Recent racist incidents and police violence have been caught on video, uploaded to social media and viewed millions of times, sparking protests and outrage and accelerating diversity agendas at colleges and universities.
In most of those incidents, the photographer was not a reporter but a bystander or victim of abuse themselves.
Reporters have been arrested in record numbers covering protests associated with the May 25 killing of George Floyd. Some 10,000 mostly peaceful protesters have been arrested and assaulted, too, with many such incidents caught on tape. In an op-ed in the Iowa Capital Dispatch, I ask, “What makes a journalist, the person or the device?”
Increasingly, I argue, it is the device.
In the hands of a journalist, however, or a civilian who knows reporting basics, you double its power.
Power is at the core of controversies about police brutality. Smartphone technology has empowered civilians whose photographs and videos undermine the authority of law enforcement, at times exposing lies, racist agendas and prosecutorial negligence.
Police departments rely on video and security cameras for traffic control, license plate recognition and crime detection. But when the lens is turned on them, they often are less enthusiastic.
Units equipped with body cameras may not release videos to the public or wait months to do so, as was the case in the killing of Elijah McClain. He had done nothing illegal but was wearing a mask while on an errand to pick up iced tea for his brother.
The issue here is accountability and transparency, key tenets of journalism. Reporters are watchdogs over government and file freedom of information requests to foster openness. They embrace the credo of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.
These are lessons for everyone.
Everyone is a reporter
In 2005, Wired ran an article with that maxim:
“When man bites dog, who’s the first to report it? Don’t assume it’s your local paper or CNN. These days, ‘our man on the scene’ is often a swarm of amazingly prolific nonprofessionals posting up-to-the-minute stories and pictures of breaking news from their laptops.”
When I first read this, I was skeptical, fearing so-called citizen reporters would undermine the credibility of journalism. A month after the Wired piece, I wrote “The Media World as It Is” for Inside Higher Ed:
“(T)he promise of technology — that it would build social networks, democratize news and generally enhance information in two-way flows — has always hinged on the presumption of readily available and verifiable information. What are the consequences, not only for media, but for academe, when opinion displaces fact?”
I was worried about fake news years before President Donald Trump claimed to have invented that term.
But my own opinion has changed as technology became more powerful, mobile and ubiquitous in the form of a cellphone, especially the iPhone, which first made its debut in 2007.
Apple’s inaugural device included many features we still use every day, such a web browser, email, text messaging, music and video players, and maps applications. It also came with a first-generation YouTube default app.
By 2009, YouTube was registering more than a billion views per day. Now there are more than 2 billion users.
The power of cellphones is epic. We call them smartphones for a reason. The 2020 iPhone 11 Pro Max boasts a 12-megapixel ultra-wide, wide angle, and telephoto lens. Its video is as sharp as any network television camera, with a processor and neural engine capable delivering more than 1 trillion operations per second.
It can capture just about anything within a 120-degree field of view.
The increasing power of cellphones coincided with the decreasing presence of reporters. They are not yet extinct, but on society’s endangered species list. Between 2008 and 2020, U.S. newsrooms lost half of their employees, according to Pew Research Center.
News deserts are popping up all over. As Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina, notes in News Deserts And Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?:
Many of the country’s 6,700 surviving papers have become “ghost newspapers” — mere shells of their former selves, with greatly diminished newsrooms and readership. The loss of both journalists and circulation speaks to the declining influence of local newspapers, and raises questions about their long-term financial viability in a digital era.
The choice is obvious: Bemoan journalism’s decline or inspire thousands of opinionated but omnipresent smartphone users. I embrace the latter. They may be the only option left to hold government and law enforcement in check.
Everyone has rights
They also have cellphones. Increasingly they document racism under the genre “while being Black” with African Americans insulted, threatened or arrested doing everyday things. Earlier this year Amy Cooper, a white woman, threw a viral tantrum and called police after a Black birdwatcher in Central Park asked her to leash her dog.
These frequent encounters are becoming more ominous. In June, Mark and Susan McCloskey brandished weapons at protesters who passed their palatial home in St. Louis. Another white couple, Jillian and Eric Wuestenberg, were charged with felonious assault in a parking lot incident during which Jillian pointed a gun at a Black mother and her 15-year-old daughter.
Because cellphones recorded each incident, consequences ensued. Cooper lost her job at an investment corporation and faces misdemeanor charges. Eric Wuestenberg was fired from his support staff position at Oakland University. The McCloskeys were each charged with one count of unlawful use of a weapon.
These videos are deeply troubling, but the one shot by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier was horrifying. Some called the documented killing of George Floyd a state-sponsored execution.
Frazier was on a grocery store run with her 9-year-old cousin when she saw Floyd being arrested. She used her cellphone to capture former police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck, killing him.
Frazier’s lawyer, Seth Cobin, told the BBC, “She felt she had to document it. It’s like the civil rights movement was reborn in a whole new way, because of that video.”
The comment about civil rights reverberates in former reporters of that era. The primary goal in the 1960s and early 1970s was equal treatment in all aspects of society for African Americans. I covered protests by the American Indian Movement whose leaders, including Dennis Banks and Russell Means, sought economic independence, preservation of native culture, autonomy over tribal areas and restoration of stolen lands.
Civil rights and liberties are fundamental aspects of journalism education, which utilizes case law associated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, among other statutes.
Civil liberties are associated with the Constitution.
Every journalism graduate should know freedoms of the First Amendment — press, speech, religion, assembly and petition — as well as unlawful seizures of the Fourth Amendment and due process of the Fourteenth.
Those liberties are at the heart of a federal lawsuit filed against the city of Minneapolis and its police department for actions against reporters covering George Floyd protests. The suit alleges that reporters were assaulted and arrested by police without cause, “all after these journalists identified themselves and were otherwise clearly engaged in their reporting duties.”
Protesters have the same rights as reporters, according to 42 U.S. Code § 1983, which protects citizens from being deprived of “any rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution.” Any entity violating that law can be held liable in class actions.
Everyone should know that.
Everyone needs gen ed
But does everyone need journalism? I think they do.
And yet, journalism rarely is on the list of required courses in colleges and universities. That has to do in part with the history of general education. Originally, in the early 19th century, it sought to complete the liberal education of the aristocracy. In the 1960s, it attempted to make liberal education more accessible to nontraditional students. The culture wars of the 1980s heightened consciousness about feminism and canons of underrepresented groups. More recently, general education exploded with dozens of courses based on budget models rewarding departmental enrollment.
Nevertheless, gen-ed courses still fall under the usual umbrellas of humanities, social sciences, and math and physical/biological sciences.
Rarely will you find journalism in the mix. Many reporting courses are skill-based and excluded on that basis. Journalism is neither humanities nor social sciences; it is one or the other and sometimes both. Courses like media history clearly fall in the humanities camp; others like public affairs reporting in the social sciences group; and science communication in both.
General education includes survey, theory and concept classes. When viewed in that manner, several journalism courses easily adapt.
They also may be popular. Americans on average use smartphones about 5.4 hours per day. The 16-24 demographic interacts on social media about 3 hours per day. As such, general education students would benefit from courses in news/media literacy, cultivating the next generation of news consumers who possess the ability to spot fake news and dis/misinformation.
A survey course in media law and ethics also might enlighten students about rights, liberties and precedents, all of which are vital for future generations seeking change.
A theory class in world press systems might expand and diversify knowledge. Specialized courses might be popular, too, such as “History of the Black Press,” “Social Media and Change” or “Gone Viral: Videos That Made History.”
Journalism education has focused for decades on graduates securing media jobs. As those decrease, along with enrollments, the future of the discipline might depend more on general education. But the case here is about democracy, accountability, transparency and empowerment.
Without a robust news industry, monitoring government and investigating the corporate elite, our only hope may be in the hands of the people, literally and figuratively.
Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of journalism at Iowa State University of Science and Technology, teaches media ethics and technology and social change. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.