Breathing Masks, Goggles and WhatsApp: How The Times Covers Hong Kong’s Protests

Breathing Masks, Goggles and WhatsApp: How The Times Covers Hong Kong’s Protests

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For more than two months, antigovernment protesters have filled Hong Kong’s streets. Demonstrations began as a show of opposition against a bill that would have allowed extraditions from the semiautonomous territory to mainland China; they have evolved to include broader grievances such as the use of force by the police.

Gillian Wong has managed both daily coverage and big-picture articles on the protest movement as assistant Asia editor, among several dozen staff in The New York Times’s Hong Kong newsroom. In an interview this week, she talked about the many strands that come together to produce that reporting. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Can you describe, generally, what the day of a big protest looks like?

In general, on a day when we’re expecting a big protest, we’ll have worked out ahead of time two or three different shifts of reporters. Especially early on in the movement, when these large protests were frequent, we had to assign shifts to people because we didn’t want any one person to be stuck outdoors in the sun or the rain for 13 hours or longer.

If it’s a huge protest, or if there’s the expectation that there will be clashes, we would probably have a live briefing going. That would involve several editors collecting reporting from the reporters and then editing one another’s work, and yelling, collegially, across the newsroom as we try to figure out whether this update is ready to be published.

We would also try to make sure that one reporter is responsible for working on an article that kind of pulls it all together into a broader story. I would work with that writer to figure out the themes that emerge from the day’s developments. Then we’ll start talking about investigative pieces or profiles of people and what sort of analysis we need to explain what’s happening and where things are headed.

How many people have been working on this?

Around a dozen reporters and around a dozen editors. We have also had a lot of help from the video team in New York and the graphics team.

I would say almost all of the editors in Hong Kong are involved in the protest coverage. It’s in the city where we live — even those who are not on protest duty, they’ll send video clips of marches that are going past their neighborhoods, for instance.

Everyone is on a WhatsApp group, sharing information on when the next protest is, where it’s going to be, even down to things like, “What are they chanting?” It’s a terrific resource for our reporting because everyone is monitoring what’s going on in different ways.

We have reporters who are closely watching the group messages where protesters are discussing their plans. And then a lot of editors are watching Twitter and sending what they see on Twitter to the reporters on the ground.

What tools and protections do reporters in the streets have with them to be prepared for tear gas or whatever else they might encounter?

We had to really build an inventory of equipment. We needed regular supplies of neon yellow press vests; helmets that aren’t military grade — those are too heavy and impractical — but are still strong enough to withstand some of the rough-and-tumble that you get from being out on the streets; decent masks for dealing with tear gas; and goggles for the same purposes.

Our reporters are really smart about keeping a distance, not getting too close and trying to minimize their exposure to tear gas, although it’s not always possible. Sometimes you can’t really judge where exactly the police are going to fire. I’ve called reporters and they’d say, “I can’t talk right now,” as they were trying to recover from coughing.

When things become more violent, what do you do?

Especially in situations when there’s tear gas or if the police are firing rubber bullets, I’ll call the reporters on the ground and try to figure out: Are they safe? Do they know where the closest exit is, or how they can get out of the crowd quickly?

We also try to pair people up so that they can tell us if they’ve lost sight of a colleague. We’ve been really fortunate that our team has not had any major incidents or injuries.

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