for example, and describe crowd sizes factually e.g. “they fill a two-block area” or “I can see crowds that stretch for five blocks.” Be careful not to use loaded language such as “peaceful” and “threatening” except in quotes or soundbites or quotes.
  • Be specific when describing neighborhoods. Don’t rely on vague descriptors like “East Side” or describe a location as a “high-crime area.” If you describe racial or ethnic identities, explain why those descriptors are important. Do not assign motives to anyone; you cannot know what people think or feel, only what they say and do.
  • Safety first, story second. When you take undue risks, you endanger those who might have to rescue you. Your actions also reflect on your fellow journalists.
  • Film with intention. Hold your shot steady (minimum 10 seconds), pan VERY slowly, avoid jerky movements and zooming – move closer when possible. Get multiple angles – wide, medium and close-up. Film for those who aren’t there – what do they need to see to understand what’s going on? If violence or abuse occurs – KEEP RECORDING.
  • Always capture: Date, time and location (intersections, street signs, landmarks). Get various angles when documenting the size/behavior of the crowd, number and formation of police and any weapons they are holding or using. Record any police orders or permissions given and the time and officer’s name and badge number. Record when police are creating or moving barricades or orange nets. Record any police filming protests or protesters.
  • Capture details/incidents: If there is an arrest or violence, attempt to capture the entire incident, including: time, location, number and identities of involved individuals, and broader crowd or police presence/behavior. Film or say names of officers, badge numbers or helmet number into the camera. Work to get faces of those affected on film. Be agile: Film from above if possible, or low through officers’ legs to capture what’s happening. Consider verbally adding noteworthy facts of what was happening before you started filming to give context while you film.
  • Work as a team: If filming, have a partner to watch your back, help keep you safe and alert you of other potential shots you should capture. If more than one of you is filming, try to get separate angles of the same incident – ideally keep each other in view. If you are at risk of arrest and want to keep filming, consider giving media card to friend for safe keeping and replace with empty card and KEEP RECORDING.
  • Seek legal help when needed. If you get picked up by police or arrested, call attorney Jim Wagstaffe (Cell 415-254-8615) or David Greene at

Sources/inspiration: SF Chronicle, Golden Gate Xpress, Bob Gould/MSU, National Press Photographers Association, Hofstra University Journalism Department, Committee to Protect Journalists, COVID-19 Guidelines from CSU Northridge Department of Journalism

Source Checklist

Ask your source the following safety questions before going out on an assignment. Source: San Francisco Chronicle

  1. Are you, or anyone who will be at the photo/video shoot or interview, currently sick or do you have COVID-19 symptoms?
  2. Are you, or anyone who will be at the photo/video shoot, immune compromised?
  3. Would you like the journalist to wear PPE (mask and/gloves)?
  4. Will you (the subject) be wearing PPE (mask and/gloves)?
  5. Are you comfortable being photographed/recorded without your mask on (at some point) while still being social distanced??
  6. If not, can we photograph/record you in the back yard / front yard or through a window?
  7. Would it be possible to open a window or door about 30 min - 1 hour before we arrive in order to introduce some air into the home? This would air the space out so the photographer can enter a space that is cleaned out of any air particles.
  8. Is there enough space in the home / business that the journalist can move around without violating social distance?
  9. How many people will be present during the assignment?
  10. Is there a cell phone of a person who will be present when the reporter arrives?

Field Reporting Checklist

  • Press Pass (Get one from Xpress, Internship or contact your professor)
  •  Identification and an emergency contact card that includes names/contact for your professor (and Xpress editors if applicable).
  • Dress appropriately: no flip-flops or open-toed shoes. Recommended: Long-sleeves when possible, jeans, zipper pockets preferred, shoes for walking.
  •  Water, at least 1 liter • Snacks for energy (like an energy bar, almonds)
  •  Extra batteries for cameras and audio gear (fully charged!)
  • Portable charger for your phone (fully charged!)
  •  Notepad + extra pens
  • COVID Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
    • Wear a mask and carry at least one backup
    • Hand sanitizer
    • Latex gloves
  • PROTEST PPE (You must discuss higher risk assignments with your professor and come up with a safety plan before reporting for your work to be considered)
    • Goggles (Shatter-resistant)
    • Glasses (if you wear contacts)
    • Necessary prescriptions, tampons and anything else you’d need in the event you are detained.
    • Wear a belt, it can be used as a tourniquet
    • Basic first aid kit
    • Unflavored liquid antacid (NOT mint flavor) and/or saline solution
    • Enable automatic cloud uploads to your mobile device. Be prepared to backup any sensitive materials in the field as mobile towers are often congested during protests.
    • Turn on location services so that your editor or Professor can keep track of you should you miss a check-in. These can be turned off
    • You may wish to disable biometrics (face recognition, fingerprints) on your phone and instead opt for a numerical passcode.
    • No one (not the police or a protester) has the right to ask for your SD card or ask to delete an image/audio. That said, your safety is top priority. Attempt to de-escalate and walkaway from a potentially dangerous situation.

 Sources/Inspiration: Golden Gate Xpress, SF Chronicle

  • Understand that reporting in dangerous conditions can lead to injury or death.
  • Protective gear can include helmets, goggles, gas masks, gloves, scarves, hoods.
  • Wearing a sweatshirt or other top with a good hood can be useful when covering a story in which there is a danger that you might get hurt by police or protesters.
  • Liquid antacid and water (LAW) can help neutralize irritation from tear gas and pepper spray. (Elle of Oakland)
  • “If you're in a situation that escalates out of control, free weekly newspapers shoved under your clothes can offer some protection.” (Gizmodo)
  • The weight of your gear can add up and slow you down.
  • Wear comfortable shoes or boots that you can run in. Plan accordingly.
  • Stay fed and hydrated. Pack a handful of Clif Bars (or equivalent) and a small container of water.
  • Carry a compact first aid kit and know how to use it.
  • Carry 3 days’ worth of any medication that you take.
  • Taking notes, photos, tweeting, livestreaming etc. can sometimes create tunnel vision where you lose track of your surroundings. As best you can, try to balance the act of reporting with keeping your eyes and ears on everything around you with your own safety in mind.
  • If possible, go to the event with a partner who can watch your back.
  • In every situation, try to identify at least two routes to safety. Plan ahead if you can.
  • If you feel that your safety is threatened, leave the area.
  • Alameda Army Navy Surplus at 2500 Embarcadero in Oakland carries several types of gas masks from $30 and up. Phone: (510) 261-5152.
  • Protective gear for skateboarders (helmets, elbow pads, knee pads) can be found at the Vans store at the Stonestown Mall and 865 Market St. (via Jim Toland)
  • The most important part of your body to protect is your head. If you are caught in an area where police are beating protesters or either side is hurling items, do not lie on the ground with your face and head unprotected but rather curl into a ball and cover your head.
  • If you don’t have a hood, you can pull your coat over your head.
  • Stay calm.
  • If your injury is serious, call 911 or ask someone to call 911 for you.
  • Street medics are often present at Occupy events, for example. Try yelling “Medic!” for assistance.
  • Yell “Cameras!” if you want others to document your situation (which will likely happen anyway).
  • Use your own first aid kit, if you have one.
  • Seek professional medical attention as soon as possible.
  • Watch out for tunnel vision (see above, under “Avoiding injury”).
  • Tell the cops you’re a journalist. Show your credentials, if you have them.
  • A press pass of any kind (even one issued by the cops) could be helpful, but it’s no guarantee of immunity from arrest or injury.
  • Call attorney Jim Wagstaffe at (415) 357-8900
  • Call attorney David Greene at (415) 268-1974
  • Call the National Lawyers Guild hotline at (415) 285-1011. Ideally you’ll have this memorized. If not, make sure it’s written clearly on your forearm.
  • Don’t talk to the cops other than to give them your name and address and to ask to speak with a lawyer.
  • Document everything that happened to you. This can include a mix of writing, photos, audio and video.
  • If you feel that anyone has violated your rights, contact a lawyer for advice on filing charges or a formal complaint.