Journalists faced a torrent of abuse, harassment and threats during anti-mandate protesters’ weeks-long occupation of Ottawa. Here’s how media workers navigated reporting in the field

At one point during the weeks-long blockade of Parliament Hill, CBC investigative reporter Judy Trinh was set to record a stand-up in front of West Block when the camera person she was working with warned she would have just one take.

A group of about four or five people stood quietly nearby. Trinh had walked over to them earlier, spoken to them, asked where they were from. 

“I was like, ‘Oh no, they seemed really nice,’” Trinh recalled later. 

Over the course of the blockade, she had spent time at the protesters’ supply centre on Coventry Road, about four kilometres east of Parliament Hill. There, she reported alone, identified herself as a CBC journalist, waited for invitations from those who wanted to talk with her and stuck to interviewing fewer people at the site.

“If I was going out with a cameraman, I would be more of a target. Whereas if I was just walking by myself and I just had an iPhone, I wasn’t much of a target at all. I could just kind of blend in …,” she explained. “I was trying to understand the psychology of the individuals who were there. I was trying to get the story.”

On Parliament Hill, CBC journalists did not report on their own. They had security guards. They brushed up on the kind of hostile environment training they might need for covering large-scale protests or conflicts, CBC News editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon said.

They had fallback positions, ways out of potential danger or spots to film from a distance if or when on-the-ground reporting wasn’t an option. 

Usually, when Trinh is shooting an on-camera stand-up, she does three takes and chooses the best one for the final story. But on Parliament Hill, as she finished the first take, someone came up behind her with a yellow sign. 

“And he just stood there. I was going to get ready for my second take and he just stood there behind me with the sign, ‘Vaccines kill babies,’” Trinh said later.

Trinh told him about her story. She was reporting on the truckers’ fundraising efforts. The sign, she explained, would be distracting.

“And he goes, ‘You don’t think vaccines kill babies?’ I go, ‘Well, you know, that’s just not my story.’”

She explained viewers would not hear the content of her story if they were distracted by the bright sign. 

The man asked: “So you think it’s fake news, or are you fake news?”

He started to raise his voice. And then others chimed in: “Fake news, fake news.”

“All of a sudden the exact crowd that I was talking to, the four or five men that I was talking to, having a cordial conversation with, suddenly started chanting fake news. And then another group after hearing them, started chanting ‘freedom.’”

The nearby crowd had doubled in size, and its members were getting louder.

One take recorded, Trinh and her colleague cleared out. 

“I would say that I’m a really good people person —  being able to make people feel comfortable and de-escalate,” Trinh said during a phone interview on Feb. 22. “But obviously it wasn’t happening.”

Navigating abuse, distrust

Between Jan. 28 and Feb. 20, as thousands of people arrived in Ottawa to protest COVID-19 mandates across the country, the sight of journalists being surrounded and shouted at while delivering live news reports became commonplace. 

The Canadian Association of Journalists issued a statement on Feb. 4 expressing concern at the rising  attacks on journalists and an influx of “racist, antisemitic, misogynistic threats and hateful messages.” 

On Feb. 11, TVO published a 23-point list of abuses experienced by reporters. 

On social media, reporters shared their own and colleagues’ experiences being shoved, tracked by crowds and having objects thrown at them.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, monitored threats to Canadian journalists as a truckers’ convoy headed to Ottawa, other provincial capitals and border crossings. 

“It’s incredibly concerning to see the level of anti-media vitriol exhibited by some of the participants of the convoy,” said Katherine Jacobsen, the committee’s U.S. and Canada program co-ordinator. “At least to my knowledge [it] is not something typically seen in Canadian protests.”

As trucks cleared from Ottawa’s centre in late February, in interviews with J-Source, journalists, managers and members of groups that defend media and media workers reflected on their experiences and the practical lessons they learned about navigating field and online security. 

Anecdotally, CAJ president Brent Jolly said more people appear to be frustrated at home through the pandemic and, in turn, frustrated with the journalists whose jobs have included reporting on COVID-19 guidelines. There also, he said, needs to be more work done to show what journalists do and why. 

“Some people have in their minds, obviously, that journalists aren’t people so much as they’re sort of tools or concepts,” he said. “You have to be able to bring people in and that’s the challenge coming out of the pandemic.”

‘Fundamentally unsettling’

For journalists on the ground in Ottawa and their managers, the weeks-long blockade of the capital’s core demanded the kind of safety planning associated with covering wars. 

Some teams were accompanied by security guards, others revisited conflict and online security training. Newsrooms stayed in touch and checked in. At times competing journalists moved around together to stay safe. 

Others worked alone, pocketed their press passes, used mobile phones to record instead of traveling with camera crews and avoided wearing masks when they interviewed vaccine-and-mask-weary sources.

CTV Ottawa chief anchor Graham Richardson made his way around the city’s core with a selfie stick and a “doorbell-sized” Insta360 camera his wife had bought him for skiing.

“You get more candor when you can remove the absolutely unnatural environment of being on television …,” Richardson said later. “I wanted to try to understand what motivates people to sleep in their cars and trucks for three weeks at the foot of Parliament Hill and grind my hometown, this capital of Canada, to a halt.”

Richardson posted his interviews on social media, introducing followers to protesters, parents and even the DJ setting up for a blockade street party.

As a “white guy in a parka with a selfie stick,” Richardson said he was able to blend in. That did not mean he never felt threatened, he said, but he was able to move around the crowd differently than women or racialized colleagues who were more likely to be targeted. 

Richardson also said the hostility reporters experienced on Parliament Hill was something he hadn’t seen before.

“It’s fundamentally unsettling to come in contact with large groups of people who think you’re a liar and you’re deliberately misleading the public,” Richardson said. “It’s the exact opposite of why we get into the business and why we want to tell stories. And that has really deep implications for society as a whole, if we just accept that … all conventional media is in on it and lying. Like none of it’s true, but you know, it doesn’t matter.” 

On the first day trucks parked on Wellington Street, Winnipeg Free Press Ottawa bureau chief Dylan Robertson set out to interview protesters alongside other print reporters.

“That morning we kind of thought safety in groups would be the way to do it,” he said later, adding he didn’t have a security plan so much as experience covering protest rallies.

“People would say to your face, ‘I don’t trust the media.’ But for the most part you could usually find someone who would want to talk to you. Oftentimes they would give their name, quite often they would feel, I think, glad to be listened to, but also they had this kind of pity for you in the media [like] ‘Why don’t you understand this?’”

After the first day, Robertson – on the lookout for people who were from Manitoba – adapted solo reporting strategies. 

Robertson wanted to make sure, for example, he didn’t get “boxed in” while doing interviews, and always had a clear exit. He was aware of being livestreamed by protesters as he did interviews and knew that meant his questions could be taken out of context. He had his press pass and a tie for covering what was going on inside Parliament but didn’t display either while interviewing people who had set up camp outside. He didn’t wear a mask.

“I saw it as a barrier when these folks already feel othered,” he said.

Having covered Parliament Hill in 2014 when a shooter entered Centre Block (though he was outside the building when it was locked down), Robertson had thought about where the safest areas might be to shelter if the buildings were stormed the way Washington’s Capitol Building was in 2021. But, he said, “I don’t think I took it as much of a serious risk because if I did, I would’ve taken a door stop in my bag” to be able to barricade rooms from inside.

If he had felt more at risk, he said, as a print reporter he could have reported remotely.

In conversations with his newsroom, it was clear he was not expected to do anything that would put him in unnecessary danger to get the story. 

“I didn’t really feel like my safety was at risk. I kind of felt that journalistic urge, like this is becoming one of the top news stories in the world right now,” he said. “Why would you not want a front row to actually get a sense of what’s going on here, and hear from people who feel so incensed that they’ve driven all this way?”

‘Smile, nod, walk away’

Independent photographer Justin Tang, who often covers Ottawa news and Parliament Hill for the Canadian Press, decided early on he wouldn’t wear a mask while covering the blockade.

Already, he said, introducing a camera changes the dynamics of a situation. Wearing a mask – especially when people wearing masks risked becoming targets – could change how they engaged.

“I’m like an average height, small, Asian lad. I didn’t want to have any more questions about what I was doing, who I was working for, whether I was legitimate or to have my, you know, Canadianness called into question,” Tang said. “So I decided I’m not going to wear a mask and I’m going to be like my normal cheerful self, but maybe even a little more.”

Not wearing a mask in a crowded – if outdoor – area could heighten the risk of getting COVID-19, however. 

“I felt that, if I were to get COVID, hopefully having two shots and a booster, I would make it out better than if I were to be physically injured for wearing a mask,” Tang said.

He compared the decision to wearing a suit on Parliament Hill or dressing comfortably to cover a hockey game. 

He carried two cameras, a backpack with his laptop, and wore a “chest vest” with pockets for additional gear. He often worked on his own, took care to get to know the layout of the encampment, avoided situations that felt like he would be at risk. At times over the weeks he used the Find My iPhone app so that his editor, colleagues or wife could track where he was. 

As police moved on the blockade on Feb. 18, Tang carried a bike helmet and gas mask, though he did not end up needing to use either.

Given the near-constant noise of honking truck horns, Tang also wore earplugs. He lives close enough to Parliament Hill that the honking seemed to follow him home, too.

“The effect of the noise kind of rattles, it does something to your brain and you stop being able to think in the way that you do, and I was becoming, like my fuse was shortening,” he said. “Once the honking stopped, it was like, ‘Oh, I think I can feel more human again.’”

As he approached people, Tang said he knew there were those with a “binary impression” of media, who saw reporters and photographers as out to get them. He wanted people to know he was capturing what was happening as it was happening.

“I would say, ‘Oh, how are you doing?’ Or ‘Man, this looks like a lot of fuel that you’re carrying in your wheelbarrow,’ or something like that…,” he said. “It took a lot of effort to be friendly … so that I could do my job without having to negotiate other barriers that didn’t have to be there.”

Tang said he didn’t have a set-out safety plan, but editors were clear he shouldn’t put himself in danger. 

“It is appreciated when they say that,” Tang said, but added it can be a challenge for journalists. “There’s a certain way that we are. … ‘I want to know what’s going on,’ or ‘I want to see this.’ And, ‘I want to be able to tell this story.’ It kind of makes your radar a bit wonky.”

In the future, he said, hostile environment training for freelance journalists covering domestic conflicts would add to their toolkits. For his part, he said, he focused on decisions that would make it possible to file photos and get home at the end of the day.

For Toronto Star reporter Raisa Patel, who also lives close to Parliament Hill, the days of covering the blockade didn’t necessarily stop when she went home. 

“I felt like I couldn’t leave and go somewhere else. I was the closest person to the action — if anything happened unexpectedly, I was the closest person to just be able to run over and check what was going on,” she said. 

“Even though the honking was happening at all times, and people were yelling in the streets and there were trucks going down my street and people being hostile to you if you had your mask on going to the grocery store, I felt that sense of responsibility to stay and to be close to the action, to bear witness to what was happening.”

Patel also chose not to wear a mask while covering the blockade, in order to avoid hostility and because there was so much noise on-site that a mask would have made it impossible to communicate with potential interviewees. 

Without early access to rapid tests to find out if she had been exposed to COVID-19, she said, “I didn’t feel safe going to take a break and spending the weekend with a friend or a family member because I didn’t know what I had been exposed to.”

While broadcast teams and big cameras seemed to draw more abuse and harassment, Patel said it was a misconception to assume print reporters would be more protected or less noticed. “As much as they panned so-called mainstream media, they were paying attention. They knew what the Star had been reporting on throughout the pandemic and were able to sort of pull out examples of reporting that they disagreed with and thought were fake news.”

Patel was with a colleague when, speaking to someone in a truck, a second person approached. 

“[They] said we should get out of there, said we had X’s on our backs for some of the reporting the Star had done …,” she said. “He just said, ‘You’ve been spewing lies throughout the pandemic.’”

Patel said the threat demanded de-escalation: “I was grateful to have a colleague with me in that situation. I think maybe there’s that tendency to want to defend yourself and defend the work that your publication has been doing. But I really advise people in those situations, just smile and nod and walk away. That’s kind of the safest thing you can do.”

But, Patel said, the news industry needs to have frank discussions about the safety of racialized journalists assigned to cover events like the blockade, in which Confederate flags, swastikas and other racist symbols were on display alongside calls to overturn vaccine mandates and the government.

“I’m a racialized woman. When you’re confronted with an event that has white supremacy elements, for example, that sort of changes how you approach it as a reporter. You need to think of your safety a little bit more than other people,” Patel said. “You have less freedom in who you go up to and strike a conversation with, and who you interview.”

The three-week blockade gave the Star’s team time to assess and re-assess safety plans, she said, including bringing in a security team by the second weekend of the protest. Always reporting with someone else allowed her to focus on her work. 

“I never want to be passed over for these kinds of reporting opportunities because of who I am and the risk that I might face because of that,” she said. “It’s just sort of incumbent on your team and your newsroom leaders to make sure that you’re safe and you have the tools you need to report in that situation safely.”

Patel cautioned emerging reporters not to be afraid of discussing safety precautions and plans with managers and supervisors. 

“We’re entering this very uncertain period of journalism, where there is such hostility and aggression towards reporters and everyone in this industry,” she said. 

“We need to change our protocols and thinking around these events to get in step with that sentiment. Reporters are facing this on the front lines, maybe more so than newsroom leaders are. And so don’t discount that experience or the things you think you might face out there.”

Critical planning

On Jan. 28, before the protest had settled into a weeks-long blockade in Ottawa, CAJ issued an “alert to newsrooms,” highlighting how journalists had been “verbally harassed on camera, chased and sent racist death threats.”

The alert provided a safety checklist, including maintaining some distance or even remotely reporting, working in small groups on site, weighing who was best trained to cover conflict and how editors would stay in touch and making safety plans that included exit strategies.

Association president Jolly called the checklist a pre-emptive measure meant to close the gap between large organizations likely to have safety plans in place and journalists for smaller news organizations.

As the weeks unfolded, the days were long, said Ottawa Citizen and Sun editor-in-chief Nicole MacAdam. 

The local newspaper had daily conversations about how to keep journalists safe, “particularly as it became clear that protesters were, you know, actively sort of harassing journalists.”

The newsroom reviewed November 2019 safety training for covering protests, and reminded staff members to stick to the edges, know their escape routes and avoid confrontations or walk away when possible. 

“The Citizen doesn’t have such a big staff that we could afford to send two people together to do everything,” MacAdam said, but journalists did have each other’s cellphone numbers. “For the most part, it was just making sure that we were constantly in communication with them and they were kind of in communication with each other.” 

Between parliamentary press passes and the paper’s City Hall offices just blocks from Parliament Hill, MacAdam said, they also made sure journalists had safe and warm places to work from that were near the site of the protests. And they encouraged people to take breaks. 

“We’re also all still working from home,” she said. “That was another factor to take into consideration both from a communication perspective, but also … you don’t want anyone to feel like they have to be ‘on’ 24/7.”

Asked about newsroom lessons, MacAdam advised having a safety plan as robust as content and coverage plans, and looking outside the newsroom for expert advice.

“We had already begun the conversation about journalists’ safety long before the convoy ever came to Ottawa,” she said. “But you know, I think this sort of highlighted for us how we’re in an environment right now where journalists … when they go out in the field and cover these types of events, there’s real risks involved that maybe there weren’t in the past.” 

From the outset, said CBC News editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon, the public broadcaster anticipated needing to take additional measures to safeguard journalists. In addition to hostile environment training, that included risk assessments for all assignments, care around going live “because that tends to attract negative attention,” keeping cameras at fixed positions for a live feed that could not be interfered with by protesters and reducing branding on clothing or vehicles. 

On Feb. 17 alone, Fenlon said, someone yelled at a camera operator and reporter, and dropped coffee on the camera operator. Later, a reporter was doing a live hit on Parliament Hill during The National when protesters began yelling at and harassing her. 

“When the camera stops, they continue to harass. And when the lights come on, then they really get vocal,” Fenlon said. “Our journalists are keeping a distance, but still doing their jobs of being close enough to be able to report on what’s happening and to report on what the police are doing. … And we want to be there, to make sure we can see it and report it.”

In the future, he said, it seems journalists’ jobs may be different.

“You see patterns that we’ve seen in other countries and around the world, including the United States, starting to take hold in Canada in a way I haven’t seen before,” he said.

“We will need to be very thoughtful about how we are supporting and protecting and taking care of our staff in the future.”

But Fenlon, like others, expressed wariness about making journalists – and their safety – the headline. 

“I’m personally not keen on turning the camera on ourselves that often, and I really do guard against self-interest overtaking the public interest,” he said. 

On Feb. 8, he had published an editor’s note about the ways in which journalists had been harassed, and the questions this raised about the audience’s trust. 

“I hope that this conversation somehow gets outside of the journalism bubble,” he said, adding he wanted people to, “understand what we’re facing in the field. And I don’t think they necessarily do. I don’t think they understand that we’re now deploying to the middle of Ottawa, to the heart of Canadian democracy and treating it like a hostile environment.” 

Trish Audette-Longo is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa.