Ferguson and the importance of citizen media

2848609_300Two of my WGBH colleagues, Callie Crossley and Jim Braude, were welcomed to the honorary board of Cambridge Community Television recently. (Robin Young of WBUR and I were the picks last year.) Congratulations to both Callie and Jim. CCTV is a great example of how volunteer media can make a difference in providing local news and fostering civic engagement.

CCTV executive director Susan Fleischmann asked me to speak for a few minutes, and then published a tweaked-up version of my remarks in Open Studio, the organization’s newsletter. You can read what I had to say here or below:

On the evening of Aug. 13, while I was checking Twitter, I started to see reports coming in that the police in Ferguson, Missouri, were forcibly suppressing nonviolent protests. Five days earlier, on Aug. 9, a teenager named Michael Brown had been killed by a police officer under circumstances that are still unclear.

I turned on CNN, which was running a story on the death of Robin Williams. So I turned back to Twitter.

Several people I was following posted livestreams. I clicked on one called “I Am Michael Brown Live” from KARG Argus Radio, a community radio station. What I saw was incredible. It certainly wasn’t HDTV — the video was dark and green, likely shot with nothing but a smartphone, showing a column of police officers advancing and using flares and rubber bullets to disperse a peaceful crowd.

Later, the cable channels started covering Ferguson live — but they were mainly showing the KARG footage, as it was pretty much the only material they had.

Ferguson showed the power of citizen media. Reports from the scene on Twitter, Instagram and the like kept growing and building until finally the mainstream media were forced to take notice and cover the story.

At a time when the traditional media don’t have the resources to cover stories the way they did 20 years ago, ordinary people armed with smartphones can serve as an early warning signal. A story can begin with citizen media and work its way into the mainstream — and from there into the national consciousness, as was the case in Ferguson.

It was widely reported that two journalists were arrested the night of Aug. 13 — Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post. In fact, there was a third — Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman who had been covering the protests on social media from the beginning.

Lowery — who video-recorded the officer who was arresting him — and Reilly were quickly released. It took longer for French. But how much longer still if he hadn’t been an elected official? At at time when everyone can engage in acts of journalism, we need protection not just for professional journalists but for people using the tools they have available to report what is happening around them.

What professional journalists do is incredibly important. The stories they tell, when done well, give us the information we need to govern ourselves in a democracy.

What you as citizen journalists involved in public media such as Cambridge Community TV are doing is every bit as important. Many times you are on the front lines of local stories that are too local for the mainstream to bother with. And you’re the early warning signal for the mainstream.

What happened in Ferguson underscores the value and importance of what you do every day. All of us in professional journalists admire what you’re doing, or at least we should. This evening is to salute you.

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