Representative Media Coverage Requires Voices of Citizen Journalists

Editorial Board

Hours after a Staten Island grand jury announced Wednesday that a white NYPD officer would not be indicted in the death of Eric Garner, a black father of six who stopped breathing while held in a banned chokehold, The Huffington Post published a headline that stood out in the media frenzy: “A Grand Jury Did Indict One Person Involved In Eric Garner’s Killing — The Man Who Filmed It.”

More surprising than the news of another non-indictment of a white police officer accused of killing an unarmed black man is the rarity of this type of media angle. In the cases of John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio, Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and now Eric Garner in New York City, corporate-backed national media outlets have largely framed these police killings — and subsequent non-indictments — as singular, exceptional events. While the protests sparked by these high-profile cases are certainly newsworthy, so too is the overlooked picture underlying them: pervasive, systemic violence inflicted upon communities of color every day, carried out by police departments acting upon a legal system covertly designed to criminalize and incarcerate black and brown people.

The Huffington Post’s headline, while sensational, is essentially true: 22-year-old Ramsey Orta, a longtime friend of Garner whose video of the incident went viral over the summer, was indicted on illegal weapon charges not long after Garner’s death. Orta contended that the arrest was a setup and that prosecutors filed charges against him for filming Garner’s fatal encounter with police. The uncomfortably close relationships between prosecutors and police departments, exemplified in the non-indictments of officers like those who killed Garner and Brown, lend plausibility to Orta’s account.

Furthermore, the challenges Orta has faced are not unique. Though it is legal to film law enforcement activity, citizens who attempt to document police racism and brutality frequently encounter similar obstacles, ranging from forcible confiscation of their cameras to arrest. Troublingly, this holds just as true for citizen journalists, the growing numbers of community residents who use the power of smartphone video and easy online video sharing to “report” on local events.

Bassem Masri, an outspoken activist known for livestreaming footage from Ferguson protests to thousands of online followers, has been arrested many times on a variety of charges — many of which he, like Orta, characterizes as deliberate attempts by police to silence him. Following an arrest that occurred shortly before Thanksgiving, he was released from custody after covering a $15,000 cash bond entirely with crowdfunded donations raised by his supporters.

Predictably, this style of activist reporting has its share of critics. Among these are representatives of traditional media outlets, including CNN’s Michael Smerconish, who, in a Nov. 22 interview with Masri, accused the activist of worsening the situation in St. Louis by engaging in behaviours such as “taunting police officers.” Masri’s response to the criticism is telling: “There’s blood on the street and you’re worried about words. Come on, man! That’s what journalists are missing right now. Why don’t you go investigate something real? … Why don’t you worry about us getting killed?”

Smerconish’s interview — and Masri’s impassioned retorts — highlight many of the problems that have become evident in mainstream coverage of high-profile police killings. In a demanding, nonstop media environment, national networks like CNN and its competitors send their correspondents far and wide in a valiant effort to provide objective coverage of events of national importance. Their efforts are inherently limited, however, by the impossibility of capturing the community histories, values and conflicts — crucial context for stories like the death of Michael Brown — and packaging them into 90-second segments.

These shortcomings are amplified by the impossible standard of objectivity to which reputable national sources are held. Even in the absence of overt ideological bias, virtually every component of a news story — from the selection of the news angle to the choice of background imagery to the script fed into the teleprompter — is inherently shaped by the individual experiences of the story’s contributors.

The same contextual knowledge that is unattainable for nationally dispatched correspondents is unavoidable for citizen journalists like Masri and smartphone videographers like Orta. These storytellers report events as they see them, and they frame the story in terms of the experience of their own communities. There is no effort to be objective, and there is no need: They are telling their own stories.

This is not to say that traditional reporting is without merit. The resources afforded to long-established networks and publications provide unique and valuable institutional capital, allowing The New York Times, for instance, to practice the in-depth investigative journalism for which it is known.

Yet the voices of Masri, Orta and citizen documentarians nationwide must be treated as essential, guiding parts of the conversation. Traditional media organizations, like government, are hierarchical; left unchecked, this hierarchy all but ensures the silencing of voices already excluded in representative government.