Media Musings: Covering The Protests


written by R. L. Bynum

A look at two experiences covering protests: A sports writer and a photojournalist who frequently shoots sports

Across the country, many journalists you’re used to seeing at sports venues have been covering the protests of racial injustice and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death. There were plenty of examples in North Carolina. 

Until the pandemic put the sports world on hold in March, Ethan Joyce had never covered straight news stories in his more than six years as a newspaper sports writer.

Although photojournalist Ethan Hyman’s primary focus during the school year is on N.C. State athletics, news assignments are a large part of his job and he had previously covered protests.

The experience for both Joyce, the Appalachian State beat writer for the Winston-Salem Journal, and Hyman, a veteran of nearly 18 years at The News & Observer, chronicling the Floyd protests was surreal and impactful. 

They both wore N95 masks while on the streets but little was the same about their first experience the last weekend in May covering these protests. 

Hyman was embedded with the National Guard in Iraq in 2004. It wasn’t there, but rather in Raleigh on that first Saturday night of protests that he was hit in the stomach with a projectile and, along with the protesters, tear-gassed. 

Neither happened while he was in Iraq.

“I’ve never been a part of anything like Saturday night,” Hyman said of the downtown Raleigh scene May 30. “I’ve never covered anything like Saturday night before. The tear gas and certainly being hit — I’ve never been in an environment where I’ve seen that happen.”

Joyce is used to reporting about emotions on the playing fields but he wasn’t prepared for the sort he saw during what he described as “one of the coolest experiences” of his life. He was fortunate that police didn’t deploy tear gas and that the protests he has covered over five days all were peaceful.

“I think what surprised me the most is just the general power of the emotions in those moments. One of the things that have been so overwhelming about covering this,” Joyce said while choking up with emotion, “is the anger and the sadness and the hope. I’ve just never seen anything like that before.”

Ethan Hyman pulls back his bandage on Sunday, May 31, to reveal the mark left by a projectile the night before (photo cred Travis Long)

When a projectile to the stomach isn’t the worst moment

Hyman was back in downtown Raleigh on Sunday, May 31, (above photo) shooting photos of protests and it went without incident, although the pain in his stomach persisted as it has for days.

There was nothing out of the ordinary after he arrived downtown about 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 30, and started shooting photos. The main photo on the N&O’s print edition front page the next day (which, because of early deadlines, didn’t include images of the skirmishes) was Hyman’s.

He was shooting video with a long lens from the side of the old courthouse on Fayetteville Street when, at around 10:25 p.m., officers deployed tear gas.

“Nobody was moving but they were sort of going back and forth and so I was trying to shoot some video and then a sharp pain in my stomach bowled me over. I don’t remember if I dropped to my knees or not. I swear, when I got hit, the camera drops a little bit and I turn the video off,” said Hyman, who shot a little more video before heading back to the office and applying ice to his stomach.

Some speculated that he was hit by a rubber bullet but he’s not sure what it was, and neither was the doctor who checked him out the next day. But it was clear he had a big scrape of his skin and a bruise.

He’s not entirely comfortable with the attention he’s got because of the bruise because he says that his colleagues were also working hard that night and any of them could have been hit.

“People have latched on to this, that being hit is at a different level than not being hit,” Hyman said. “But I tell you, everybody was pushing themselves that night. We’re dealing with issues and I just happened to be the one.”

While the pain of the shot to his stomach has lingered, the initial impact was much worse when he got hit by tear gas a second time. He was wearing goggles, although the gas can still seep through. 

His first whiff of tear gas from the wind made his eyes sting and he could also feel it in his mouth. Later, though, when he was at the convention center, that was a different story.

“I was overlooking, trying to shoot from above a little bit and they fired gas and then it went through a cloud over where I was,” Hyman said. “It floored me. I was knocked down on all fours. In the moment, tear gas was almost worse than being hit by the projectile.”

N&O photographers Julia Wall and Travis Long flush the eyes of someone who was tear-gassed on Sunday, May 31. (Photo Credit Ethan Hyman)

Hyman’s photos from that Saturday night, along with those from Travis Long and Robert Willett (whose athletics beat is UNC) are in this photo gallery

“You sort of just go into things, and you’re not necessarily processing everything as you’re going through,” Hyman said. “You’re trying to tell that story. We’re trying to stay safe and you don’t see the bigger picture because we’re sort of in this little zone. It’s only afterward that you’re sort of decompressing a little bit — looking back and saying … whoa.”

Hyman, who has had assignments in Kosovo while at the Fayetteville Observer, in New Orleans for The N&O after Katrina and in Haiti after an earthquake, has been on the N.C. State beat since the mid-2000s. That beat takes about 50% of his time during football season and around 60% or 70% during basketball season. Otherwise, he’s shooting all sorts of other stories.

One of the events he enjoyed shooting recently was one of the last before sports shut down: the Wolfpack’s ACC Tournament title in women’s basketball in Greensboro.

“I was so glad to be there to capture this sort of celebration,” Hyman said. “In truthfulness, State football and basketball don’t have that many celebrations.”

There are obvious dramatic contrasts between covering the Wolfpack and a protest. With games, he gets to know the players and their tendencies. He knows the dynamics of the games and when to expect certain things to happen. There was none of that in downtown Raleigh.

He strangely felt safe in Iraq because he was around trained troops.

“It’s a different sort of danger. I think the similarities in Raleigh and in Iraq is the unknown. You didn’t know what was going to happen,” Hyman said. “You don’t know what’s gonna happen every time you get in a Humvee. Every time they told you to prepare for mortar strikes and things like that, you didn’t know what could happen. But you also knew the people around you were trained for this.”

Some of what Hyman observed in downtown Raleigh was just odd, such as a mooning skateboarder.

“That’s sort of going back to the surreal nature of everything,” Hyman said. “On one hand, you have all this stuff happening. But on the other hand, people are living. People are still being people. This kid who dropped his drawers as he skateboarded down Fayetteville Street? He has a totally different take on all this stuff. It’s one of those things that here you are in the middle of everything that’s really tense and really stressful and everybody’s on edge, and then you have a kid, going down Fayetteville Street mooning.”

Hyman, a Raleigh resident who grew up in New Jersey, went to college in the Twin Cities at Macalester College and worked at three Minnesota newspapers in the first nearly 12 years of his career. He’s familiar with the area where Floyd’s tragic death happened, although he hasn’t lived there since 2000. A friend from college is an editor at a Twin Cities newspaper and, as of last weekend, hadn’t had a day off since Memorial Day.

Hyman says that COVID-19 creates an extra layer of challenges in any assignment.

“We need to stay safe and we want the people we cover to be safe,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out ways to tell important stories of this moment in history while sort of taking away what normally is one of our strengths — which is the ability to interact with people close up and get to know them and get in their space in some sense. Now, we want to tell that story and get to know them and have in the record this part of history without getting in their space — without doing things that we would normally do.”

Hyman is one of many who have contributed to the excellent N&O coverage of the Triangle protests, including sports columnist Luke DeCock and sports writers Jonathan Alexander, Jonas Pope IV, Chip Alexander and Andrew Carter.

“Everybody has jumped up and everybody has gotten to new levels and pushed deep and done amazing work,” Hyman said of The N&O’s coverage, despite a staff that is much smaller than when he joined the paper in 2002. “Everybody’s just busting their butts, and just doing incredible, so I’m just happy to be part of that team. As I told high school kids on the prom portraits, ‘It’s history, that’s what we are recording.’ ”

Joyce’s beat brought him into protest coverage

Joyce’s first foray into reporting on protests had an angle directly related to his beat. He saw Appalachian State defensive lineman Markell Clark tweet on May 29 about his frustrations with President Donald Trump, then tweet about a protest in Boone on May 31.

On a Sunday he wasn’t scheduled to work, he got the OK from his editor and headed to Boone with his wife from their Lewisville home. She hung out at the Our Daily Bread restaurant while he reported on the protests, then drove back, which allowed him to write on the ride home.

On the Journal’s sports front the next day, his story and photo were the main package. On June 1, he was supposed to fill in on a crime shift as the newspaper juggled staffing through furloughs and ended up covering protests Monday in Winston-Salem with photojournalist Walt Unks, a former Herald-Sun photographer. 

He shared a byline with news reporters Lisa O’Donnell and Lee Sanderlin while covering protests Tuesday, June 2 and Wednesday, June 3 worked with Unks and photojournalist Allison Lee Isley and reporter John Hinton. He also covered protests Saturday along with Sanderlin and photojournalist Andrew Dye.

“I wouldn’t really want to be covering anything else right now, just because it’s such an important story and important moment in our country’s history,” said Joyce, who has written several COVID-19-related stories since March.

Although he saw no tear gas during the peaceful protests he covered, there were tense moments when a police car in an intersection was blocking off traffic one night so protesters could get through.

“The protesters ended up circling the car. And it was two or three minutes … it felt a little longer,” said Joyce of a situation that a woman in her 40s or 50s defused. “She said, ‘Hey, this is what we’re here for. So, let’s get back to it. Let’s get back to marching.’ And everybody walked away from the car and no one touched it. That was probably the most tense moment of the night.” 

Ethan Joyce, right, talks to Appalachian State football coach Shawn Clark.

Although reporters can never predict what will happen next during a protest, Joyce said he never felt unsafe.

“I never felt like anybody I’ve interacted with was going to be a harm to me or I’ve never really felt in danger at all,” said Joyce, who studied journalism at Appalachian State and earned a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse. “Just more like anxious, I would say. I was definitely anxious, but I didn’t feel unsafe.”

Joyce wasn’t sure beforehand if protesters would want to talk to a reporter but quickly found out that this wouldn’t be an issue.

“Once I had my first interview, I was like, ‘all right, it’s gonna be fine,’ ” he said. “I don’t need to prove that I know anything to anybody here, I just need to show them that I’m interested and that I want to document their cause and that I truly care about their story.”

Joyce has done a good job in his stories of humanizing the protesters, their struggle and why they came out to protest.

“Talking to people at the protest has been a lot easier than I expected,” he said. “I think there are just a lot of people out there that want to have their voices heard and they’re really willing to talk about it. And I think I’ve really been trying to convey that. I’m really interested in what they have to say and it’s not just because it’s going to contribute to my story, but just as one human to another. This is a really important time and a very significant topic and I think we ought to do it right and we should care about it as reporters.”

Joyce, who mostly covered high school sports at the Index-Journal in Greenwood, S.C., and the Rocky Mount Telegram before joining the Journal, hasn’t dealt with much “stick to sports” pushback from his coverage and tweets about the protests but there has been some of that on Twitter. 

“My successes are very much tied to the young black men that I’ve gotten to interview over the years. And if someone is going to push up on me about this whole topic, I’m gonna remind them that because, at the end of the day, I’m still a human, even though I’m a reporter, and I care about them,” said Joyce, adding that he cares about the plight of those protesters more than a Twitter user who wants him to stick to sports.

Like Hyman, Joyce saw the dramatic differences between covering a game and covering a protest.

“It’s kind of the sensory overload,” he said. “It just made me realize — and maybe I’m speaking for every reporter here — just like how important this is right now. It definitely makes you realize the importance of a game — it affects so much fewer people than the importance of black people to be protected and given the same rights as everybody else. ”


The Athletic lays off 46, including Hornets beat writer Boone

The shutdown of sports and the challenging economic times during the pandemic led The Athletic to lay off 46 people Friday, 8% of its staff, including Charlotte Hornets beat writer Rod Boone, who joined the subscription-based sports news service in October 2018. 

The fact that the Hornets aren’t part of the NBA’s return-to-play plan probably didn’t help. Boone was one of at least seven NBA writers to get laid off.

Those laid off included at least six NHL writers, at least three NFL writers and at least six college beat writers. Among the latter group is Louisville beat writer Danielle Lerner.

Axios reported that most remaining staffers will take a 10% pay cut for the rest of the year. Those journalists who were laid off will get four weeks of severance pay, pay on all unused vacation time and insurance coverage through the end of the year.

NCHSAA honors Jeff Gravley

Jeff Gravley, who left WRAL in December to become director of content strategy for N.C. State athletics, is the 2020 winner of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s Tim Stevens Media Representative of the Year award.

While the lead sports anchor at WRAL, Gravley covered high school sports for years, including many as “Football Friday” host.

The award, of course, is named after the retired longtime high school sports writer/high schools editor for the Raleigh Times and The N&O.

“Packer and Durham” returns

After being on hiatus since March, the ACC Network’s weekday morning program “Packer and Durham,” featuring hosts Mark Packer and Wes Durham, returned Monday with a couple of differences.

While Packer still is in the basement studio in his home, Durham joins him remotely. Instead of a three-hour show that ran from 7–10 a.m., the show now airs from 8–10 a.m.

North Carolina-related sports stories of note

North Carolina Central men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton made a 30-minute appearance on ESPN Radio that everyone should hear. He recounts a heart-wrenching situation when he was driving with Raymond Felton (right after Felton helped UNC win a national title) in the passenger seat and they were stopped because an officer thought Coach Moton fit the description of a suspect. He also recounts an encounter with police as a kid, and provides a lot of insights.

In a 25-minute N&O video, Alexander and Pope talked to several parents of black athletes about how they help their sons and daughters deal with racial profiling and other challenges of being a young black person today. Included are the mothers of Garrison Brooks and Leaky Black of UNC, the mom of N.C. State defensive lineman Savion Jackson as well as Elizabeth City State men’s basketball coach (and father) Shawn Walker and former N.C. State wide receiver Danny Peebles (who has a son who is a sprinter at LSU and a daughter who is a guard at Illinois).

In The Charlotte Observer, Alex Andrejev wrote about Kirk Price, a black technical inspector and race official for NASCAR who knelt while raising his fist during the playing of the national anthem before Sunday’s Cup race in Atlanta.

In The Athletic, Brendan Marks wrote about Nolan Smith, the former player and current assistant coach at Duke, who participated in protests in Durham. Smith also recounts an unfortunate interaction with police at an airport.

In The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, Christian Clark wrote about Trajan Langdon’s interesting path from an Alaska kid to playing for Duke, playing professional basketball and now ascending to become the general manager of the New Orleans Pelicans.

In the New York Post, Ken Davidoff and Dan Martin wrote an oral history of the rise and fall of former UNC pitcher Matt Harvey.