Meet the New Press

Increase of protests has lead to the growth of independent journalists capturing narrative-challenging footage

In 2019, being at a protest was the most dangerous place for a reporter to be in the U.S. 

According to the 2019 Press Freedom Tracker report published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, press were targets of 34 physical attacks

One year and numerous historical moments later, protests will most likely be the most dangerous place for the media again when the nonprofit compiles its 2020 report. Yet a growing number of people at protests from Eugene to Portland — and elsewhere in the U.S. — identify as media as they live stream and write updates from protests.  

Live reporting from non-traditional news sources isn’t a necessarily new phenomenon. However, in a Portland courtroom, lawyers will debate how to make journalists easily identifiable so law enforcement doesn’t attack them. The judge in the case could suggest a move toward government recognition of who a journalist is, something Oregon’s Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)  says it opposes.

There could be an element of truth to Portland’s claim that some protesters use the media label as a shield to avoid getting hit by a cop directly or by chemical and impact munitions they deploy. But the increase in live streamers and other independent journalists who publish on social media or self-publish on websites are filling gaps left by ever-shrinking newsrooms and evolving media values. And as long as technology is easy to use, it’s likely to be a part of future protest coverage. 

University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication professor Damian Radcliffe, who also is a working journalist, says he first started to look into the trend of “citizen journalism” back in 2008 and 2009 when newsrooms were slashed away during the Great Recession. 

Among other issues, he says, the economic meltdown created news coverage gaps and “A/C journalists” who reported from their climate controlled office — and sometimes from offices that were nowhere near the community they were reporting on. 

One group that filled the gap were journalists who lacked formal training but could access sites like WordPress and Tumblr.  

More than a decade later, with similar economic conditions to the Great Recession and a history-making civil rights movement, non-traditional journalists have taken to reporting at protests and police response via live streams and updates on social media websites more than ever. 

“You can publish live onto the internet incredibly easily,” Radcliffe says. “That’s made it easier for anyone to become a publisher. At the same time, a lot of people think that the mainstream media doesn’t reflect their lives, their interests and their concerns. I think there’s plenty of truth in that.”

He adds that there is a sense of frustration that the mainstream media doesn’t represent the complexity of the community. 

Another reason for the rise of independent media outlets on the ground at protests is because of the traditional American journalism tenet of objectivity. Younger journalists, Radcliffe adds, are grappling with being an activist or journalist. Recalling a conversation he had with a student, he says he asked them: Why not combine the two? 

“Can we still have traditional journalistic ideals such as accuracy, verification, good writing and production but still also be championing for the kind society we want to live in?” he says. “That’s a really interesting ‘Day of Reckoning’ that newsrooms are having to contend with as a result of a new civil rights movement we’re seeing in the U.S. That conversation is long overdue.”

As lawyers in Portland debate the implementation of U.S. District Judge Michael Simon’s temporary restraining order preventing federal law enforcement officers from attacking journalists, discussion of defining a journalist has emerged. 

At a July 31 hearing for Index Newspapers, LLC, et al. v. City of Portland, et al., which addresses both Portland police and the feds, Simon posed the question of whether the Oregon American Civil Liberties Union should have a narrower definition of who a journalist is. He added that journalists could wear a blue vest, similar to ACLU legal observers, according to Courthouse News Service. 

Oregon SPJ’s President Rachel Alexander says the organization is opposed to government-mandated credentialing of journalists.

“Our experience is that credentialing often limits access for freelancers and independent journalists while privileging more established media outlets,” Alexander says via email. “It also often fails to work in practice because of logistical issues (like delays in processing times) or because the people charged with enforcing the system on the ground aren’t informed about how it’s set up.”

She adds that government agencies enforcing who and who isn’t a legitimate journalist runs counter to the First Amendment and poses challenges for reporters who cover organizations like the Portland Police Bureau and the ACLU of Oregon.

Oregon SPJ doesn’t define who a journalist is in its bylaws. And, Alexander says, independent journalists like social media live streamers could join as a member, since the national SPJ association’s criteria is that someone must spend half or more of their time working as a journalist. 

That does mean following the organization’s Code of Ethics, she adds, which in the case of protest coverage includes not engaging in demonstrations, not instigating conflict with police or protesters and providing as much context as possible while reporting.

Radcliffe says it’s complicated to define what makes someone a journalist. Whether someone is a journalist could be based on whether they identify that way or if their audience does. 

Portland Police Bureau officials have said people get a few followers online and call themselves journalists, but Radcliffe says basing media legitimacy on follower count is a dangerous proxy to use. 

He adds that if there is some sort of privilege afforded to journalists and not protesters who are exercising the same First Amendment right, treating journalists and protesters the same would result in fewer media imposters. 

Radcliffe says it’s inevitable that an increased number of live streamers will attend future protests because technology is evolving, making it easier to publish online for an audience. But that does come with the challenges of publishing footage online, which has led to a federal court demand for protest coverage from five media outlets, including The Seattle Times. 

“There will always be someone closer to the story than you, and they’ve almost always got a smartphone and they’re capturing it,” Radcliffe says, recalling a quote he heard from someone at First Draft News, an organization dedicated to tackling misinformation and disinformation in the media. “We’ll also see more and more cases where that eyewitness footage potentially challenges traditional narratives of what happened.”  

Eyewitness footage challenged the initial Minneapolis police narrative on the killing of George Floyd, which sparked the weeks of protests. And more recently — and locally — it has questioned the Springfield Police Department’s use of force on Black Lives Matter-related protesters in Thurston on July 29. 

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