The news media is gearing up to cover the national political conventions — but not just with pens, notebooks and TV cameras.
This year, news organizations are issuing gas masks, flak jackets and other protective equipment to journalists who may find themselves covering street protests in Cleveland and Philadelphia, the sites of the Republican and Democratic conventions.
They’ve also held seminars and training sessions about what journalists should do if they’re caught in the middle of a violent standoff between protesters and police officers.
At one such meeting last month at the National Press Club in Washington, about a dozen journalists learned what to do in the midst of gunfire, Molotov cocktails and tear gas (short answer: leave fast). One recommendation from a security consultant: Bring a pair of swim goggles, an inexpensive alternative to a gas mask, which can be stolen or mark a journalist as a target.
“We hope the conventions are peaceful, but we wanted to be like the Boy Scouts and be prepared,” said Thomas Burr, the Washington correspondent for the Salt Lake Tribune and the president of the press club.
Burr, who will cover the conventions for his newspaper, recently bought carbon face masks — another cheap substitute for a gas mask.
Although protests may rack both conventions, the anticipation of violence is stronger for Cleveland, where Donald Trump is likely to accept the Republican nomination next week. Trump’s campaign events have frequently been disrupted by protesters, and Cleveland presents the biggest stage yet for those opposed to his candidacy.
“I am expecting a potential perfect storm of civil unrest,” said Frank Smyth, executive director of Global Journalist Security, a firm that counsels media organizations. He cites “the combination of political tension surrounding the presumptive GOP candidate, racial tensions with police across the country and the certain presence of armed protesters” as causes for concern.
In recent weeks, Smyth has advised broadcast networks, new-media outlets, news wires, newspapers and photo agencies about how to deal with potential unrest. He has held two four-hour sessions on security for Washington Post journalists. The company has also advised USA Today.
The Post is making the standard kit — helmets, gas masks and flak jackets — available to its journalists, particularly photographers and videographers who will be recording events outside the convention venues, said Tracy Grant, a deputy managing editor at the newspaper.
However, gas masks are on a long list of items that the city of Cleveland has banned for security purposes within the 1.7-square-mile “event zone” adjacent to Quicken Loans Arena. The list also includes swords, tennis balls, slingshots, chains, metal knuckles, blackjacks, switchblades, axes, grappling hooks, sledgehammers and “containers of bodily fluids.”
Guns, on the other hand, are okay.
Ohio law permits both the open and concealed carry of firearms, and those who enter the “event zone” will be able to bring their weapons. Firearms are banned from the arena itself.
Politico Editor Susan Glasser said her publication held a two-hour briefing with a consultant for all employees, editorial and business, who are going to the conventions. It was the first time the publication has done so in its nine years.
“Obviously we’re concerned about security given how many of these events this year have already proven the potential for violence,” Glasser said. “As they told us in foreign correspondent 101 school, you can’t cover the story if your head is bashed in. We’re not aiming for gonzo, I-was-in-the-crowd-reporting-when-it-went-crazy stories.”
A spokeswoman for USA Today, Chrissy Terrell, said the newspaper has issued equipment and held training sessions for those most likely to be in hazardous conditions. “We have repeatedly cautioned everyone who will be in Cleveland and Philadelphia that safety is their first priority,” she said.
Several media organizations — including NPR, CNN, Reuters, NBC News and the BBC — declined to discuss their security arrangements, saying that doing so could jeopardize their employees.
It “doesn’t make any of our people any safer to talk about how we are trying to make them safer,” one company representative said. A would-be perpetrator, he said, could use such information against reporters: “They have gas masks; let’s not use chemicals. They have bulletproof vests; let’s shoot for their heads. They are more worried about Cleveland; let’s attack in Philadelphia. Et cetera.”
Smyth, the security consultant, worries that Cleveland police seem to be planning on “controlling more than managing” protesters, and that their actions may escalate the situation.
His basic recommendations to reporters: “Practice situational awareness, work in teams, attempt to obey police, know when to get out of there.”
Fox News referred questions about its convention security plans to anchor Bret Baier, who told “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert on Tuesday night: “We have teams out there that will be covering protests. They have equipment, gas masks, security.”
Calling security “a serious concern” at both conventions, he added: “Anything can happen. And this election has proven that we don’t know what’s next.”