Nieman News

Eddy Binford-Ross takes a photo during protests in Portland, Oregon

Eddy Binford-Ross, a 17-year-old senior at South Salem High School in Salem, Oregon, spent several weeks this summer covering the nightly street clashes between police and protestors in Portland for her high school newspaper, the Clypian. She was always accompanied by one of her parents, and wore a creative array of protective gear.

As federal law enforcement officers descended on Portland, Oregon, last month and clashed with protesters demanding an end to police brutality, Eddy Binford-Ross — who lives in Salem, about 45 minutes south of Portland — rushed to the scene. For almost three weeks straight, the editor of The Clypian newspaper live-tweeted what she saw on the ground, shot photos and video, took detailed notes, then went home to grab a few hours of sleep before posting to her publication’s website. The next night, she’d head back into the fray and stay until after 3 in the morning, long past the time the national TV and newspaper reporters had packed up their equipment and left.

Eddy Binford-Ross

Eddy Binford-Ross, editor of The Clypian, the newspaper at South Salem High School in Oregon.

It would have been exhausting for a seasoned war reporter, but Eddy isn’t a war reporter or even a full-time journalist. The Clypian (Anglo-Saxon for “call”) is the newspaper of South Salem High School, where Eddy, 17, is entering her senior year and juggling two part-time jobs — one as a communications assistant for Salem-Keizer Public Schools and another as a legislative aide to a member of the Oregon House. Her reporting pluck has drawn the attention of The Washington Post, MSNBC, the BBC, Fox, Reuters and other news outlets.

The Clypian is published in print during the school year, but keeps up an online presence year-round. In addition to school issues, the staff has written about the Oregon legislature and done candidate endorsements; Eddy is working on a series about diversity in the school district, especially among staff, based on recently released stats. The newspaper has had the same advisor for 16 years, but is completely student-run; school officials don’t monitor or approve stories before they are published.

I’ve known Eddy since she was 9. Her mom, Warren Binford, is a law professor at Willamette University, and we became friends when I worked as the law school’s communications director from 2010-13. Her dad is a teacher. So, as things in Portland appeared to calm down in the last couple of weeks, Eddy agreed to talk about her observations on the front lines of the protests.

And in case you’re wondering, as I was: her mom or dad always accompanied her to the protests, although they kept a respectful distance as their daughter did her job. When I asked her mom how she felt about her daughter placing herself in a dangerous situation, she said this:

“I had never gone to a Portland protest because they are so high-conflict — and that was before the feds showed up. So I was not thrilled and Chris (my husband) agreed to take her to keep her safe. Then I went with her on the third night and realized that the feds were completely out of control. From then on, it was all about getting her up there every night and keeping her as safe as possible so that she could keep documenting this in the detailed, blow-by-blow, matter-of-fact way she has come to be known for.

“Cutbacks to the press means there aren’t as many professional journalists on the street to report what’s going on. We don’t have adequate support for the press, and we have these historic events leading to the loss of democracy and the rule of law. So we wanted to support her in informing the public.

“Both friends and family on the right and the left told us that she became their most trusted source of the events, and I believe that her coverage helped to create an accurate, unbiased historical account of the feds’ occupation of Portland.

“But I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I was shaking with fear some nights, but trying not to let her see my fear.”

My conversation with Eddy, below, has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get interested in journalism, and is it a career aspiration?
I’ve always been interested in current events and politics. I’ve been an advocate for mandatory civics education. Before I started covering the protests, journalism wasn’t a career path I was going to follow. But now I’m seriously considering it. Before this, I didn’t fully understand the potential and what I could do in journalism. I like being able to see what’s going on; I like being there in person and witnessing events. This was an historic moment, and to provide documentation of what happened was a really big deal.

How did you get involved in covering the protests?
I started covering the protests in Salem back at the end of May when they first started. I went to Portland once, like in the middle of June. But then the news started to break about the unmarked vans. There was a video about a protester getting hit in the head with a munition. And one Friday I said to my parents, “We really need to go up to Portland.” What we saw was completely unlike anything I had ever seen. I’m like, “We’ve got to keep coming back.” That was July 17.

The protests in Salem were about George Floyd’s death?
Yes. We had a handful of days at the very beginning when there was conflict between Salem police and protesters; the police used tear gas. Salem is kind of a sleepy town, so they don’t usually have to do any crowd control. There were a few nights were there was conflict, and then the NAACP of Salem-Keizer sat down with Salem police, and since then they’ve had a working relationship.

The Cyprian was the only news outlet that covered basically every event; The Salem Statesman Journal didn’t really cover it daily. They had a photographer out there but they didn’t have reporters every night, to my understanding. It was a general consensus in the community that when they did cover it, it was very much based on everything that Salem police were saying. That was a big criticism; I saw it a bunch of times on community Facebook pages. We also have the Salem Reporter online. To my understanding they didn’t cover every night, either. They’re kind of new and their staff is super small.

What made you think that you had to be in Portland?
It was what I perceived to be a lack of coverage from the local newspapers. I wanted to know what was going on and I didn’t have a reliable source to figure that out. There was no outside person’s perspective. It was either the police account or the protesters’ account and there was no one who was just an observer.

But Portland was outside your coverage area.
Salem is 45 minutes away. People want to know what’s going on in Portland, but they’re not as connected to the local media there. They follow the bigger newspapers but it’s the independent media (freelancers) who’s out there. there were several independent reporters who were out there all night, every night. The bigger newspaper organizations often don’t stay all night. So they missed events sometimes.

Coming in as a student journalist, it gave me a different perspective than everyone else. Plus, the protests in Salem were very different than in Portland. Portland had consistent clashes with the police all the way throughout the entire period.  I had experience with this movement on a smaller scale. So I was able to do a kind of comparative analysis in my head.

What did that show you?
The Salem protests were a lot more organized, and it gave me a perspective on how organic the Portland protests seemed and how there wasn’t any clear organization for them. It was easy to see how the crowds were consistently bigger and how the movement had continued to stay even though it had died down in Salem.

Did you talk to you parents about how going to Portland could be dangerous?
Oh, yes. I had been following reports and everything, but we didn’t quite anticipate how dangerous it would be on the ground. Before the feds came in, the protests were consistently between 50 and 200 people and that was it. Then when the feds came we saw this huge spike. I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for the scale of the conflict there.

Our safety plan quickly evolved. We got gas masks, helmets, goggles, bulletproof vests, all of that stuff. We marked our helmets clearly as press. We tried a different bunch of goggles, because with glasses it can be really hard. Both my parents and I wore protective gear.

Where did you get all your gear?
The gas masks we borrowed from people. The helmets were from our skiing stuff; I teach little kids ski lessons in the winter. The goggles were swim goggles or ski goggles; we went back and forth. The bulletproof vests — one was lent to us and another one we bought at a tactical shop. We got lucky because everyone was saying that it would take like six weeks to get bulletproof vests. The tactical shop had one in for a female officer but it didn’t fit her. So we bought that one.

Did you ever worry about your personal safety?
Oh, yeah. It’s an incredibly dangerous and dynamic situation. And there where times were it was like, this could really go downhill. On multiple occasions we saw ICE agents carrying assault rifles. We’ve heard about a ton of head injuries from canisters being shot at protesters’ heads. I’ve had munitions guns pointed at me as I’ve stood off to the side and was clearly marked as press; I’ve been shoved into the wall and had stun grenades thrown at me.

Was there any particular moment that was really scary and any moment where it was sort of exciting?
It was scary when they threw the stun grenades. Those are very loud. They were thrown very, very close to us. And the tear gas is really scary. We got hit really badly the second night. They coated the entire park with tear gas, and it was super heavy and it’s just really hard to breathe in that stuff.

It was really interesting to see how the protesters evolved in their tactics. We saw even in the span of those two weeks, protesters became more organized when responding to officers and the agents. It was also interesting to watch the federal agents and how their tactics changed. Like one time they came out with leaf blowers because protesters had leaf blowers. There were a couple of instances that night where you had protesters with leaf blowers on one side of the fence and officers with leaf blowers on the other and they just kind of tried to blow the tear gas towards each other.

What was a typical reporting day like?
We would leave between 6 and 7:30 at night; it’s a 50-minute drive to the Justice Center. We would stay until like 3 a.m., because that was usually when the protests finally died down. There were a couple of nights where we got out by 2, but we usually stayed until 3, 3:30. The next day I would do my story and my photo gallery.

What was the reaction when you started filing your stories from Portland?
We saw a huge increase in our Twitter following. We were at 1,000 and now we’re over 12,000. And our website analytics saw a huge increase in our readership.
(Note: Eddy later told me that that before the protests, readership of the Clypian was mostly South Salem Students and their families. The newspaper gained readers from the Salem community (including the police chief; his PIO asked Eddy to send along several of her stories) when she started covering the Salem protests, and then gained a lot of readers from across the country when she started covering Portland.)

How do things stand now with your coverage?
The federal government has pulled back so they’re not in charge of crowd control anymore. Most of the reason I was there was because of the federal occupation. There are also Black Lives Matter protests to cover and other things here in Salem, so I’ll be refocusing on Salem. I’ll continue to go up to Portland, just not as frequently.

I read a bunch of your stories and you’re very straight ahead. There’s not a lot of flowery writing.
I had to choose between either observing or talking to people because you have so much going on — have all these speakers; crowds of 1,000; people doing different things. It was a decision mostly either/or. I was updating (social media) as events happened so it just made sense for my coverage to follow that. Most of the quotes were from the speeches. I just wanted to present what was going on on the ground, and provide a historical record of what occurred. If there aren’t enough reporters, it’s very easy to rely on the accounts of the people in positions of power — to default to the Department of Homeland Security’s read-out of what happened every night. That doesn’t really provide an accurate picture of what the scene was like.

Do you have any advice for professional journalists who parachute into this kind of situation?
Come prepared. Bring more than you think you need, especially safety gear. Bring lots of water. If there’s a possibility of tear gas, bring saline. My strategy was to usually embed myself with the protesters, but to embed myself off to the side a little. It’s so, so important that you’re aware at all times, because these protests shift in an instant.

What really gratified you or made you feel hopeful?
What I really liked was to see the community of journalists that the protests have created. It has created this really tight-knit group of independent journalists and I thought that that was really cool. I didn’t have a lot of interactions with them because I was doing my thing and they were doing their thing, but every time I talked with them they were incredibly kind.

Did your gender and age make a difference at all?
I think it helped.. I’m not intimidating as some of the other people, especially from national news outlets. A lot of the protesters have strong sentiments about national news. I think that not being with a big news outlet and being younger really helped me because I wasn’t lumped in with them. And then people kind of ignore me, so it’s easy for me to get through crowds.

Is there anything that you learned about reporting from this experience?
I’ve always known that journalism is important, but it really increased my respect for journalists and my understanding of how crucial it is that there are people on the ground and that we continue to have functioning news agencies. And it also taught me to stay late. Sometimes it’s tempting to leave early but a lot of the things happened after a lot of people have gone.

Do you have a favorite story or post from your coverage?
One of my favorite videos was one of the nights where there were like thousands of people in Portland. Every evening started with a peaceful rally. And at one of these rallies they all turned on the flashlights on their phones and they were swaying like people do at concerts, and you saw this sea of white.

Lisa Grace Lednicer is a multiplatform editor at The Washington Post and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Maryland.

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