(Video via neighborhoodpaperboy on Youtube)
It’s been two years since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, with more people using technology to reach wider audience. The use of technology has been intrinsically part of the attention around the two shootings this week, and I think that’s something worth addressing.
Watching The Media Cover Police Brutality
In November 2014 I was on a team that covered the L.A. protests over the grand jury decision to not indict an officer over the shooting of Michael Brown. For many people of my generation, Ferguson marked when police brutality against people of color, especially against black people, was spotlighted as a serious issue in the country.
More names came into the media center at Annenberg. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Ezell Ford. We saw a video and read accounts of black teenagers tackled to the ground at a pool party. We heard statement after statement from authorities about investigating the tactics of their own officers. Obama addressing these issues on national T.V. We watched Internet discussions of #BlackLivesMatter versus #AllLivesMatter.
We have so much content and information now. Yet, the names of those death from police shootings since Michael Brown is a long list. This week, we add Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to that list.
Videos of Police Actions
Many people were blown by the Facebook live video shot by Diamond Reynolds, Philando Castile’s girlfriend and that is the focus of this blog. I do, however, want to make a note of the videos regarding Sterling.
The second, recently-released video shows Baton Rouge officers wrestling Sterling to the ground, shooting him and, after the camera briefly goes to another angle, rolling off him, with a red splotch noticeable on Sterling’s shirt. It’s just as, if not more than, graphic as Diamond Reynold’s Facebook live video.
Past deaths captured on camera such as Garner and many others are, as Columnia Journalism Review’s David Uberti says, fodder for media outlets to address systemic issues regarding the police and police accountability.
Uberti points out in his article, which is part of the inspiration for this post, that Reynold’s Facebook live video of the aftermath of her boyfriend’s shooting marks a new chapter of citizen journalism.
Citizen Journalism and Social Platforms
The term “citizen journalism” has been around for a while.
It is, in a nutshell, the act of ordinary people untrained in journalism who use technology and the distribution capabilities of the Internet to create their own media content that informs, fact-checks and/or analyzes.
At first, I hesitated to call the video an act of citizen journalism; Reynolds isn’t a blogger nor a vlogger, after all. Upon deeper reflection, however, I agree with Uberti for the following reasons:
Choice of technology/distribution
Reynolds said to reporters,”I wanted everybody in the world to see what the police do. I didn’t do for pity, I didn’t do it for fame…”
I’ve worked with reporters who expressed sentiments along those lines. The intent to service the public with information is part of the reason why we journalism students even bother with a journalism degree; we want to learn how to practice ethical journalism in order to do good for society.
“Journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens,” according to the principles of journalism, and so Reynold’s intent in filming the aftermath of her boyfriend’s shooting isn’t that far from what I’ve seen among my peers at Annenberg when they pursue stories.
Reynolds’ video isn’t perfectly removed and unbiased. How could it be, when an officer shot her boyfriend right next to her, in the presence of her daughter, for what Reynolds sees as no legitimate reason.
And yet, Reynolds does a remarkable job of staying calm in light of these factors. In her first moments of the broadcast she explains what happened, and also films the officer with his gun still pointed at Castile, who slumps in his seat bloody and dying. Even when the police officer engages with her, Reynolds keeps her calm.
Officer: Ma’am, keep your hands where they are!
Reynolds: I will sir, no worries, I will.
Reynolds: He just got his arm shot off. We got pulled over on Larpenteur.
Officer: I told him not to reach for it! I told him to get his head up!
Reynolds: He had, you told him to get his ID, sir, his driver’s license. Oh my god please don’t tell me he’s dead.
Regardless of the opinion of the courts, viewers cannot unsee the image of Castile dying, and of Reynolds still being told to stay put while a gun is so near to her. Throughout the recording Reynolds addresses her audience by repeating her story of what happened and narrating updates such as when she was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car with her daughter.
In the latter moments, however, Reynolds loses her composure over fear for her boyfriend’s life and breaks down, which prompts her 4-year-old daughter to comfort her.
Even in the face of terror, sorrow and danger, journalists are expected to power through and suppress emotional reaction to surrounding events. I did it when I covered L.A. Ferguson protests and when I covered the L.A. LGBT Center’s vigil for Orlando.
Reynolds did the same in the beginning, and did her best to show and tell her story. But her case is different than most reporters because she had to suppress her feelings after her boyfriend was shot beside her. So perhaps it was inevitable (and of course understandable) that she would give in to her emotions while live.
This is the key thing in Reynolds’ video, and Uberti points this out in his article. Reynolds used Facebook Live. This is something new in terms of cell phones recording police action because Reynolds was able to directly show an audience what she was experiencing right as it happened.
A normal cell phone video of a shooting would take a while to reach the masses, Uberti notes, “long enough for law enforcement agencies or police unions to rev up their own PR machines.”
But through the power of live video, Reynolds was able to reach the Internet directly and immediately. Objectively, from a reporter standpoint, that was an effective way to get her story out and sidestep potential delays from law enforcement to release the video if it wasn’t live in the first place.
Looking To The Future
This week shows, once again, the power of technology to grab people’s attention to social issues. As of now it’s still too early to see the effects of Reynolds’ video beyond people’s shock, anger and sadness. But as of 6:06 pm PDT, the Reynolds’ video has 414,000 views, with the number likely to rise in the imminent future.
Regardless of your views on police brutality in regards to these events, the conversations on this topic will continue as people hold community panels, vigils and protests in the upcoming days and months. Despite the media attention on this issue for the moment, I have a sinking feeling that this might not be the last time I will write about media and police brutality. Hopefully it would be a more positive post.
Blogger's note 7.10.16 at 3:30 PDT: an earlier version of this post failed to highlight the significance of Reynolds' calm as her boyfriend lay dying beside her. As such it made Reynolds' suppression of emotion seem on the same level of normal instances of reporter objectivity in covering events, which erased the gravity of her actions. For that, I deeply apologize.
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