Our guests will be joining us in 25 minutes so let me introduce them.
Hello everyone! Thanks so much for joining me for today's chat on real-time coverage of protests. I was in Montreal in 2012 and saw from up close how these evolved so I am looking forward to the discussion.
Hey, hope you're all ready for some ALLCAPS rage.
Hi, everyone! I'm Justin, and I'm a recovering protest correspondent. I haven't covered a protest in over a year.
Hello, I'm Angela Hennessy. Happy to be here.
I'll let our guests introduce themselves. Say hi to everyone!
Hi, this is Marwa Siam-Abdou. Thanks so much for having me today, Charles!
I've worked with Marwa and drank beer with Justin. They're both awful people. But as far as live-tweeting goes, they'll do in a pinch.
Let's start this chat with, yes, the start.
What's your first step? You're covering a protest and have arrived on hand. What are you first looking to do?
Get a feel for the event. Start talking to people, well, listening to people. In 2012 it was always clutch to get a look at how many police were around and how visible they made themselves. If the riot cops were already surrounding the protesters, you knew things would eventually get interesting.
Given the nature of protests - it's hard to determine what to do first. Typically, you arrive before the protest starts so that you can get a feel of the environment and the pacing. The interesting thing is that you end up trying to capture every highlight and tend to miss on some things amidst the commotion. It's a challenging dynamic, but you capture whatever you come across so it's immediate and easier to document if you're live-tweeting (versus reporting).
I reckon the first thing I do is evaluate mood. You can tell from pretty early on whether a protest is going to be a leisurely jaunt through the park, or a high-speed foot-chase with some club-happy cops. So it's pretty good to know what you're in for, whether you should have your running shoes on, whether you should be sporting a bandana, etc. From there, singling out the ringleaders and the troublemakers is pretty useful. The ringleaders will try to keep the crowd together and not-violent, whereas troublemakers are there for sport.
When I first get to a protest or event I listen and observe, then engage the crowd and start interviews. I think it's important to find the people running it and stay as close to that action as possible, at least in the beginning.
I'd definitely call the Montreal protests a highly intense protest, and much faster in pacing. I did arrive early to take endless pictures because I feared the crowd was going to move way too fast. They also had pre-protest sit-ins (dances, chants, etc.) so it made it easier to capture things earlier.
Let's table that discussion on police for later on during this chat, Christopher.
There was a weird moment when it occurred to me that my coverage was probably most useful as traffic reporting. I've met so many people who used my Twitterfeed to plan the drive home. So reporting location in real-time is pretty important. I've also found that many protesters would check the feed to try and outplay the cops, and avoid getting kettled. So we're useful from that end. Then, I know, the cops check out feed to inform their tactics. So I guess what I'm trying to do is offer accurate data for everyone involved/impacted. And, from there, it's snarky humour for the casual watchers.
You want to take the reader along with you for the ride. It's not enough to just say "West on Sherbrooke. There are 34 of us." I like to throw in some quotes from the interview on Twitter, get people reacting and then maybe give them a sense of the mood. Is it tense? Are people resolved to keep it peaceful and abide by the city's traffic code or is this outright civil disobedience?
You definitely want to make people feel like they are right there with you. I find the speed of your tweets and how active you are makes a big difference. Using video is also an awesome way to tell the story.
And the point of using a live platform like this one here is that it can work as more than just a live Twitter feed.
Jan Ravensbergen would do this thing where he posted a photo of someone alongside a quick quote. He did that when Quebeckers were protesting the charter of values and you got a real sense of the cultural/ideological
diversity within the crowd.
Christopher, he didn't want to simply let the picture speak for itself?
I feel like we should be discussing footwear. Wear something you'd feel comfortable running a marathon in. The rules of fashion need not apply. Some nights we would walk like 10-15 kilometres and there was some frantic running as well.
Let's move to another question. Once the event has started, and we all have picked out footwear, how do you balance between the need for greater context and analysis, and giving the audience real-time updates?
What happens when you feel like 140 characters may not do the trick to give the story proper treatment though?
As you look at your experience with protests, what's one thing that jumps at you?
Victoriaville was unreal. It actually made me shake a little.
I remember seeing a girl with her jaw shattered and one cop get a nasty beating. Also got hit with a few rocks and we were just drowning in tear gas. At one point, the fighting stopped so everyone could eat pizza. Then it started again. Can't make that stuff up.
I once saw a man in a crayola crayon outfit.
Christopher, by then is it really still just a protest? One would wonder, no?
Did everyone else have similar experiences? I know Justin has quite the near-arrest story. I guess what I'm saying is, how do you adjust your reporting in the face of danger?
Coming across fights is always intense. Sometimes you can't forecast the violent outcomes. At some point I remember being told that whenever someone in car honks that I should step away because things get very tense between people trying to get to places and protesters trying to make a point.
Arrests started to become more organized as the protests increased.
You develop a kind of spider sense. You want to be in the middle of it all, right in the heart of the action but you also don't want to get arrested. But no matter how smart you think you are, you'll always get caught looking at your phone for a split second too long. It's important to kind of put your own safety aside for a few moments and give people the most RAW experience possible.
I met a guy who actually had little video-drones to fly over the protest and get raw video. That was pretty sweet.
Some of my most cherished memories at this job were spent covering protests. It can get weird out there and certainly dangerous but that's a huge part of why we do this.
The Montreal student protests unfolded over many weeks, and I'm wondering if there ever was a sort of coverage fatigue. Having lived in the city through those months, I can definitely say that there was some fatigue with the Printemps érable amid the general population.
Every time we got coverage fatigue, there'd be some new and outrageous development in the student strike and things would get crazy again. The crazier things got, the easier it was to get out there. And a lot of us were paying our rent because of freelance work during the protests. So whether or not you were fed up, you knew where your bread got buttered.
I think the weather made it the most challenging. But that's just my opinion. There's always something to see/report so there's no fatigue per se. There is however a physical exhaustion that takes over. From all the walking/standing in the heat.
Oh good god was there ever protest fatigue. I remember my most-tired point was at 10am, after having covered them for 5 nights straight (and getting arrested at one)
and trying to take a day off, only to end up doing a slew of radio interviews, then a national TV appearance. I walked out of the studio and got four or five texts from some friends: "Oh my god, are you okay? You look so tired." (And that was with a liberal amount of makeup.)
Chris, bread without butter tastes terrible indeed.
The energy is usually pretty intense and so the challenge is always to stay on top of it and to keep focused. Keep water on hand. : ) And lots of espresso beforehand.
It does. I agree with Justin though. There were days where you could barely get out of bed in the morning. I fractured my ankle playing basketball just before Victoriaville but I still had to go out there because you don't want to miss anything. Sadly, I wasn't TV famous like Justin.
You got butter? Well aren't you fancy.
The protests never got boring. Just really really tiring. I walked a lot, being tired and alert simultaneously does take a toll on you. But there's always something new to come across at every protest, so you sort of refueled at the start of each one.
The sound of helicopters fluttering over the city every night. Does anyone else miss that?
Well, our time is just about up. Thanks a whole lot to my four guests for joining me today. I think we covered a lot of ground, and there was definitely no fatigue with it.
Welp, that was fun. Thanks, everyone.
Thanks for tuning in. Too much naval gazing?
Nope. None. Thanks Charles!
It was great to talking to all of you, old colleagues and fellow journalists.