A teenager’s video of George Floyd’s murder changed the world. It should change journalism, too.

Photo (cc) 2020 by Chad Davis

Previously published at GBH News.

The video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands — or, rather, at the knee — of a police officer has changed the way many of us think about law enforcement, social justice and racial equity.

It should change the way we think about journalism, too.

For nine minutes and 29 seconds, Darnella Frazier pointed her smartphone at Derek Chauvin as he squeezed the life out of Floyd. It would have been an act of great courage for anyone to keep recording; that Frazier was only 17 made it all the more remarkable. As Roy Peter Clark wrote for the Nieman Journalism Lab recently, Frazier should be awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

More than that, though, the video should force those of us in the news media to question the symbiotic relationship between reporters and the police — a relationship marked all too often by the police giving us good stories in return for our not asking too many questions.

Until this week I had spared myself the horror of watching the full video. The snippets that news organizations carried struck me as sufficient, and they are if all you’re looking for is a factual understanding of what happened. But to take in the whole scene is to be pulled into the moment — to become a frightened, angry spectator along with the crowd that gathered that day.

We see Chauvin grind his knee into Floyd’s neck as Floyd wails, “I can’t breathe!” and then “Mama, Mama.” We see Floyd fall silent and then go limp. We see Chauvin with a leer on his face while another officer, Tou Thao, impassively but menacingly keeps the bystanders back. We hear voices. “He’s not fucking moving!” “Check his pulse!” “You just really killed that man, bro.” We see an ambulance drive Floyd away.

Now consider what the official police report said. Here’s an excerpt: “Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”

It is hard to imagine an account more false than this one. It is a foul lie. And here is where we need to think about how reporters go about doing their work and why that needs to change.

For generations, reporters at smaller news organizations — community newspapers for the most part — have covered police news by dropping by the police station, examining publicly available incident logs, interviewing the officer in charge about anything that seemed noteworthy, and then writing it up. Assaults, house break-ins, drunken driving arrests — it’s the ultimate in one-source reporting, and I did plenty of it when I was starting out in the 1980s.

That’s no longer good enough. In fact, it never was. Since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, I think we’ve all come to understand that if police news is important enough to deserve coverage, then it is important enough to be reported thoroughly. That has only accelerated following the high-profile police killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020.

A tragedy such as the murder of George Floyd wouldn’t even make the paper in a large city like Minneapolis based on false police report that was filed. Without Frazier’s video, the truth probably never would have been known. But we now realize that the police are no more or less credible than any other people in authority whom we cover, and their words and actions need to be verified.

“The authoritative source was, and for many reporters still is, considered police officers, district attorneys, law enforcement in general,” my GBH News colleague Phillip Martin said recently on “The Scrum.” He added: “Now, many Black folk and brown folk have long been suspicious and skeptical of police and refused to accept their word for it. They had to prove it. But now we’re seeing that this is permeating in a broader sense, if you will…. Let’s just say liberal America has become more and more skeptical.”

Yet even if journalists understand that the old way of doing things has to change, there are some significant challenges to transforming that understanding into something better.

There are the unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld used to say — that is, the impossibility of knowing that what seems like a routine police report is anything but, as was the case with Floyd’s murder. We can’t check out everything, and if something seems non-newsworthy, it may just slip away.

There is the reality that newsrooms are becoming more and more strapped for reporting resources — a situation that became that much worse last Friday, when Tribune Publishing’s nine major-market newspapers fell into the hands of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, known for eviscerating its newsrooms.

There is the decline of the news media as a gatekeeper, with police departments themselves posting reports of arrests and other incidents on their websites and on social media with no independent verification.

Some news organizations, including the giant Gannett chain, have cut back or eliminated the publication of mugshots, especially for nonviolent crimes. A few papers, including The Boston Globe, are giving the subjects of old crime stories a chance to argue that those stories should be made invisible to search engines. Both of those steps help people who’ve been accused of crimes find employment and set their lives on a better path.

Perhaps most important, if a crime isn’t serious enough to warrant thorough reporting, then we shouldn’t report it at all.

Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, put it this way recently: “Media should not print names of arrestees unless we have their side, we have seen independent evidence corroborating the charges, an immediate threat exists to public safety requiring divulging the name, or a court has adjudicated the charge.”

Testifying at Chauvin’s trial, Darnella Frazier told the court: “It’s been nights I’ve stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”

But there was nothing Frazier could have done except bear witness — which she did, thus changing the world. At its best, journalism is about bearing witness as well. Can we learn from a brave teenager with a smartphone? Can we resolve to do a better job of serving the communities we cover — by listening, and by seeking truth rather than taking dictation from those in authority?

The fate of journalism depends on getting the answers right — and on not letting this moment fade, unacted upon, into our collective memory.

The arrest of CNN journalists was shocking, but less unusual than you might think

The arrest and brief detention of a CNN crew on live television in Minneapolis early this morning was a stunning blow to the First Amendment. They were literally handcuffed and led away for doing their jobs in reporting on protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer.

As the video reveals, the journalists were respectful, and correspondent Omar Jimenez clearly identified himself as a reporter. He told the state police officers several times that he and his crew would move wherever they were told.

That said, what happened to Jimenez and his colleagues was more common than you might realize — and more common than it should be. Last year, we bestowed a New England Muzzle Award upon Police Chief Armando Perez of Bridgeport, Connecticut for arresting and detaining Tara O’Neill, a reporter for Hearst Connecticut Media, during a Black Lives Matter protest.

“This is a public sidewalk and I’m the press,” O’Neill later recalled telling the officer who arrested her, according to media reports. “He said, ‘OK,’ and cuffed me.”

As with this morning’s Minneapolis arrests, the misconduct by police enabled them to operate without being watched by O’Neill and her pesky smartphone. Nevertheless, she was able to film her own arrest:

 

In a better-known case, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly were arrested at a McDonald’s in Ferguson, Missouri, during the demonstrations in 2014 over the killing of Michael Brown, a young African American man, by a white police officer.

Before that, Josh Stearns, now director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund, put together a massive compilation of social-media posts documenting the arrest of journalists at Occupy protests around the country. (Here is a very small slice of what was going on from the Committee to Protect Journalists.) Storify, a tool for aggregating social media, recognized Stearns’ efforts with a “Storify of the Year” award.

Unfortunately, Storify later shut down, taking much of Stearns’ work with it.

Update. Stearns has posted a Twitter thread offering more background.

 

Update II. Noting that Jimenez is Black and Latino. A white CNN reporter standing nearby was not arrested.

 

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Muzzling the press, from Tsarnaev to Delauter

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The Frederick News-Post won the Internet Tuesday with a hilariously defiant editorial.

Faced with a threat by a city council member named Kirby Delauter to sue if his name was published without his permission, the Maryland newspaper responded with a piece headlined “Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter” that repeated his name nearly 50 times and included his photo. And if that didn’t make the point sufficiently, the first letter of each paragraph spelled out “K-I-R-B-Y-D-E-L-A-U-T-E-R.”

Delauter’s ludicrous assault on the First Amendment was easily batted away. But not all matters involving freedom of speech and of the press are as amusing or as trivial. You need look no further than the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston, where the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is about to begin without the benefit of television cameras inside the courtroom.

Tsarnaev may be sentenced to die on our behalf — yet we are being denied the right to watch the justice system at work, a crucial check on the awesome power of government. Last year a WGBH News Muzzle Award was bestowed upon U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for his opposition to cameras in federal courtrooms. Unfortunately, the situation seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

At least the ban on courtroom cameras does not explicitly violate the First Amendment. The same cannot be said of Maine District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz, who on Monday ruled that the news media were prohibited from reporting anything said in court by the defendant in a domestic-violence case, a criminal defense lawyer named Anthony Sineni. Reporting on witness testimony was prohibited as well.

The Portland Press Herald published this article in defiance of the gag order, and reporter Scott Dolan writes that Moskowitz has called a hearing for later today — possibly to express his displeasure over the Press Herald’s actions, or possibly to acknowledge that he got it wrong.

The Supreme Court has ruled that nearly all gag orders such as Moskowitz’s are unconstitutional. “There is a 100 percent chance this order is unlawful,” said Press Herald lawyer Sigmund Schutz, who was quoted in a blog post by Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “There is no question that the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts have been very clear, what occurs or is said in the court is a matter of public record.”

A different sort of gag order is preventing us from learning everything we might know about the death of Michael Brown, the black unarmed teenager who was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier this year. Whether Wilson’s actions were justified or not, the incident helped expose the racial divide in Ferguson and sparked protests nationwide.

Now it turns out that a member of the grand jury that chose not to indict Wilson wants to speak, but is prohibited from doing so by a Missouri law that requires grand jurors to remain silent. The grand juror has filed suit against St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch to be allowed to discuss the case.

Though it’s not clear what the grand juror has to say, a report by Chris McDaniel of St. Louis Public Radio offers some hints. Quoting from the lawsuit, McDaniel writes: “In [the grand juror]’s view, the current information available about the grand jurors’ views is not entirely accurate — especially the implication that all grand jurors believed that there was no support for any charges.” (McDaniel notes that grand jury decisions need not be unanimous.)

Though it is not unusual for grand jury members to be prohibited from speaking, the ACLU, which is assisting with the suit, says that in this particular case “any interests furthered by maintaining grand jury secrecy are outweighed by the interests secured by the First Amendment.” The Boston Globe today editorialized in favor of letting the grand juror speak.

What all of these cases have in common is the belief by some government officials that the press and the public should be treated like mushrooms: watered and in the dark. These matters are not mere threats to abstract constitutional principles. they are assaults on the public’s right to know.

Or as the Frederick News-Post so eloquently put it: Kirby Delauter! Kirby Delauter! Kirby Delauter!

 

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.

Making sense of the violence in Ferguson

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Like many others, I watched in horrified fascination last night as this livestream from Ferguson, Missouri, played out online. (Thanks to Sara Rosenbaum, whose Twitter stream alerted me to it.) With cable news slow off the mark, the amateur footage of police firing rubber bullets at peaceful protesters was all we had.

But live images from a chaotic scene on the ground are no substitute for context and analysis. As we try to make sense of the Michael Brown shooting and the community and police response, I want to call your attention to several pieces that have helped me understand what’s going on: