"The France network really came into its own during the yellow vest coverage"
The yellow vest crisis was one of the news stories that defined 2018. How did AFP organise itself to cover this unprecedented demonstration?
Unlike other recent protests, the yellow vest movement started not in Paris but in the French regions. Moreover, it was born on Facebook with a call to demonstrate against rising petrol prices on November 17. AFP started to take interest in October and tried to gauge its potential. We had the feeling that such a movement, based on the unpopularity of the President, could quickly grow. We asked regional bureaux to take the temperature on the ground to find out who was in charge but as soon as a leader emerged, he or she was disowned... So we started to focus on the roundabouts seized by demonstrators then on the protests that took place one after the other, while stepping up our monitoring of social media. By the time of "Act 3", the third major protest, this national story had become global. Our images of the vandalised Arc de Triomphe went all around the world. The crisis changed in scale, and so did our staffing.
The regions were on the front line and this coverage really showed the value of the Agency's French network...
With its seven regional offices and other satellite bureaux, the France network really came into its own. Our journalists in the regions showed genuine enthusiasm for this coverage that was difficult to manage. We were expecting trouble in cities like Nantes, after the violence in Notre-Dame de Landes, but in fact it erupted in Bordeaux and Toulouse. We asked the bureaux what they could do and proposals flooded in. Our text, photo and video reporters took a very human approach to find out who these yellow vest protesters were, write their profiles and learn what their expectations were. Despite tiredness setting in, the pace did not drop: everything that we described or analysed came from the network.
"Our images of the vandalised Arc de Triomphe went all around the world."
– Annie THOMAS –
How did the Parisian reporting services help?
It was not just the regional bureaux that was mobilised for this story but the whole of the France network. The Parisian reporting services -- some more than others, notably the general news service and the politics department -- took part in the coverage. They had to analyse the protest movement, ask experts, explain the story from a political, social, economic and sociological point of view. This was all done in tandem with a team on the ground that was not just focused on the violence at demonstrations. New interactions were born between the services and there is now a greater demand to share data and information, for example via WhatsApp groups that reporters in different services have. This type of story brought many improvements, both in editorial and organisational terms.
Did the social media team contribute to this collective work?
It is the first time I have seen such a synergy between work on the ground and in the virtual space. The journalists were also monitoring social media, especially the Facebook groups. That's how they knew what was being prepared and how they followed the political crisis around the story. But the social media team provided considerable support. They were able to decode the internet noise and debunk the fake news that was circulating. I'm thinking especially of the pictures of bloody women or the so-called message of solidarity from a policeman to the yellow vests. In both cases, our factcheckers proved that the photos were out of context and had already circulated on social media.
Given that image reporters were everywhere, did they not overshadow the rest of the production?
On a story like the yellow vest protests, images have an incredible power. Certain images spread like wildfire. But without the text and the contextualised information, they would not carry the same weight. If we had not run all these stories explaining what this protest movement was doing, if we had not got these people to speak in our articles, we would not have had provided the same level of coverage. That said, the collaboration between journalists, photographers and video journalists worked very well. Often, the video department has a journalist on the ground who sends a dopesheet to the text side, which can then pull together a story using this information and adding colour and testimony. The image can also be the story: the case of the boxer hitting police officers on a bridge in Paris is a perfect example of this. One of our video journalists managed to film the scene live and it became the hook for our main story of the day.
"Everyone was equipped with helmets, masks, goggles and other protection. We made it compulsory for photographers and video journalists to wear a light anti-riot jacket, the first time this had happened for coverage in Paris"
– Annie THOMAS –
At what point did the security of journalists on the ground have to be stepped up?
There were different phases. First, there was the hostility of certain protesters towards the press in general, which was lessened by our reporters' work on the ground and explanations of what we were doing. Then there was violence from the police. Our teams often found themselves caught in the crossfire. Everyone was equipped with helmets, masks, goggles and other protection. We made it compulsory for photographers and video journalists to wear a light anti-riot jacket, the first time this had happened for coverage in Paris. The technical chief editors' team also provided equipment for the journalists in the regions. Very quickly, we were not sending anyone out onto the ground who had not been trained in urban violence. Another usual measure was hiring security guards to ensure our video teams were safe.
What lessons can we draw from this extraordinary coverage?
We have experience of demonstrations and mass protests that turn violent. But we learned a lot from this coverage in the sense that it was happening throughout the entire French nation, was multi-faceted and lasted a long time. Covering a story on such a scale made us step up coordination between services, bureaux and departments. The way the Agency works is evolving and the arrival of video journalists in various services will further increase our collective firepower. This crisis, which few saw coming, also means we need to be more sensitive to initial signs, especially on social media.
"Bringing the event to life, if possible live"
What made covering such a event difficult in video ?
The first challenge is to bring the event to life, if possible live. For that, you need to have live transmission capabilities but also people on the ground. Depending on where the hot spots were, we had to have staff every Saturday in Paris and the regions. As a precaution, we insisted that the video journalists from regional offices worked in pairs, which meant we had to send reinforcements. Another challenge is not to be overwhelmed by the violence. We cover the clashes and at the same time record what people are saying.
Apart from working in pairs, what measures were taken to ensure the safety of video journalists ?
Every video journalist covering these events was equipped with a light protective vest, a helmet, a gas mask and even goggles. Our teams were confronted with violent events and were sometimes attacked by demonstrators. That is why we hired security guards to go with them. Their presence allowed our journalists to concentrate on taking their shots, to be more mobile and to get close without taking ill-considered risks.
On this subject, is it possible to shoot with a camera whatever the situation?
In certain cases, having a camera and transmission box can cause difficulties. The smartphone is lighter and more discrete and some of our video journalists decided to use them instead. We gave them kits with batteries, stabilisers and handles and they became another tool in the armoury. It enabled staff to be more mobile and not to be identified as journalists. In certain cases, our teams used smartphones to record testimony because they provide a more intimate shot than a normal camera.