Note: The following was written by reporter James Croxton and reflects his opinions and those of the quoted journalists and are separate from those of the Daily Emerald Editorial Board.
Eugene and Springfield have seen a combined total of over 100 protests since the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd on May 25.
I, along with my colleagues at the Daily Emerald, have reported on local protests and attended all but a handful of them.
In the past months, we’ve experienced everything from casual, peaceful protests to tear gas-filled police-declared riots.
Over the past week, there have been no new anti-racist protests. This lull gave us time to reflect on our experiences and how they’ve shaped both our work as journalists and us as individuals.
Most of us began our protest reporting at different points throughout the span of the protests.
Multimedia reporter Melanie Henshaw and I were thrust into our roles as protest journalists on the night of May 29 — Eugene’s first declared riot in recent memory.
The two of us, along with Managing Editor C. Francis O’ Leary and former Emerald videographer Haley Lund have consistently attended and reported on protests since.
News Editor Jack Forrest started a few nights later, when a city-wide curfew was in place.
“I remember printing out ‘Press Passes’ for the previous associate news editors at our current editor in chief’s apartment because a city-wide curfew was in place,” Forrest said. “I followed them around that night learning how to live-tweet and follow a crowd. It was honestly electrifying.”
Since the beginning, the Emerald has employed over a dozen staff members to report on the protests, including reporters, photographers and editors.
Throughout the last few months, we’ve all had memorable experiences.
I will never forget the screams for help from medics on the night of July 29 when a Black Unity-led peaceful protest through Thurston was confronted with violence by both counter-protesters and the Springfield Police Department. That night, I left shaken and stunned.
Sally Segar, whose first assignment at the Emerald was to report on a protest, remarked about how it can be uncomfortable for us to separate ourselves as reporters.
“I wanted to clap and yell and join in with the awesome energy around me, but it didn’t feel like I should participate in that way as a journalist,” she said.
Summer Surgent-Gough, an Emerald photographer, remembers the recent overnight occupation in front of Johnson Hall. “I was at the protest until about 11 p.m. and came back early in the morning to see how many people had actually camped on the Johnson Hall lawn,” she said.
There, “everyone was in great spirits, mulling around, reading, and sipping their morning coffee,” she said. “It was an unexpectedly heartwarming moment for how intense the discussions of the previous night had been.”
On the night of May 31, Eugene Police Department officers used chemical gas weapons to disperse crowds, shot protesters with pepper balls and hit a Eugene Weekly reporter with a gas canister, after the reporter had identified himself as a member of the press. Forrest’s most memorable experience came the following day at a press conference with EPD Chief Chris Skinner regarding their excessive use of force.
Forrest said that due to the press being targeted, he “showed up expecting the whole gamut to be at this media interview. It was two other local journalists and me. That was the moment that I knew I was a journalist and would be for years to come.”
Because these events hit a nerve, “I asked the chief hard questions, I even lost my cool for a second for the first time and asked why they targeted a journalist after he identified himself,” Forrest said. “Or when I got shoved over by a cop on June 26 after showing my press badge.”
Duncan Baumgarten, an associate news editor, has two prominent memories.
“Watching the massive group move from the steps of the Wayne Morse Federal Courthouse to the Ferry St. Bridge was truly amazing to see,” he said. “As an editor, it was staggering to read the dispatches from the field about what reporters saw night after night. Some nights, it was horrifying. Every night, it was powerful.”
With our experiences and our memorable moments — good or bad — we’ve all found that our protest reporting has left an imprint on our work.
With tighter deadlines and a stable round-up to complete each week, I’ve learned to write faster. Because of my protest live-tweeting, my photography skills — albeit on a cell phone — are getting better.
Forrest said his reporting “has made me transition into a much stronger watchdog style reporter,” adding that “I truly have reason to no longer trust those in power as I have seen them abusing it in person. It has definitely shown me who we work for: the people, not the power.”
Segar noted that prior to protest reporting, “I probably would’ve naively assumed that people don’t care about us taking their photos or that young people living in a city have at least a little bit of trust in the news media, but of course that’s not always the case.”
All of the photographers remarked on similar things, but, most importantly, how protest reporting has made them more cognizant of the choices they’re making and having a heightened sense of their surroundings.
Baumgarten may have summed it up best.
“As an editor, working with protest reporters has helped me become even more empathetic with the stuff I do. The fatigue, the frustration and the burnout is real. Night after night, they worked to tell their community’s story, in the midst of tear gas, intimidation and genuinely unsafe conditions,” he said.
He added: “We’ve led coverage in more ways than one, and the reporters who went out every night helped to establish the Emerald as a reputable and competitive news source. I have incredible respect for the work the Emerald has done this summer and beyond, and [that] makes me proud to be their editor.”
We’ve also been affected personally.
“I have mad respect for the citizen journalists and professional journalists — especially a few of my coworkers at the Emerald — out there every day, all night, showing people what’s going on,” Segar said. “It’s hard!”
“It has truly worn me down as a person and made me far more cynical about the world we live in and the people that control it,” Forrest said. “Some nights, I have never felt so optimistic. To see hundreds of people together for a united cause has a way of burrowing deep into you and sticking there. It makes you realize that a true movement is unstoppable.”
Lund similarly remarked that “I found a lot of meaning in focusing on something beyond me and witnessing the local people who have dedicated so much of their time and lives to this cause.”
For the photographers, it seems the effect was more pronounced.
“Photographing protests is one of the reasons I became interested in photojournalism,” Maddie Knight said. “Being able to capture people so passionate about making a change stands is unlike any other form of photography.”
Surgent-Gough said “I truly can’t emphasize enough that protest reporting has changed the way I think about the entire world around me.”
“It’s really hard to separate ‘photojournalist Summer’ from ‘regular Summer,’” she added. “So, more often than not, I find myself perseverating on discourse from the protest long after I’ve gone home and turned off my camera.”
Photographer Madi Mather said “reporting during these protests has made me more determined to get involved in these issues personally and professionally.”
“I recently decided to add a minor in political science,” she said. “The idea was sparked by attending protests and seeing the inequalities in our country.”
As for me, due to the frequency of my work and what I’ve witnessed, I’ve been left with what can only be described as PTSD.
I can’t walk down the street without freezing at the sound of a large, lifted diesel-engined truck. Moreover, I find that now that I’ve reported on protests and heard stories of grave injustices, that I — even after being raised by a retired police officer of 30 years and being in that “world” — can no longer trust the criminal justice system for what it is.
With our experiences over the last four-plus months, we have all had some lasting impressions.
Mine is that protest journalists need to not only produce comprehensive, top-notch reporting, but also focus on ourselves, our ever-changing perspectives, but most importantly, our mental health.
Henshaw said “taking care of yourself is important, you must take time for yourself outside of work, doing things unrelated to work.”
Mostly, though, the takeaway is an appreciation for those that go out and report day-in and day-out.
“Being a journalist can be a shitty job sometimes,” Forrest said, “but it’s damn rewarding when you are able to witness and document history.”
Mather said that “protest reporting can be tricky to navigate without having a bias.”
“However, I think it is okay to have a bias, especially with what is at stake,” she said. “The biggest distinction that I can make it that reporting allows us to share the truth — as objectively as we can — and that gives people the opportunity to decide for themselves.”
Baumgarten, though, as any editor should, may have summed it all up by saying “truth is worth telling, even if it’s hard and even if it’s dangerous. History will thank journalists for the work they did in the most tumultuous, difficult and contentious period in our modern history.”